Hazing and totalitarianism

Gustav Metzger, Painting on cardboard, c.1961–2


Preface to the recently released book by Felipe Scalisa de Oliveira on human rights violations at the USP Faculty of Medicine

University hazing takes place, literally, before the eyes of the country's main researchers and is of great importance for the training of university students. It is part of a “hidden curriculum”. Given these conditions, it should be studied a lot, but the fact is that it remains a neglected topic. Prominent academic personalities speak of him as if they had profound knowledge and legitimate authority on the subject. They hastily formulate hypotheses without bothering to test them through empirical studies.

The harsh reality is that little research has sought to describe the social and cultural context of this phenomenon that results, with impressive regularity, in humiliation, exclusion, injuries and deaths. Hazing produces spectacles of prejudice and barbarity within campuses, as if it were a simple celebration. Still, research remains scarce. The reasons for this academic negligence, certainly not casual or praiseworthy, deserve special attention, as they may reveal aspects of university culture that are still in obscurity.

For a long time, hazing seemed like a “joke”, a “celebration”. Violence appeared as exceptional cases, the work of a few misfits and criminals, and not as perfectly predictable and avoidable results of persistent practices and systematic abuses. Fortunately, that time is coming to an end.

In recent years, there has been some progress in studies and publications on these topics. Much of what has become public still tries to find some form of reconciliation with the world of hazing and, therefore, lacks greater scientific significance. Many works still propose cultural, ecological and supportive hazing as a solution to problems, remaining immersed in hazing culture. But, at the same time, some relevant investigations were carried out that expanded the understanding of this subject and that point to the need to abolish these activities.

Among these works, we highlight those by Antônio Zuin, Silmara Conchão, Marco Akerman and Rosiane Silva. Older works by Glauco Mattoso and Paulo Denisar Vasconcelos Fraga were also decisive in clarifying what happens during prank calls. In my opinion, this group of authors is responsible for the best in national literature on the topic. I think I can associate the books and articles I wrote individually or in partnership with Professor Oriowaldo Queda with these works.

Due to easy access, we must carefully consider the important investigations that have been carried out in Portugal by authors such as Elísio Estanque, Aníbal Farias, João Teixeira Lopes, José Pedro Silva and João Sebastião. In literature in English, we find a slightly more numerous set of works than in Portuguese. As with productions in our language, the deficiencies of this material in English are significant and we also have to consider, among other things, the differences in university systems, practices and the meaning of hazing for each society. Hank Nuwer, Donna Winslow, Lionel Tiger, Stephen Sweet, Elizabeth Allan, Susan Iverson, are some of the greatest American authors.

There is a vast range of themes to explore. Brazilian researchers could, for example, learn more about the laws implemented in other countries to combat hazing. We could learn a lot from foreign legislation on the subject. There are very old laws, such as the French one, which dates back to 1903, and several recent proposals, as has occurred in the USA.

At the end of 2015, while this modest deepening of research was underway, the ALESP CPI was established to investigate “human rights violations and other illegalities occurring within the scope of São Paulo State Universities”. Presided over by Deputy Adriano Diogo, for four months, it collected a comprehensive set of testimonies from students, teachers and administrators from many colleges and universities in São Paulo. It revealed to the general public a frightening picture of abuse, aberrant behavior, torture and institutional collusion.

Despite its small number, the research was enough for the CPI to find its way and the hegemony of the trotist discourse was finally put in check. If we seriously consider what the CPI gathered and the results of the best scientific investigations available, hazing should simply be eradicated. There is nothing to justify its continuation.

After the conclusions presented by this CPI, the fight against hazing gained strength. The university can no longer quibble, the demand for a public, unequivocal and definitive break with hazing and the groups that practice it has become robust. Therefore, the CPI was a moment of transfiguration, its results and questions will be remembered with each new incident, with each new scandal, and the university will be led to recognize that it needs to change, becoming more democratic and human.

