Social change imposed by thought police instead of by civil discourse in the public square risks resiliency, and a generation that hears only what it wants to hear.
It is both the joy and bane of writing that I get lots of mail. I’m certainly not complaining. Receiving mail from someone “out there” is a welcome moment for any prisoner, and the only downside is that I cannot answer all of it, at least not right away. There are 1,500 prisoners where I live, sixty of them at a time crowded around for the daily mail call, but it has become a sort of “inside” joke that when my name is called it isn’t to be handed a letter. It’s to be handed a stack of letters, all slowly removed from their envelopes before given to me. I’ve learned to request being called last so the 59 others are not standing around waiting for all my mail to be processed before moving on to the next person.
Every now and then, a dreaded “pink slip” is among my mail. That means a piece of mail opened for security screening in the mail room was for some reason deemed unfit to be forwarded to me. So it is either returned to sender or destroyed without my ever even seeing it. The rejection notice has a check box list, and the usual reasons for rejection are greeting cards, which are not presently allowed here, or some kind person trying to send me postage stamps or too many pages at a time (there is a 10-page limit per envelope).
At the bottom of the Notice of Rejected Mail is a category called “Other” with a line that can be filled in with pretty much any reason at all. One day last week, a piece of mail from an unknown sender in North Carolina was rejected with “harassing content” written in as the reason. I have no idea what the offending content was or who sent it, but I doubt I would have found it to be so offensive.
No one spends over 21 years wrongly in prison without growing some resilience and a thick skin. So I could not imagine being offended by the contents of a letter. Whatever the “harassing content” was, it’s very rare that it would come in the mail. It usually comes in the form of attempts to post offensive comments on These Stone Walls. We have a “Comments Policy” which means that attacking comments lacking the basics of civil discourse are not posted. Even those are relatively rare, however, and most come from only two sources, both using fake screen names instead of their own. Maybe the two writers simply have too much empty time on their hands. Perhaps they presume that a lack of resilience is now a universal trait giving nasty comments some real impact.
Back in September, 2015, Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray wrote for the Psychology Today website (Sept. 22). He described an invitation at a major university to join faculty and administrators for a discussion about how to deal with an obvious decline in resilience among college students. Resilience is defined in psychology as the ability to recover – to “spring back” emotionally – from a disturbance, illness, or troubling event. In his Psychology Today column, Professor Gray described an alarming lack of resilience in college-age young people. He wrote that in just the last five years, emergency calls to campus counseling services had more than doubled with students having emotional crises over simple problems of everyday life.
His examples might be funny if they were not also tragic. In one instance, two college students sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their dorm room. They also called police. Faculty members expressed concern over the emotional fragility of students, in some cases afraid to give them the grades they earned because of the emotional crisis that would follow in their campus offices. Faculty also noted an increase in the tendency to blame instructors for lower grades. Poor grades are increasingly seen as a reason to complain, and not as a reason to take responsibility for studying more.
Almost on the heels of reading about that, I was told by a prison official that he began his career some 20 years ago as the administrator of a juvenile corrections facility. He said that many of the behaviors and attitudes once prevalent among 16-year old offenders are now seen among 30-year old offenders. My own experience in prison confirms that. I think some of the reason for it was defined in a post of mine entitled, “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men” which, four years after it was written, remains the most widely read and shared post on These Stone Walls.
For some reason, young people in Western Culture are having difficulty growing up these days. As the “Elephants and Men” post points out, prison is a poor substitute for parenting, and the poorest substitute for growing up with an active and committed father. I could spend several posts on the reasons for why commencing adulthood is now a deprivation need in America and the West, but I would rather hear what you think. Are the 20-somethings in our midst as emotionally independent and resilient as in decades past? If not, why not?
THE MODELING CRISIS
I think a large part of the source for this deprivation is a generation of parenting that has been intent upon protecting young people from ever facing discomfort in any form. The result is a generation lacking problem solving skills, their attention buried in electronic media instead of interpersonal relating, sheltered from hearing anything they might find offensive, and prevented from forming resilience by having their views tested in an arena of civil discourse.
I just came across a revealing article by actress Marlo Thomas entitled, “Kids Caught Up in Scary Media Climate” (USA Today, April 8, 2016). Ms. Thomas laments that the “always connected” exposure of young people to the adult media world creates a “modeling crisis” in which children race to adulthood damaged and unprepared. “This isn’t a parenting problem,” writes Ms. Thomas, “but a societal one.” I’m sorry, but that evades both the problem and any solution. It IS a parenting problem. It’s a “lack of parenting” problem in a culture that wants the state to do our parenting for us, and a decades-long lobbying that undermined the role of fathers.
But this is also not a “blame the parents” problem, for growing up requires the very opposite: personal responsibility for the person I am becoming. Prison is a poor substitute for parents because it simply gives up on people, and allows them to give up on themselves.
At the same time, Marlo Thomas revealed without intending to the very modeling that has contributed to the problem. She reminisced back to the 1970s, a time I just wrote about in “Time in a Bottle with Jim Croce and The Twang Brothers.” She described that decade as I did, as a time of tumult, but she added a most bizarre proposal for fixing it:
“American society was struggling with issues of race, gender equality, violence, and sometimes apocalyptic fears. Children, we knew, were catching whiff of this in their daily lives. We wanted to help them grow up in a different kind of world. So we set out to empower and inform these pillars of the next generation… Sexism and racism were out. Compassion and acceptance were in.”
