Tuesday, September 22, 2015

We Do What We're Told

We do what we’re told.

Early in September, social media exploded as video spread, indeed like a virus, of two Texas high school football players targeting a referee with vicious and intentional hits.

In our Era of Instant Outrage, the flipside of the coin to our Culture of Victimhood, it’s easy to forget one outrage because we can’t hold onto them too long lest we miss the chance to ride the next outrage bandwagon, certain to be coming right round the bend.

We do what we’re told.

What’s particularly fascinating about this event, these two boys engaging in an inexcusable and quite frightening act of physical cruelty, is how the story is evolving as more details emerge.

We will likely never know, with any certainty, the events and words leading up to that gasp-inducing moment when the ref’s head snaps back as he’s leveled from behind. Everyone and their grandmother has lawyered up at this point, from the boys to the coaches, from the ref to the school district.

But we now know what the boys are claiming: one of their coaches instructed them to target the ref. They are also claiming that the target of their aggression was making some racist comments during the game.

We do what we’re told. Told to do.

In my heart of hearts, as an educator and a parent, I hoped this moment of coordinated violence and cruelty was the whim of two conniving teenaged malcontents whose amygdalas were too influential in their decision-making to caution them of the damned foolishness and awfulness of their idea. I wanted to believe they acted alone.

But, in my heart of hearts, as an educator and a parent, I feared this moment involved two boys eagerly feeding their urge for revenge because an adult gave them permission to do it, or just flat-out told them to.

Teenagers do stupid things. All the time. But very rarely do they do something this stupid, in front of this many potential witnesses, within the confines of such a controlled environment, without an adult being involved.

We do what we’re told.

Throughout recorded time, teenagers deviate from The Acceptable in one of two ways: they’re either too rebellious or too compliant. The majority of adults always fret over the rebellious part -- they’re the Galactic Empire fighting to eradicate the Rebel Alliance. But a growing cadre of adults are, now more than any point in my lifetime, worried that our future will be run by lemmings who have been so coddled and scheduled and micromanaged that they don’t know how to handle power and responsibility when they finally chew off that umbilical cord at age 18 or 23 or 34.

Today’s teenagers are, as a collective, as kind-hearted, respectful, law-abiding, responsible, and generous a group as anyone could wish. Crime stats are down. Pregnancies are down. Illegal drug use is down. In almost any measureable category, Kids These Days are Better Than We Were.

So the jury deserves to remain out on whether our overprotecting and helicoptering has hurt them or in fact built better people. I don’t necessarily want to believe it, but I also see the product, and it’s mostly good… if, perhaps, depressingly benign and bland. (Billy Joel said it better.)

We do what we're told.

It can’t be coincidence that movies are now out that explore the (admittedly flawed) Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiments. These experiments are coming back into the spotlight because I believe we are beginning to worry about just how obedient, how pliant, how worshipful of power and authority, this rising generation has become.

I think, secretly, while we’re outwardly demonize rebellion and disobedience, we’re more worried that we’re raising a generation of the wrong kind of prison guards. The ones who will go all the way up the voltage meter if the right authority grants them permission or orders them to.

As all of Texas (and the US) convenes to pass judgment on two boys, boys who deserve some reasonable level of consequence regardless of orders given or excuses offered, we should pause to wonder what to do about the adults, sitting calmly in the corner of the room, instructing our kids to do awful, scary things with the words, "You have no other choice, you must go on."

We do what we're told. Told to do.

1 comment:

Hesjustanexcitableboy said...

Replace "adult" with "coach" and "sitting calmly in the corner of the room" with "yelling loudly in the center of the locker room" ...

This order, um I mean, "halftime adjustment" was eventually the turning point in a victory 15 years ago.

Few, if any, paused to wonder then - if they even noticed what happened.

I will say no more - as I'm sure there are lurkers here.