Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Thoughts on a Tragedy

By now you've doubtless heard the tragic story of Tyler Clementi, the young Rutgers student who was secretly taped by his roommate, Dharun Ravi, while engaged in a homosexual encounter. Ravi and a friend named Molly Wei then placed the tape on the internet to mock Clementi to the whole world. Mortified, Clementi leapt off the George Washington bridge to his death in the river below.

This awful story is being cited by some as a sign of a need for increased tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality, but I think there's something larger at issue that we should not ignore.

We might frame the issue with several questions: Why did Ravi and Wei think they had the right to do what they did? Why did they want to humiliate Clementi? Why were they so indifferent to this boy's feelings that they were willing to profoundly embarrass him, hurt him, and laugh at his pain?

I think a case can be made that Ravi and Wei are not an aberration but are rather a synecdoche for a culture that has lost not just the will, but the ability, to teach it's young the difference between right and wrong behavior and how to respect other people. Sure, we tell them about tolerance and respect, but we've abandoned the ability to give a reason why it's wrong to be intolerant or to treat people like Clementi was treated. We can no longer give a reason why we should treat others with dignity, respect and kindness, and the reason we can't is because we've secularized our public life, including especially our schools.

The scrubbing of our public life of all traces of religion means, among other things, that our young people must be exposed only to secular influences, anything carrying the faintest whiff of religion is to be strictly forbidden.

Many schools have become moral wastelands, and many students never get any moral instruction at all. A crucial element of a student's development, his or her moral development, goes unattended and stunted. To be sure, students are admonished that it's wrong to cheat on tests and "inappropriate" to sexually harass girls, and that such behaviors will not be tolerated. Many students refrain from these for fear, perhaps, of being penalized by the school, but they're never convinced that those behaviors are actually wrong because they're never given a reason for thinking they're wrong. Indeed, they can't be given a reason because secularism has no reason beyond a tepid assertion that "they're just not nice."

Moreover, schools almost inevitably send students mixed messages about these matters. Teachers, for example, insist to their students that bullying is wrong, but then the student goes to biology class and learns that he's essentially an animal engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival and for breeding partners, and that the strong outcompete the weak, and that all of our behavior is determined by our genes anyway, so there really is no right and wrong.

Some teachers try to convince students that the materialistic, hedonistic, consumer culture that encourages them to judge others by their appearance and their clothes is fundamentally arid and empty, but even if the educators were capable of offering a plausible alternative to the culture they deplore, they wouldn't be allowed to do so because the only genuine alternative is a religious alternative. The only coherent critique of the hedonistic materialism that holds so many of our young people in its seductive grip is a religious critique, and we've decided as a society that such alternatives are to be assiduously ignored.

Students are immersed in a culture of consumerism that promotes self-centeredness and narcissism. It encourages young adults to treat others as means to their own happiness. Nevertheless, occasionally the young person is able to discern a barely audible voice whispering in his ear that he should indeed care about others and treat others with respect. But soon enough he turns on the television and sees someone like Simon Cowell applauded by all and sundry - and very handsomely rewarded - for nothing more than humiliating people on American Idol, and that tiny voice is easily forgotten.

I want to close with an irony about the tragedy of Tyler Clementi and others like him. The secular culture sedulously promotes the need for tolerance and acceptance. It persistently reminds us that gays are not to be discriminated against in any way, and that there's nothing wrong with being gay. Yet it's precisely in secular settings where gays are most at risk of being tormented to the point of suicide. And not just gays. It is in secular settings almost always where teens feel driven to despair by the treatment they receive from their fellow students.

On the other hand, Christians often believe that homosexuality is wrong, that it's outside the will of God. Yet, a young gay man or woman is much less likely to be treated at a Christian school with the kind of cruelty that many gays are subjected to in the secular hells in which they find themselves. They're much more likely to be treated with dignity, respect and kindness - with genuine love - at a Christian high school or college than at a secular school.

Why do you suppose that is? Perhaps it's because at a Christian school students are enjoined to view each person as a child of God, as someone whom God loves. Secularism, or more properly naturalism, simply sees each individual as nothing but "a machine made of meat." In which environment would you feel most comfortable if you were a little different from your peers?