Age Inequalities: Where is the Line?

December 5, 2011

Political Theory

It’s a late August evening and you’re getting decked out in your high school’s colors, heading out to support your football team for the first game of the season. You are a little excited but mostly just nervous; it’s your freshman year and your first time sitting in the high school section of the bleachers. 

You’ve heard the rumors; freshman get harassed, yelled at, painted/written on, and pushed back until there are over 100 people with just two rows at the back of the bleachers. All of this is justified with the reasoning “your time will come” and “just wait through this part and then you will get to the good part.” Good part? You endure hazing so that one day you will be the one doing the hazing. 

Many of you may be familiar with this situation. At high schools around the nation, hazing underclassmen is part of the “tradition,” and people address this issue mindlessly, enduring harassment for the first part of their high school careers so that they can be the ones doing the harassing during the later years. 

The question of whether or not this behavior is justified can be examined on the grounds of equality, and more specifically, Rousseau’s thoughts on the topic. In Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, he explains that status isn’t real, but persists because people believe in it. This idea applies directly to the issue of hazing. What makes the upperclassmen better than the underclassmen, other than the fact that the upperclassmen happened to be born first? 

Age is something that Rousseau defines as a natural difference, along with other aspects one has no control over, such as gender, size, etc. However, these natural differences do not serve as justification for the man-made social inequalities such as status and wealth. Property can be viewed as an indicator of status. In Rousseau’s mind, it is these social inequalities based on status that serve as “justification” for property. However, neither status nor property really exist, they are both just claims. 

The Federalists take the opposite to the issue of status. They argue that property is based on how smart one is, how good he or she is at something, etc. 

Although Rousseau and the Federalists take opposite approaches to the issue of social inequalities, they agree that age isn’t a factor. Rousseau acknowledges age as a natural difference; however, intelligence and skill aren’t necessarily based on age and therefore the Federalists’ take on status cannot be applied to age either. 

Age in terms of social inequalities is a tricky issue. There doesn’t seem to be a logical reason for why the underclassmen need to put up with being harassed by the upperclassmen just because they were born a few years later. Their year of birth has nothing to do with their intelligence or skill, but the upperclassmen can be viewed as smarter in some cases, simply due to the fact that they have gone through more schooling, but that will only be relevant until both the underclassmen and upperclassmen are done with their schooling. The issue with hazing is that this is an ongoing cycle of the upperclassmen claiming the right to behave this way towards the underclassmen, and the underclassmen believing in this system. 

So what do you guys think? What is the meaning of hazing in terms of Rousseau’s and/or the Federalists’ theories? Do upperclassmen have the right to haze the underclassmen, or is this just a claim? Is there a middle ground?




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One Comment on “Age Inequalities: Where is the Line?”

  1. schoemad Says:

    This is a really interesting article and I really enjoyed hearing your point of view. I agree that neither Rousseau nor the Federalists outwardly state that age is a just inequality. It seems to me that Rousseau would maybe use the concept of property to show the entitlement behind the idea of hazing. Property is something that people feel like they are entitled to and with age comes entitlement to many things, especially respect. Different cultures throughout the world have the idea of honoring one’s elders. As elders, they deserve more respect among many other things from the younger generations before them.
    I personally do not agree with hazing. It disgusts me when people treat others terribly like that for dumb reasons. No one should feel that entitlement and someone needs to end the cycle. It is hard to be that person, but because hazing has hazardous effects, it needs to end.

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