Mitt Romney was a high school and college bully, but he was and is not unique. They were common and ugly rites of passage. (More)

Mitt Romney and Dark Rites of Passage

When I was a Marine, we called it “pinning.” Friends in your unit congratulated you for your promotion and the new chevron on your sleeve by holding the insignia against your arm and punching it. Most of my friends pulled their punches, as did I when I pinned my friends. It seemed trivial at the time. Recruit training had been far more demanding. Yet not everyone pulled their punches, and my arm was bruised and sore for several days afterward.

Like most Marines, I defended pinning at the time and for some time later. The most common defense was that pinning was to remind us that higher rank meant more responsibility and more serious consequences, and to remind us that – while we were now “more senior” – we were not “superior.” That’s a clever story, but the bottom line is that pinning was simply a hazing ritual.

“Here’s to Motor Mouth….”

While in Okinawa, I joined a running group called the Hash House Harriers. Fifty or so of us gathered each Saturday afternoon to “chase the hares,” two members who had plotted out a course and started ten minutes ahead of us. They dropped handfuls of flour or used chalk to mark their trail, including symbols where trails branched off and where branches were dead ends. The goal was to catch them before they reached their destination, where we gathered to drink and socialize after. The runs were fun and spawned some cool stories, including a dash through a Japanese public park that – unbeknownst to the hares when they plotted their course – was hosting a wedding that day. Thankfully, the ceremony was already over and the wedding party were understanding.

After your third Hash House run, you could join the club. The initiation ceremony involved them giving you a club nickname – mine was “Motor Mouth” – and singing this song:

Heeeere’s to Motor Mouth, she’s a damn fine gal
Heeeere’s to Motor Mouth, she’s a damn fine gal
Sooooo drink chug-a-lug chug-a-lug chug-a-lug
Chug-a-lug chug-a-lug chug-a-lug chug-a-lug
Heeeere’s to Motor Mouth, she’s a horse’s ass.

You had to drink a can of beer while they sang the “chug-a-lugs” or – if you didn’t drink – pour the beer over your head. The latter was called “alcohol abuse.” It was yet another hazing ritual.

Romney’s haircuts

Mitt Romney had taken some ribbing from the press about his hair, including his appearance on David Letterman last December when his ‘Top Ten List’ concluded with “It’s a hairpiece.” But yesterday some uglier haircut stories emerged. While a senior at an exclusive prep school, Romney was offended by a classmate’s long, bleached hair. As the Washington Post‘s Jason Horowitz reported:

“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.

A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

That wasn’t an isolated event. Romney also reportedly walked a nearly-blind teacher into a door “as a joke” and made other haircut attacks in college:

Mr. Romney’s shaving incident, which his father, former Michigan Governor George Romney revealed in a 1970 speech, occurred while he was a student at Stanford. The elder Mr. Romney said Mitt and his friends lured students from the University of California into a trap where they “shaved their heads and painted them red.”

Yesterday Romney sort-of-apologized on Fox radio, saying:

Back in high school I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended by that I apologize. If I did stupid things, I’m afraid I’ve got to say sorry for it. I’m quite a different guy now. I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks in high school and some of them might have gone too far, and I apologize.

“She was the envy of every college girl in town”

Before I entered the military, I spent a semester at an science and engineering college in Massachusetts, where I discovered that I didn’t want to be a physicist after all. I also discovered I didn’t think much of fraternities and sororities. In our first week on campus, dorm leaders took us around to meet and interview with the college’s houses. None of the sororities invited me to pledge, and that didn’t disappoint me. That wasn’t “my scene,” as we said in those days.

Neither was what happened a few weeks later, when a dozen or so pledges for one of our largest fraternities burst into the dining hall at breakfast singing this:

She was a freshman down in Butler Hall
And every night her mom back home she’d call
She never smoked or drank or fooled around
She was the envy of every college girl in town

But then she met up with a [house initials]
And then she lost her dear virginity
And now she’s a whore in gay Paris
And the mother of a [house initials] (the little bastard)
The mother of a [house initials].

My friends and I were disgusted and left, our breakfast unfinished. Then the same thing happened at lunch. One of the pledges was in my calculus class, and that afternoon I confronted him about the song. “It’s part of pledging,” he said with a shrug. “It’s just a stupid song they make us sing. It’s no big deal.”

The Blueprint of Hazing

The “Marching 100,” Florida A&M University’s band, have been famous for years. But last November they became infamous when 26-year-old drum major Robert Champion died after the band’s hazing ritual known as “Crossing Bus C.” The initiation ritual involves running down the aisle of the band bus while being punched and kicked by senior members. Another band member’s leg was broken during the incident. Thirteen band members have been charged crimes, band director Julian White has resigned, and the band program has been suspended.

Rank pinning, initiation rituals, and forced haircuts do not happen in a vacuum. They follow what psychologist Susan Lipkins calls the blueprint of hazing:

The blueprint of hazing states that the newcomer, or victim, is hazed. Once accepted by the group, the victim becomes a bystander, and watches as others get hazed. Eventually, the bystander achieves senior status and power, and becomes a perpetrator.

They do onto others what was done to them, and they feel as though they have the right and duty to pass on the tradition. High school students pack up this blueprint and stuff it into their backpack, in order to take their hazing experience with them to college, the military and the workplace. Each hazing brings with it the possibility of a new twist. Perpetrators want to leave their mark on the tradition, and therefore they may add or change the tradition, slightly.

I don’t know if Mitt Romney was bullied or hazed during his younger prep school years. He may well have been. Having endured it would not excuse what he did, but perhaps his speaking about it – honestly and at length – would help shine a light on the dark rites of passage that leave many scarred and some dead.

Or he can continue to pretend these were just harmless pranks, and continue to resist efforts to end bullying as he did while Governor of Massachusetts.

The response he chooses will tell us a lot about whether he really is “quite a different guy now” … or whether he’s still the same bully that a classmate described as “like Lord of the Flies.”

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Happy Friday!