Friday, January 04, 2013

The Steubenville Question

Last night, I watched a segment on the alleged rape of a young girl in Ohio and listened to the pundits ask the questions that confound many: How could onlookers stand by with camera phones in hand as the girl was violated? Why did no one do anything?

As expressed by the pundits, a common theme emerged, arguing that teenagers are immersed in a culture of alcohol, drugs, violence, and pornography and they've become desensitized. Parents, they continued, need to do a better job policing their children, monitoring what they watch and put into their bodies. With this I agree completely: I do think it remarkable that parents who give a kid a smart phone and a computer with internet access wonder why the child stays upstairs and refuses to interact with the family. I suspect it's hard to parent a child via text or twitter, that it's hard to be a mom or a dad to a child you seldom see.

Nevertheless, I have to wonder: how much are we to blame for the toxic cultural atmosphere we want our kids to avoid? Near as I can tell, teenagers do not own the liquor and beer companies that make slick ads showing the glamorousness of alcohol consumption; teens don't own the adult film companies that churn out an endless stream of porn; teens aren't in charge of drug cartels; teens don't make video games where the amount of carnage and destruction equate with a better score.

In short, we adults have created and and glamorized the very culture we decry our kids for wanting to join. Our commercials try to sell a lifestyle, try to convince us that if we spend the money on the product that we, too, will live a wonderful and glamorous life. Is it any wonder that teens who long to establish themselves would be so willing to buy into the "adult" culture?

To my mind, we've built an adult playground and have the audacity to become indignant when our teenagers want to play in it. We built it. They have come. They are not leaving.

So, when I think of the alleged rape in Steubenville, I'm not shocked: these kids have become what our culture promised them. They are living the high life of limitless consumption, a lifestyle marked by binge drinking and reckless behavior. Why not use my cell phone to take a picture of her? Why not Tweet pictures or post clips to YouTube? Why not make tonight an image, even if but a poor reflection, of what or media tells us we should be: young, sexual, irresponsible, free. YOLO - you only live once, right?

We are damn fools if we are content to ask, "Why did they do this?" Instead, we need to muster the courage to inquire, "Why have we created a culture where this is permissible?" These teenagers didn't create this mess: they inherited it. We created the culture and had, at least, the benefit of knowing its pitfalls and some alternatives to it. Today's teenagers have been raised differently, where their imaginations have been formed by the very culture we now decry them for lauding. Steubenville has not revealed a new monster but, rather, shown us that the monster we most fear is us. 

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