In a guest column published in today’s edition of The Tech, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) oldest student newspaper, graduate student Brian Spatocco opens with a startling admission: “Under MIT’s recently overhauled hazing policy in the Mind and Hand Book, I am guilty of hazing students.”
Here’s the new policy’s definition of hazing:
Any action or activity that causes or intends to cause physical or mental discomfort or distress, that may demean, degrade, or disgrace any person, regardless of location, intent, or consent of participants, for the purpose of initiation, admission into, affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in a group, organization, or living community.
That broad definition allows for a wide range of normal campus interactions to be classified as “hazing,” as Spatocco explains:
Have I occasionally acted, intentionally or not, in a way as to induce “physical or mental discomfort or distress” in those around me? Absolutely. I am many times guilty and I wager most others, faculty included, are too.
To name a few, passionate debates during research meetings, student leaders challenging rising talent with harder individual assignments before giving them more responsibility, faculty expectations that students work during nights or weekends as standard lab practice, or the ability to run intense practices for intramural or club sports teams. These are all circumstances in which I have witnessed friends upset or distressed and all now fall in the prosecutable domain of hazing.
Worse still is the fact that under this broad definition, students may simply self-censor rather than risk punishment under this amorphous, subjective standard. Spatocco points out the harm that results from a lack of clarity:
Perhaps the most dangerous outcome of ambiguous speech codes like MIT’s revamped hazing policies has nothing to do with whether or not they will actually be enforced. Unclear language creates unclear expectations, is prone to variable interpretation, and most importantly, can result in a chilling effect on campus.
Charges need not be brought to make students think twice before debating portions from Nabokov’s Lolita out of fear child abuse may be a trigger for somebody. […] Though broad language is great for covering all the bases, it casts an unknowably large shadow and creates a quiet back-door for the slow and steady decline of speech freedoms on campus.
As Spatocco observes, sometimes “bad outcomes can come from good intentions.” MIT’s new hazing policy, likely enacted with admirable intent, appears to be an example of just such a result.
Read Spatocco’s full column on The Tech’s website.