The book Hazing & Totalitarianism: a new account of the Banality of Evil, by Felipe Scalisa Oliveira innovates in the investigation of the behavior of hazing groups. Using Hannah Arendt's theories on totalitarianism with unique skill, he managed to accurately reveal many of the dynamics and motivations of these groups, which made up one of the most important gaps in knowledge on the subject. The kinship between hazing and the practices of Nazi-fascists is close. That is why Arendt's ideas could be applied so successfully in this research.

The book shows, for example, that Atléticas have a central role in the trot movements, at the expense of their properly sporting activities. First of all, intense training is to demonstrate membership in the group and not to improve the students' physical and mental skills. Characteristic of these movements, sports competitions are moments of construction and maximum expression of identities based on hatred and degradation of opposing schools.

Homogeneous collective identities constructed against others and not with others. The competitions are an exaltation of the group and the school through drinking, hostility and aggression, barbarisms put into practice by university students who should represent the future of reason, knowledge and the ability to think. The reason for everything is the movement, the trot and not the sport.

The group is based on irrational beliefs and attitudes, but quite efficient in promoting its problematic cohesion. Felipe Scalisa Oliveira insightfully points out that movement is capable of generating an environment that makes free thinking impossible. The sociability that would make thought flourish is suffocated. This condition is exactly the opposite of what should be encouraged by the university.

The investigation recovered the history of the Oswaldo Cruz Academic Athletic Association of the USP Faculty of Medicine, which served as inspiration for many others. Felipe Scalisa Oliveira describes the eugenic origins of this organization, its relations with a supremacist feeling that has been established since the beginning of its activities. An alleged superiority that supposedly gave rights to act outside and beyond the legal order, rationality and civility.

Another important innovation is the construction of the report from the perspective of victims who did not submit to the hazing movement, who did not become accomplices. They are the victims who fully felt the horror that exposure to hazing actually causes. Their testimonies, their organization, their resistance, appear with vivid drama in the text. From this perspective, it became possible to show the parallel world in which the members of the movement live, who constantly need to invert the facts in order to remain in the fiction in which they find themselves imprisoned and which they desperately cultivate. Felipe Scalisa Oliveira's remarkable participation in the CPI and his analysis of the testimonies contained therein paved the way for this fruitful methodological choice.

 Following and advancing Hannah Arendt's investigations, the author brings, to our current debate about hazing, a dialogue between Saint Augustine and Nietzsche. This intersection allows us to glimpse the relationship between hatred and totalitarian movements and the suspension of the will of individuals. The primacy of hate is at the origin of the loss of freedom and is instrumentalized by totalitarian movements.

Trivialized, evil emerges as a result of an alienation, a rupture, between the act and the one who acts. We then realize, with all the strength of philosophical procedures, that hazing is far from being a mere joke, presenting itself as a cunning enemy for those who challenge it or think to play with it. A dangerous adversary for university administrations who believe they control hazing movements and often underestimate their risks. The trotist movement may seem like a valuable political ally for conservative leaders, but it always constitutes a parallel power that can eventually capture the institution itself.

It is a great satisfaction to see a researcher make such a valuable contribution to the understanding of this difficult topic, avoided by the country's main social scientists, with such ease and lucidity. This is within rigorous methodological standards and shows surprising erudition for someone so young. This work will certainly stimulate debates and new research, helping those who wish to gain scientific knowledge about university hazing. For government officials, politicians, university leaders, teachers, staff and students who wish to fight against hazing, there is much to reflect on and learn from this excellent work.

I think that hazing caused suffering and important losses for Felipe Scalisa Oliveira who, at various times, was harassed by members of the hazing movement at the USP Faculty of Medicine. But, instead of merely succumbing, clothed in courage, perseverance and distinct intellectual capacity, the author of this book dared to transform these experiences into a brilliant analysis of these movements that afflict and dishonor the Brazilian university.

*Antonio Ribeiro de Almeida Jr. He is a professor at the Department of Economics, Administration and Sociology at ESALQ/USP, author, among other books, of Anatomy of college hazing (Hucitec). [https://amzn.to/3vxQXz2]


Felipe Scalisa de Oliveira. Hazing and totalitarianism: a new account of the banality of evil. São Paulo, Editora Alameda, 2024, 432 pages. [https://amzn.to/4cRZiOW]

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