One of the first and most vivid pieces of advice we receive on entering college is to keep our head down, avoid eye contact with absolutely anyone, and make ourselves as small and inconspicuous as possible. The emphasis appears to be upon entering a physical, intellectual, and cultural space that is meant to help us transition from adolescence into adulthood and launch our careers.
Yet the approach to that is strange and bewildering. How do we chart our identity and discover ourselves? By making ourselves as small and invisible as possible. See no seniors, approach no seniors, by no means do anything to draw your attention to yourselves. The intent is not to avoid ragging – that is inevitable in and of itself. Instead, it is to contain and minimize the attacks on oneself by pretending as though we’re not there. If this is liberation, a strange form of liberty, does it bring in its wake?
A discussion of the many and myriad forms of ragging and hazing is almost redundant in its universality. What intrigues me, however, is where it comes from and why we propagate it? After all, what separates a final year student from a first-year student in an environment that is, after all, transient and in perennial flux? The answer, in part, may be primogeniture of a sort. This is both similar to and different from primogeniture in other social contexts.
Primogeniture in families establishes a traditional, patriarchal hierarchy. Older siblings are entitled to both more authority and more responsibility by virtue of an accident of birth. They’re almost quasi-parents in training.
Primogeniture in the workplace establishes a more mobile, flexible hierarchy. Those who have entered the workplace before you have more years under their belt and are usually higher in the professional hierarchy than newcomers. Yet this is murky terrain, akin to a snake and ladders game, with the possibility of both rapid ascent and descent through promotions and demotions on the one hand and the terrifying spectre of stagnation. There is nothing more frightening in one’s professional prospects as being left behind in the race for success, ephemeral, as it is. The police constable who retires a police constable is a trope in popular culture.
So what is primogeniture in colleges, then? What is this transient authority conferred upon those who have reached the hallowed halls of learning a few months or years before you through an accident of social circumstances? What of the dizzying heights of authority a does student reach in the final year of college and the just as sudden fade into oblivion on graduation? It appears to lie somewhere between the granite of primogeniture in families and the soapstone of primogeniture in the workplace.
This might, in a way, make sense. College does appear finely and tenaciously poised between the professional and the personal, after all.
But, for the years that this transient primogeniture lasts in our college education’s ephemeral world, it is all-encompassing and overwhelming in the scope and magnitude of its authority. The college senior is a spectre even more terrifying that the college dean. For the college, the dean is a 9 to 5 presence. While the college senior incorporates our space all around the clock.
Perhaps it is the recognition of this authority’s transience that makes it quite so brutal when it finds its way out through ragging. One day the college senior will fade into oblivion and no longer matter to the college. So while we are there, let us strive to attain transient immortality through our words and our deeds. The medium for attaining our immortality then seems to be through inflicting trauma on those in less power than us – that perennial scapegoat, the college first year.
The Hindi-English language movie Guilty, a lovely deconstruction of patriarchy, elitism, casteism, and the #MeToo movement in India was as much about an assault survivor who was punished for challenging this primogeniture as anything else.
This is not to say that college isn’t wonderful, too, or that deep and lasting friendships haven’t been formed across hierarchies. Not all interaction between college students is cruel. Yet the spectre of cruelty lurks, perhaps bolstered by our fear of being forgotten.
Perhaps though, we may find ways to live on in college memory through kindness rather than cruelty.