Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash

I have often pondered the selection of books offered by the Blind Guy Library–sometimes there seems to be an obsession at work, as when Mr. Darcy, Vampire  and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter were added in consecutive months. Sometimes I wonder if they’ve thought things through (I once actually received in the mail the cassette version of Let’s Play Hockey!, which I must say sounds like a loser move for us blind folk.

And sometimes the BGL perhaps goes too far in the other direction, catering to its niche market.  I recently read Seven Tenths: Love, Piracy, and Science at Sea by David Fisichella. I can certainly see why the book was chosen, since Fisichella’s wife is a legally-blind oceanographer, and Seven Tenths tells the story of his work as her guide on a couple of research cruises.  What is less obvious is why Fisichella thought he had the material for a book: the romance promised in the title is delivered in steamy helpings like “This ability to tackle a problem and see it through to the end is what had first attracted me to Amy.”  There’s more where that came from, but this is a family-friendly blog…and the accounts of piracy and science are equally scintillating.

One thing that does seem to light a lyrical fire under Fisichella is hazing.  He devotes a long chapter to the ritual that accompanies the crossing of the equator, in which the “polliwogs” who have not done this before are subjected to whatever humiliations occur to those who have.  I’m sure this is a much tamer version than what Captain Jack Sparrow and his buddies would have practiced, mostly involving crawling through filth and grovelling before the boss of the hazing, but still…at one point Mr. F wonders if this is really worth doing, and someone asks, “Do you really want to break a tradition that extends across hundreds of years?”  To which any sane person would say “Who gives a flying fish about tradition?  At that rate we’d still have public flogging and press-gang kidnappings.”  But no, Fisichella finds this an irrefutable argument, and after the fact he feels that the hazing has created a noble bond between the polliwogs and their tormentors.

And of course Fizzy is not alone.  I remember once talking to a World War II Navy vet, a person I respect, as he grew sentimental about his own equatorial hazing (in his case involving the usual crawling through filth and also being held down while the guys attached fake electrodes to one’s genitals).  He too felt that it had been a wonderful experience, but he noted that some of his colleagues had tried to resist.  These poor sports had been subjected to much more brutal and violent treatment, and my interlocutor had nothing but contempt for them…why could they not (I paraphrase Bobby Knight) lie back and enjoy it?  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I would certainly have been one of the jerks who didn’t go along with the fun.

I lack the words adequately to express how much I don’t get this.  I know that hazing is a special case of a rite of passage (if a particularly dumb and pointless one), and that such rites are widespread in human culture, but really, they generally strike me as nothing more or less than a way for the privileged class to perpetrate cruelty on the non-privileged class.  That the victims are then supposed afterwards to feel a special bond, or even debt, to the bastards who have just taken pleasure in humiliating them…well, it makes me unhappy.

This isn’t, for me, so much a moral as a visceral judgment.  Whatever makes me incapable of understanding the fun of hazing is probably the same thing that draws me to heroes of the “Get out of my face” rather than the “Bow down before me” school, to Emily Dickinson rather than Lady Gaga.

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2 Responses to Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash

  1. Alena says:

    I have the same visceral reaction. And a very strong one at that. And “getting it” on a conceptual (sociological, psychological, etc.) level does not lessen the reaction one bit.

    Not to mention that in many cases subjects of hazing are not even “rewarded” with the “bond,” or their “right” to become the hazing perpetrators next time/year around, as the case may be, as hazing occurs ad hoc or at least without structural continuity in time as in your example of sailors, or in case of armies, etc. And all that the subject “has to show for” it is humiliation, and often also physical harm.

    And indeed, one would think that we know better by now than using “tradition” as an argument. And “tradition” is of course, more often than not (some would even argue that always) constantly redefined and adjusted to suit current purposes — for this, Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger’s (editors) *The Invention of Tradition* is the classic reference.

    Anyway…I get your not getting it, very much.

    • Roy says:

      Speaking of theory versus gut, an interesting example is Ruth Benedict; she was famous for her cultural relativism, but you could always tell which cultures were her favorites (and which she saw as illustrating our own culture’s bad habits), and when she talked about the more brutal initiation rites in Patterns of Culture there was no concealing her distaste.

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