Of course, by now we all know what’s wrong with ragging, but isn’t there anything it could teach us? “It’s not about going through hell.”
(Originele Nederlandse versie hier)
In a recent row in England, David Cameron’s biographer claimed that the British prime minister stuck “a private part of his anatomy” in the mouth of a dead pig. With Pig Gate fresh in everyone’s minds, we could write a feature on all that’s wrong with initiation rituals, including a list of the worst incidents.
However, we are all familiar with the greatest objections (following the herd, personality breakdown, etc.) by now. And so we ask: is there anything good about ragging? Or are thousands of students subjected to a tough KMT [an introductory week of initiation rituals before joining a student fraternity] each year for the sake of it? Mare asked a number of experts and people who have been there.
“Ragging makes good use of three aspects that play a major part in group building: suffering together, equality and closeness”, explains social psychologist Arjaan Wit, an expert on group dynamics. “Suffering together, also known as “common fate”, means that a group of people undergo the same experience. It’s not about going through hell, no; it’s about everyone going through hell together. They’re all up the same creek.”
Generally speaking, the nastier the experience, the more cohesion. “For instance, groups who have done the KMT often feel superior to groups who did the ‘na’-KMT [a second week of ragging for people who join later), because the second week is easier, in their opinion. And if one group was subjected to something awful in very bad weather and another had good weather during the same activity, the bad-weather group’s feeling of togetherness is stronger. The same thing happens in elite teams, like the Royal Marine Corps, who face a tougher training than other units.”
“Equality is created during the KMT when everyone has to wear the same silly hat or T-shirt. But there are smaller details too: mobile phones must be handed in, no one is allowed jewellery, and so on”, Wit continues.
Max Grapperhaus, Minerva’s chair, also stresses the importance of equality. “Everyone starts at the bottom: it doesn’t matter who you were at secondary school, whether you were a bookworm or the prettiest girl in the class. It’s about how you respond to stuff. After that, you are justified in saying: I’m a member.”
Stuff? “I wish I could say more”, says Grapperhaus, “but the magic of the KMT begins with the fact that the group doesn’t know what to expect. I don’t want it to lose that excitement.”
The last element, closeness, also has a crucial role, according to Wit: “Of course, it doesn’t make much sense to spread them out in the country. Either they all go out to the country together, or they all squash together in a tiny room.”
Dick Berlijn, the former Chief of the Netherlands Defence Staff (the highest officer in the Dutch army) sees parallels between the KMT and army training. “Obviously, a soldier’s education must prepare him for war. Nonetheless, besides teaching military personnel to cope in difficult situations, it should help them become a group. You can’t do much on your own, but together you can deal with anything. In the army, you learn how to move as a team.”
Moreover, it stimulates personal development too. “Soldiers don’t just learn how to shoot and march in formation; it’s also a character-building experience. They have to be resilient, keep their emotions under control, keep their word and persevere.”
“My son did his KMT in Wageningen; he was ordered to remain squatting in an extremely crowded room, and when he complained, he was forced to wear a wooden sign round his neck that said: ‘I can’t keep my big mouth shut’. That would have probably happened to me, too”, Wit grins.
“Someone once asked me whether I would do my KMT again if I could”, remarks Grapperhaus. He ponders for a while. “No, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But if you ask me whether I would have made the same choice knowing what I know now, I would say ‘yes, absolutely’. It’s special, though emotional. You’ve just left home. It prepares you for a more independent life. Whether it’s your personal life or work, it’s not always going to be easy.”
“By pushing someone to his limits, in a controlled situation, you can make him exceed his own expectations. If someone thinks: ‘I’ll never be able to finish a 180-kilometre march, or go three nights without any sleep’ and yet he discovers he can, with the right help, his confidence will grow”, Berlijn claims.
The same applies to teams: “We challenge them with difficult assignments: they have to pass around a beam that’s a bit too short, or we don’t give them quite enough rope. If they manage to complete the assignment despite that, they’ll be more self-reliant.”
Nevertheless, Berlijn stresses that the people doing the ragging should be very aware of group processes: “Those processes can be a very good thing or a very bad thing. You don’t want any bullying or people ending up with life-long frustrations. They’re supposed to come out of it stronger.”
Grapperhaus assures us they are careful: “We spend months preparing it; we have every last detail planned with all the risk analyses and protocols.”
It isn’t just student fraternities either, Wit explains. “Initiation rituals occur in all strata of society. Just think of fire brigades, rugby clubs and law firms: newcomers have to prove themselves worthy before they are accepted into a group, but once they have done that, they have a true sense of belonging.” Grapperhaus adds: “The KMT is a leap in the dark, but everyone leaps together and lands softly.”
According to Wit, the KMT has another advantage: the tougher the KMT, the more the members appreciate their fraternity.
“We can ascribe that principle to internal human psychology. It’s called cognitive dissonance; Festinger described it back in 1957. Anyone who has a difficult time becomes convinced it was worth it – that’s how we justify it to ourselves: ‘If they make me do all this shit, it must be very special indeed.’”
Wit thinks that most student fraternities are not fully aware of that principle. “But it’s effective. In the fifties, some modest girls who joined a fraternity were asked to talk about sex.”
One group was told to read obscene words and explicit descriptions of sexual acts into a microphone in front of the group they wished to join. The other group was asked to read aloud implicitly sexual but rather less embarrassing words like “prostitute” and “virgin”. The control group did not have to read anything aloud.
Wit continues: “Next, the girls had to listen to a very boring conversation among supposedly members of the group they wanted to belong to. The girls who had been most embarrassed thought the conversations of the desired group far more interesting than the girls did who had been less embarrassed. Personally, I don’t think that embarrassment or humiliation should be part of an initiation ritual, but Aronson and Mills’ study reveals that it increases the appreciation.”
However, other studies reveal that people will drop out if the ragging is carried too far, and Wit thinks that people reach that point sooner nowadays: “People are not afraid of speaking out these days.”
Berlijn underwent a month of ragging at the beginning of his army career: “Physically, it was tough, but my fondest memories are of the time we rebelled against the leaders: ‘It stops here, we won’t take any more of this’ – which was good. It turned out that it was actually part of the process. It was wonderful to experience the feeling of togetherness.”
Grapperhaus recalls: “I can remember a lot of special moments, because the feeling of unity was so strong. In all honesty, I also thought: When will it stop? It’s gone on for long enough.’ But those thoughts were replaced by the feeling of ‘Yay! It’s great to be a part of this.’”
“Ragging – if done properly – can have a very beneficial effect,” Berlijn adds. “I have two sons, both graduates now. One joined the student corps and the other didn’t. The elder really didn’t want to be a part of it – he thought it was something for posh louts. But it had a chastening effect on my younger son; it made him much more self-assured. I would recommend to anyone. Just do it and make the best of it.” PM
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