Commentary: Ragging is everywhere but organisations can set boundaries
Young targets of unauthorised and unhealthy initiation practices have recourse to the law but there is much that organisations can do to shape these rituals, says one organisational psychologist.
SINGAPORE: A young man died on May 13 while engaged in an unofficial ritual to mark his graduation as a trained national serviceman.
It is difficult to make sense of what transpired, because the activity is clearly unauthorised and there are existing laws that discourage such activities. Furthermore, how could this have happened in an organisational setting imbued with noble life-saving principles and practices?
This incident can best be understood under the umbrella term of ragging. The activities engaged in can also be described as harassment and bullying.
While the mood was celebratory, to mark the happy occasion of his graduation, it was marred by the unauthorised ritual that unfortunately has become sewed into the cultural embroidery of the organisation.
A GLOBAL PHENOMENA
A review of the literature reflects that such induction rites of passage are a global phenomena, especially prevalent in schools, colleges, universities, sporting fraternities, and in the uniformed services.
In a 2017 book titled Emerging Ritual in Secular Societies, scholar Matthieu Smyth refers to the humiliating ragging rituals inflicted upon young pupils in boarding schools in the UK.
Sports psychologist Jennifer Waldron in her book chapter on hazing in sport published in 2016 in the International Handbook of Sport Psychology wrote of how initiation rituals can be degrading, humiliating, and even brutal. These rites of passage have evolved in modern sport in the United States and Canada.
Similar phenomena exist across the world, referred to as bizutage in French, mopokaste in Finnish, novatada in Spanish, ragging in India, and praxe in Portuguese. Across the continents (Brazil, India, Sri Lanka), there are research investigations documenting the prevalence of ragging in medical and dental colleges and universities, in law and business schools.
In a 2008 study, psychiatrist Jorge Srabstein found that between 1950 to 2007, there were 250 reported cases in English-language newspapers from around the world linked to bullying, hazing or ragging.
He wrote that the majority of the reports of bullying related deaths (62.3 per cent) originated in Europe, and most of them (93 per cent) occurred in the UK. This could also be attributed to the accuracy of reporting such deaths in different countries.
These rites are undertaken under a cloak of secrecy as it is understood that they are not condoned by officials. The perpetrators are usually “seniors” who had previously undergone similar treatment.
The practices or rituals or "ragging" may be conducted with or without any intended malice but this would hinge on the personalities of those doing the initiation, and the perceived shortfalls, upstart or fearful personalities of those being initiated.
Once they "pass" the initiation, the new entrant is often received warmly into the group. Sometimes those who conducted the rigorous initiation, especially in tertiary institutions, will permit those who "graduated" from the initiation to rag them in turn for a permitted period of time - as a mark of goodwill.
The activity is self-perpetuating – as a “mindless” cultural norm, passed on from one institutional generation to the next. The simplistic exhortation is “this is the way it is done here” and that “these are the rules and you must follow them”.
The execution of such a practice provides a sense of power and control to the perpetrators, and renders a sense of victimisation and powerlessness among those subjected to the ragging. Research across countries reflects a predominance of negative impact on the latter such as depression, anxiety, even suicidal acts.
RECOURSE TO LEGISLATION
Those subject to ragging can find solace in the rule of law.
In Singapore, the Protection from Harassment Act spells out scenarios which would render punishable by law any person who intentionally causes harassment, alarm or distress.
It also covers communications or behaviour that is threatening, abusive or insulting, and would definitively cover the context of ragging, hazing and bullying.
Similar legislation exists in the US, and Australia and other developed countries, spelling out acts that people should be protected against. However, the existence of such legislation by itself has not curtailed acts of bullying and harassment.
MORE CAN BE DONE TO PROTECT AND PREVENT
It may not be possible to eliminate ragging entirely but perhaps organisations could spell out clearly what the boundaries are where such informal "initiation" rites are known to exist.
Organisations can give clear notices and reminders of what is permitted and what is not. In this, damaging acts to life and limb and denigration that attacks the self-respect of the new entrant must be ruled out.
To fill the perceived vacuum of a more broadly inclusive and meaningful rite of passage for new entrants, it befits organisations to invest in a more broadly engaging and involving ceremonious rite of passage where seniors formally welcome new enlistees into the group.
This would serve the purpose of recognising the immediate “seniors” whose role are now as guides and mentors to the new entrants.
Study by psychologists Glenn Walters and Dorothy Espelage recently published on School Psychology Quarterly, discussed how the construct of “psychological inertia” serves to maintain bullying behaviour.
Actions are carried out without examination of reasons or rationale. Cognitive impulsivity (including acting or behaving based on impulsive or automatic thinking rather than deliberated deep thinking) perpetrates the acts of bullying.
This suggests that managing ragging would require some level of education and changes in mindsets. That, beyond religious beliefs, there is a need to inculcate morality, kindness, and other ethical values and attitudes necessary for healthy social existence in our present digital age.
Dr Elizabeth Nair is a health and organisational psychologist, and a registered trauma counsellor. She is CEO and Principal Psychologist of Work & Health Psychologists, Singapore.