By now everyone has heard about the young man from Rutgers University who jumped off the Washington Bridge in New York because his roommate filmed and web-streamed the young man’s sexual encounter. The tragic death has spawned discussions about whether we need new laws on cyber-bullying, what those laws should say, and how to balance free speech with privacy. Rutgers has implemented a "Civility Project", a campus-wide agenda of activities to promote the concept of behaving politely and respectfully.
Who would have ever thought that it would become necessary for us to "teach" our young adults that they needed to behave politely and respectfully? And does any serious person really believe that a university program is going to solve the problem?
Learning to treat others politely and respectfully is supposed to begin in early childhood. Small children were expected to be respectful of adults, beginning with their parents. They were also expected to be polite with each other. Good parenting included requiring that children exhibit good manners.
When the little one went to school, the respect was to be accorded to teachers and other students as well. If a child misbehaved in school, she not only got into trouble there, she got into trouble again when she got home. There was an accord between home and school that built boundaries of courtesy within which children were supposed to act.
It didn’t always work. But it worked often enough that the breakdowns were obvious.
The same respect was seen in the media. In two generations, we have gone from television programming that did not show married couples in the same bed, to explicit scenes of every possible type of sexual encounter and technique. We have gone from movies in which no one, not even the serial killer, used a naughty word to movies in which every single character is unable to complete a paragraph without including at least one obscenity. And we have gone from heroes who used silver bullets because killing even an outlaw should be extremely rare to heroes who seem to delight in shooting first and asking questions later.
Reality TV has moved the boundaries even farther. No one wants to watch an intact family face a normal day. So "reality television" takes us into the lives of every kind of extreme disfunction that a person or family can face. Each week, we can see bratty kids, drug and alcohol addicts, compulsive hoarders, screaming brides, morbidly obese teens and adults, and scheming housewives. There is no limit to the depths of misery that can be seen.
Then there are the shows that give real people a chance to improve their appearances or try a new career. The hosts regularly insult, scream at, and belittle the person, and often invite their family and friends to do the same. All in front of a national audience.
And there IS a national audience. The networks are producing more of those shows because they are cheap and they get ratings.
It’s like we have turned into a nation of voyeurs who have failed to learn the basic courtesies, and now find it entertaining to watch our neighbors struggle. Of course, the more gory details we get to see, the better.
The man and woman responsible for the Internet video that led to the suicide did something reprehensible. But they did not act in a vacuum. If we are serious about restoring basic civility, we need to address the culture that has turned us all into Peeping Tom’s, Dick’s, and Harriet’s.