We have become a society where being non-judgmental is one of the highest values, where being nice and inoffensive is a cardinal virtue. Where wanting to not offend is critical.
We have become a society where image and brand and symbol are more important than substance. Where the appearance is at least equal to the reality. We have a become a society where we are risk-averse and compliant with policies and procedures and far more concerned with covering our butts than making difficult stands. Where questions of public image are paramount. We are ruled by lawyers and the fear of lawsuits and institutions are focused on positioning themselves and spinning things.
Most of all, we've become a society that no longer is comfortable talking about right and wrong. Good or bad. We have lost our moral vocabulary. We have trivialized evil by using the term for people who disagree with our politics. This has allowed real evil to happen around us.
We have watched ugly and brutal things on the screens of our movie theatres and televisions. Our children play video games that rival the Roman games for blood and gore.
Personal preferences and fulfillment are higher than responsibility and restraint.
So, in that cultural cocktail, when I look at what happened at Penn State, I am sickened. I am scared. I am depressed and discouraged and heartbroken. But surprised? Not really. Looking back, many of the cultural trends I noted above are little things that have started to coil together to cause a big thing. A terrible, horrific, monstrous thing.
An individual did a terrible, terrible thing and for that, he's accountable. Other individuals didn't do anything to stop him--which is also terrible and for which they are accountable.
But I am convinced that the culture we live in helped facilitate all these terrible things. At the very least, it did not restrain it, and that is one of the chief functions of a culture--to act as a restraint against vice and to push us to act more virtuous in a collective sense than we are as individuals.
And while we are all shocked and disgusted--as we should be--at what happened, we collectively turn a blind eye to the increasing sexualization of children. Cultural leaders like advertisers, clothing lines, and entertainment companies create narratives and clothing and pictures that show adolescents, tweens, and even children as sexual beings. Surely I'm not the only one who was appalled by some of the risque Halloween costumes that I saw this year, worn by kids. Kids, for crying out loud!!!!! But we just wink at that and think it's sassy or precocious or sophisticated or worse, don't think about it at all.
Well, when you live in a society that allows children to dress and act and be portrayed in sexual or suggestive ways, guess what's going to happen eventually? When style and symbol are more important than real action, when empty and easy pleasantries are preferred over hard truths, when what's legal and what's right are divergent, and when what's legal is more important that what is right--can we really be surprised?
Our society is sick in many ways. Terrible events like these are the symptoms. We need to treat the symptoms, yes, but we need to heal the illness at the core--and we need to start a long time ago. We have a lot to do.
I'm not talking about liberals and conservatives. I'm not talking about politicians and laws and courts. I'm talking about regular people saying, "We can disagree about tax rates and healthcare. But we can agree that children are not sexual objects. Period. We're not going to buy movies or clothes that tell us otherwise and we're going to speak out and shame companies that produce stuff like that. We're going to acknowledge that it's not good or healthy for our culture to blur the lines between adults and children. We've got to reaffirm that when you see something wrong, you don't call your boss or the general counsel. You don't take a vote or hope the other guy fixes it. You fix it yourself. Or you call the police. Or you raise cain until someone does something." In other words, we've got to get over our fear of being judgmental and acknowledge that some things are big enough that we should be judgmental. We should be clear and direct and not mince words.