Marlo Thomas went on to describe her 1970s project, “Free to Be…You and Me” which recruited “stars including Michael Jackson … in a bold campaign to lay the groundwork for a more accepting and loving society.” It seemed almost surreal for me to see Michael Jackson cited by a serious writer as a modern day solution to childhood’s “modeling crisis.”
Michael Jackson spent upwards of $20 million settling sexual abuse claims from the very age group Ms. Thomas now cites as being in need of role models. And no one notices, no one objects, no one even comments! USA Today editors just let the reference go by without any expectation that someone might see duplicity in this and their recent editorials about Catholic priests that I cited just a week ago in these pages. Marlo Thomas did not present a solution to where we are so much as an example of the blind duplicity that got us here.
The last time I pointed out that duplicity, I was pummeled by some Michael Jackson fans who insisted that he was acquitted at a criminal trial despite spending millions in sexual abuse litigation and settlements. That is true, and I wrote about that fact in “Michael Jackson and the ‘Credible’ Standard: Pop Stars and Priests.” I think I presented him and the duplicity fairly, and in the end the fans who first objected were happy with it. I think it’s worth reading today because it says a lot about our double standards, especially in the news media.
POLITICIANS BEHAVING BADLY
I share one concern of Marlo Thomas expressed in a haunting question that she asked “What kind of world will be created by a generation of Americans seared by anger and numbed by hate?” It’s a good question. No one can dispute the fact that the last decade has seen a shocking erosion of civil discourse in the public square, and the current election cycle, more than any other period in decades, mirrors the worst of that trend.
In this presidential election year, examples of using insults, bullying and slander to squelch legitimate voices in the public square are too many to count. But there are some vivid examples right here in These Stone Walls’ own backyard.
Daniel Strauss at Politico.com (February 22, 2016) recently reported that in New Hampshire, which holds center stage with the First in the Nation Presidential Primary, a local state legislator called Pope Francis the “anti-Christ” in a Facebook post thread. It was the day after the pope suggested that Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the U. S. border with Mexico is not a Christian response. Republican State Representative Susan DeLemus defended Donald Trump by posting on Facebook, “The Pope is the anti-Christ. Do your research.” Contacted by Politico, Rep. DeLemus tried to clarify:
“I was actually referring to the papacy. And what I wrote after that, ‘do your research,’ if you read the Geneva Bible… the commentary is – actually by the founders of the United States actually, the Protestant Church – their commentary references the papacy as the anti-Christ… So that’s all I was referring to, the papacy, not particularly that one particular pope because the papacy is a seat. It’s not just one person.”
The Geneva Bible was published by a group of Protestant exiles in Geneva in 1560. It was commonly called the “Breeches” Bible noted for its Puritan substitution of the word “breeches” for the covering of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:7. A fig leaf was too suggestive, so the Geneva Bible gave them breeches.
Citing her view of the pope as the “commentary of the founders’ of America evokes the worst kind of anti-Catholic sentiment that most of America had long ago allowed to descend under the radar. But it has been dusted off and raised anew since the 1970s. Rep. DeLemus added, “I’m not Catholic so I don’t think he’s infallible… I’m not really a respecter of men. It’s really God I respect.” Well, God and Donald Trump, and maybe not even in that order.
Meanwhile, in some Catholic circles, defending Church teaching may bring censure if political correctness deems your position to be heresy. At Marquette, a Milwaukee Catholic university, a student objected to the instruction of philosophy instructor Cheryl Abate, a PhD candidate, that the matter of same sex marriage is no longer open for debate and “everyone agrees on this.” She instructed the student that some opinions are no longer appropriate, and would be offensive to others if raised. Professor Abate warned him that comments she deems to be racist, sexist, or homophobic – such as an assertion of Catholic teaching about marriage – would result in an invitation to drop her class.
A Wall Street Journal editorial (“Punished for Blogging at Marquette,” April 8, 2016) reported that the exchange was taken up by Marquette political science professor John McAdams whose blog, The Marquette Warrior, has been critical of the school for failing in its Catholic mission. Professor McAdams wrote on his blog that suppressing, the voice of that student…
“…was a tactic typical among liberals now. Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up.”
In response, Marquette University suspended John McAdams and banned him from campus while it reviews his blog. Marquette President Michael Lovell told him that he would be suspended without pay and would not be reinstated unless he admitted that his conduct on the blog was “reckless.”
As Marlo Thomas put it, “Today, the angry impulse toward divisions is inescapable for adults and children alike.” We may eventually come to our senses and look on this election year as the time when we sacrificed civility – and even some civil liberty – for the dishonorable goal of merely fostering our divisions. We have destined ourselves for a time of great crisis, for crisis is all that will seal that divide. Don’t face that coming crisis with your faith stolen from you or otherwise set aside as a sacrifice to pop culture.
And please don’t tell your children and grandchildren that Michael Jackson moonwalked the way to a better world. You might also consider showing them how to use a mousetrap before sending them off to college. And if that choice of college is Marquette, the Catechism of the Catholic Church might also be a good idea.