Death on the Campuses: A Sign of the Times

For the past week I’ve been at my mountain hideaway, hiking and thinking … and scraping two inches of snow from my car one morning! (See the lead photo.) For the past two weeks I’ve been horrified by a recent story in The Atlantic titled “Death at a Penn State Fraternity” by Caitlin Flanagan (November 2017, pp. 93-105 – see the second photo below.) This particular article describes in detail the death of Tim Piazza at a Penn State fraternity house hazing last February. A hazing that went on for 12 hours before the fraternity brothers finally called 911, after one of them observed that Piazza looked “fucking dead.” (Sorry.) Most of you probably remember the press coverage of Tim’s death. In short, he consumed a deadly quantity of alcohol – but still able to stand, he tried to leave the frat house but found the front door locked. He turned and tried another door which led to the basement. He fell the full length of the basement stairs resulting in massive internal injuries that included damage to his spleen, causing internal hemorrhaging. Staggering back to the living room and writhing in pain on the couch, at one point apparently one of the brothers punched him in the abdomen, probably increasing the hemorrhaging of blood into his abdominal cavity. Sometime after that, appearing “fucking dead,” 911 was called and he was taken to a local hospital where he died shortly afterward.

Flannagan’s article was a vivid and gruesome description of Piazza’s dying and what led up to it. But she failed to ask the question that haunted me: Why? Why did this happen? How could it have happened?  Beyond the scope of this blog for me to discuss here, there are institutional reasons why fraternities are protected by wealthy alumni who remember their own frat days nostalgically and sit on college and university boards in positions of power, protecting such social organizations on campuses. (See Katie Reilly’s Oct. 11 article in Time for a clear discussion of such institutional powers at play on campuses across the country.) There also may be social psychological reasons why context can be a releaser of authoritarian and even cruel behavior. (See the classic study by Philip Zimbardo carried out in the late ’60s called the “Stanford Prison Experiment.”

I began to talk to family and friends, and began to explore and read about other such deaths on campuses across the country including one at Louisiana State University this past September. I then went to Google (of course!) and looked at the history of hazing deaths on college campuses since such statistics began to be gathered, going back to the year 1838. According to a Wikipedia article listing such deaths, hazing itself is defined as “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers them, regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.” Citing one authority, it’s clear that alcohol poisoning has always been a primary factor in hazing deaths. But he also noted that the rate of such deaths has steadily climbed over the decades, with 40 of the 200 or so reported deaths occurring between 2007 and 2017.

I actually ran off all 52 pages of this list of hazing deaths containing name, date of death, college or university affiliation, fraternity or sorority involved, and a brief description of each death. Without doing any kind of statistical analysis, I “eyeballed” the list and confirmed the rate rise of such deaths, noting a startling sharp rise in the years between 2000 and 2010 amounting to 27 deaths alone in that decade. And there are already 15 recorded deaths from hazing in the current decade – with three more years to go. What is also clear from this “eyeball” analysis is that only a handful of such deaths have been suffered by women, so maybe not surprisingly this horrific toll is gender-related.

But again, why? Because of the gender effect, you could say of course that “boys will be boys.” Certainly the way humans are wired, our evolutionary inheritance includes aggressive tendencies against others of one kind or another. Young males are primed to expend hormone-fueled energy driving impulsive behavior until brain integration is finally achieved and cultural restraint overrides such impulses driving aggressive behavior – from sports to military prowess to terrorist attacks. But still, why the increase in such deaths over time?

Well, here is my stab at an answer. Without citing particular studies, the word is out that over recent decades there has been a general erosion of authority vested in institutions of various kinds – specifically political and religious institutions. In terms of political institutions, numerous commentators in recent years – and increasingly so in the past year – have lamented this lack of respect for our political institutions embedded in our constitution – from the struggling judiciary to the gridlock and dysfunction of our legislative branch to the executive arm of the government. These three branches, when working as the constitutional “fathers” envisioned, have in the past provided a bedrock of civility and stability to our social order. Apparently no more.

Closer to my own field of knowledge, over the decades religious institutions – Christian, Jewish, and yes, Muslim houses of worship – have also historically provided a bedrock for training in morality and decency extended toward other human beings, especially those in need. In recent years, authority vested in these institutions has also eroded. In her 2014 book Belief Without Borders (see third photo), Linda Mercadante writes that “the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated in America are the largest they have ever been. … This is especially so because the largest percentage of “nones” is among young adults – estimates range from at least one-third to as high as three-quarters. This shows no signs of being a transitional youthful phase but instead indicate a permanent pattern.” (p. 2)

For this generation (Millennials – those born since 1981), they took for granted that they could affiliate or not, believe or practice whatever they wanted, or nothing at all, with little or no repercussions. Even more than Gen X’ers, most Millennial interviewees had parents who themselves self-consciously chose when and if to follow religious strictures. Thus, they served as role models for their children. (p. 47)
As I noted in my own recent book, The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating Our Stories Over a Lifetime, this erosion of religious institutional affiliation is taking place in every region of the country, including the Bible Belt. (See the discussion pp. 165-169).

So here we are. One obvious implication is that the shaping of civility, decency and morality rests almost solely on the primary, nuclear family – at least in the youth’s earliest, developmental years. So where is the hope going forward? Sorry but I don’t have a really good answer. But having two sons who are raising four young ones to be very decent people – maybe against the cultural odds – I have some hope. So I conclude the obvious: If you are a parent or a grandparent, teach the little ones a strong sense of morality and care for fellow human beings, whether of their own “tribe” or not. Be the model for them because out there, I’m afraid there aren’t very many. And on that note, let me offer an excerpt from a poem/prayer by my friend and excellent poet, Isobel de Gruchy:

I am what I eat, I am what I see,
what I experience, what I think.
I am me, but I am my parents, my community,
my country. I am me, but I am my children, my grandchildren.
I am me, but I am you, and you are me.
I am what I give you and what you give me;
whether good or evil, true or false, beautiful or ugly.
I am only who I am in relationships,
And only who I can fully be in relationships of love.
I, you, we all together need love above all else,
For the meaning of all is love. (In Well and in Woe, p. 18)
If in fact our institutions are crumbling around us, we still have each other. Nurture the young ones well – your own or your neighbors. And perhaps the seeming indifference to the deaths on campuses and even on our streets may decrease in the years ahead. Let us hope. …