The activity seemed fairly straightforward. The class was to discuss what should be done with a wallet full of money that a person found on the street.
The wallet also contained identification, so the finder could contact the owner. The students were to weigh the various possible actions the finder could take, and then vote on the best one. The teacher was to facilitate the discussion, making sure everyone had a chance to express an opinion, but was not to direct the decision.
At the end of the hour, the class had decided that the best option would be to keep the money, as long as there was no way that anyone could discover the identity of the wallet’s finder.
The teacher was appalled. She was also powerless.
The guest speaker was talking to a high school assembly about responsible voting. A variety of issues were bandied about. The speaker asked the students if there were any positions that a candidate could take that would immediately disqualify him from consideration. The students looked confused, so the speaker mentioned, as an example, active membership in the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazi Party. The students understood the question, and responded that they wouldn’t rule a candidate out for just one issue, no matter what that issue was. Everything, they said, was relative, and if they liked other things about the candidate, they could live with the rest – no matter what "the rest" actually was.
The speaker was appalled. He, too, was powerless.
There is a new environmental short film on the web. It’s supposed to encourage people to cut their carbon emissions by 10 percent. In the film, those who don’t want to participate are blown up. The first ones to die are school kids, who are exploded while sitting in their classroom with their peers.
Graphically. A review of the discussion surrounding this film includes folks calling it "hilarious", and defending its gore by claiming that those upset about it don’t care about how many deaths climate change will cause. There are many such defenders.
What happened to us?
The answer sounds simple, but its consequences are almost beyond comprehension.
We have removed the limits.
There are no common lines of decency or morality creating boundaries for what we used to call a civilized society.
Our schools don’t teach the difference between right and wrong, with an emphasis on doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong, even if the immediate results would seem to say otherwise. Instead they teach our children to evaluate their behavior by the results – and the kids in the classroom with the wallet exercise did exactly that. The teacher was powerless because the students were doing exactly as they had been taught.
We have redefined tolerance from treating others with respect but acknowledging that all behaviors are not equally acceptable to a universal acceptance of everything without judgment. An entire generation has embraced the redefinition without any understanding of what that redefinition really means. The speaker was powerless because the students were, in their own minds, just being tolerant.
We have allowed public discourse to
descend into the depths of depravity without protest. And now we can only complain when the depravity we have accepted finds ever lower levels of expression.
There IS an answer, but it is not simple, and it won’t be easy. We need to insist on the limits. In our schools, in our communities, and in our culture. We will be called intolerant and judgmental and mean-spirited. But if those labels mean that we stop exploding children for shock value, we need to embrace them. Today.