On 26 May, the 18 members of study association Reuzegom in Leuven, who are responsible for the torture and death of Sanda Dia were sentenced to community service sentences of 200 to 300 euros and fines of up to 400 euros. They were found guilty of carrying out degrading treatment, unintentional killing and violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Cases that seem disproportionate to the punishments. Especially when you consider that the 18 boys are sons of lawyers, judges, doctors and notaries and the 400 euros per person is unlikely to be felt very much. The case has led to great debates since the event itself in 2020 and many have spoken out vehemently against the low sentences handed out.
Unintentional killing: the question of guilt
But as is often the case, the blame is sought in places other than just the perpetrators. Even when there is evidence of literally torturing an individual to death by administering gallons of alcohol, fish oil and spending hours in an ice bath in December, the finger of blame points at the person who died from it. In this case, to Sanda himself, because of his decision to join the association. Accusatory fingers are also pointed at the two other prospective members, ‘freshmen’ or ‘schaften’ (in Flamish) or whatever you want to call it, who had to spend hours on IV after the same hazing. They survived. Sanda was reportedly dealt with more harshly during the hazing than the other students. They seem to have joined the silence surrounding the 18 boys: the one who administered the fish oil, which eventually led to kidney failure and Sanda’s death due to the high salt content, is protected by the silence of the masses.
There should be no question that the blame lies with the guilty, not the victim. What this case shows again is that there is a system in which such terrible things can happen and the consequences are minimal. What the individual impact on the 18 boys is, I don’t know, but in the big picture, the same message as always is being put down: mistake, oops. Social attention is paid to it, but nothing actually changes.
Why would we want to belong to such a crowd?
Whenever incidents happen at student unions and hazing, and they happen so often that you can no longer really speak of incidents, there is a strong creed in the national debate: then you shouldn’t join them either. That’s victim blaming, and it makes no sense at all. Everyone should just be able to join a club meant to make friends and do fun things without being harassed, humiliated, tortured or even killed. The desire to join a club is also not crazy at all and very human: we all have a desire to belong somewhere. According to self-determination theory (SDT), there are three factors that most affect our general well-being: our sense of autonomy, competence and belonging. The latter, then, is about our need to belong. This can look different for everyone. Some people get this need met by spending time with their families, and others by joining a private club.
The fact that people who like to join clubs also endure hazing, even justifying hazing afterwards and declaring that it wasn’t all that bad, can also be explained by social science. Back in 1957, research on this was done at Stanford University. This showed that hard hazing leads to a closer group bond. The study showed that prospective members who had gone through a hazing ritual valued their association better than students who were members of an association without a ritual. After the ritual, a piece of cognitive dissonance reduction also occurs: the process by which we start to justify to ourselves something we cannot actually reconcile in our heads. By telling yourself and the world that the association is really very special, you can sell it better to yourself when you feel or have felt really bad. It must be worth it then, otherwise you will have to admit to yourself that you have had to do unpleasant things ‘for nothing’, and this again brings down our sense of autonomy. Social psychologist Hein Lodewijkx’s suffering leads to liking-theory adds that prospective members support each other during hazing and therefore grow closer. Moreover, they are put in the same clothes and given new names, classic actions to remove the individual feeling and increase the group feeling, being one together.
Prospective members are promised that they only have to endure the tough hazing and then they can fully enjoy association life, no one will stand in their way anymore. But often it doesn’t stop there. The same processes that justify hazing allow a culture where boundaries have already been blurred and where it has never been clear what is normal and what is impermissible. Nor has the power structure that existed during hazing suddenly disappeared. Freshmen are still at the bottom of the ladder and face a hard time. Members fear exclusion, they are finally in, and if they say something about it now, the hazing has been all for nothing. Moreover, cognitive dissonance reduction remains at work: the association must be worth it, so unpleasant experiences are more quickly attributed to circumstances.
Evidence recovered and collected by the police showed, among other things, that the students of Reuzegom had addressed Sanda with racist remarks on several occasions. They had also referred to ‘Hitler, our good German friend’, had worn Ku Klux robes and chanted racist slogans about Belgium’s colonial history with the Democratic Republic of Congo. These issues are not unrelated to Sanda Dia’s death. It is a misconception that these things were ‘just jokes’ and that Sanda’s death was ‘just’ an accident. In a culture where such expressions can be made without any action being taken against them, the line is being pushed further and further. Using the n-word activates all sorts of negative associations in your brain, which automatically dehumanises someone else a bit more. Nobody is saying that these boys intentionally killed Sanda, but the fact that the victim is a black boy and the perpetrators are wealthy, white boys is also something that cannot be ignored in light of the low sentences that were dealt.
So what now?
The whole event took place in an age-old system and the outcome reaffirmed it. Reuzegom may have been dispatched, but there are still plenty of student unions where rich, white young men dominate and set policy. When the consequences of their actions are so heinous that they cannot bully their way out of it themselves, their privileged position in society does. The evidence was erased, the perpetrators hid and meanwhile a family will never see their son again.
Changing such a system requires an awful lot of time, patience and a continuous critical eye. The well must not be filled only after the horse has bolted. Much of the responsibility to counter injustice lies with government agencies, laws and regulations and those who enforce them. They have a role to play and we should not forget that.
But an individual can also exert influence, namely in all the situations that preceded this. By actively intervening as bystanders in cases of injustice, discrimination and transgressive behaviour, we collectively build a norm that does not tolerate such behaviour. By speaking out when we see something happening and indicating to a victim that it is not their fault, we all have a little bit of power to change the world into one in which Sanda Dia would have lived