The devil made me do it
I’m trying to absorb and otherwise deal with the latest “inhumanity to man” story out of our neighbour to the south.
Some accounts of how we sometimes react and respond to each other leave one incredulous. Surely that did not happen the way they say it did. Ordinary people do not act that way — do they? It’s exaggerated, or someone got their facts screwed up, intentionally or otherwise. Or, we invoke the general dismissal of the unacceptable or unbelievable: there are crazies everywhere.
A recent headline simply leaves one shaken.
A disturbed man walked into a small pond near his house until the water was over his head and he drowned. Circumstances suggest he wanted to take his own life. Despite the fact that he was in obvious difficulties, a group of teen boys watched without making any effort to help him. In fact, they videotaped his death struggles while taunting him as he drowned. When he had disappeared beneath the surface for the last time, they laughed and cheered.
A couple of days later they posted their video for all the world to see.
This is no horror scene from the overactive imagination of a Stephen King. It happened only a few days ago in Cocoa, Fla., deep inside one of the most advanced nations in the history of the planet. Neither was it within a culture in which males were still clubbing females over the head and life had no value of itself. This act of supreme indifference to another’s suffering took place in the context of a cherished belief in the sanctity of human life.
That’s what makes it so bloody horrifying. Despite the conviction that our laws and constitutions are firmly rooted in the best of altruistic and religious thought, we can still produce the very antithesis of what that thought represents, even in our young. When they were interviewed after the incident, they showed no remorse and even “smirked” when telling authorities about it. As one thoroughly exasperated social commentator put it, “If our youth are our hope for the future, God help us all.”
In the university courses of my day, the debate between nature and nurture was very much alive. What is the strongest factor in the development of the child in becoming the person they eventually turn out to be? The qualities they were born with or the manner in which they were raised? Are we who we are because of our genes, or the family environment in which an accident of birth placed us? From where came the lack of compassion in those five boys for a fellow human being? Our society seems to want to ascribe blame when things go wrong. So who or what is responsible for these kids and their tragic attitude?
After all the discussions, and after a lifetime of working with and among children and young people, the answer to that question is to me as diverse and complicated as children and adults are themselves. Already the devil has come in for his or her fair share of blame. I’ve heard parents and teachers castigated almost in the same breath. The excesses of our modern culture and the lack of direction young people, especially, seem to find wherever they turn has also been pinpointed as the supreme cause of everything that ails us.
I believe no child is born “bad.” However, we are born with equal potential for intelligence, the capacity to love, to empathize, to learn and so on. As we grow and develop we are continuously besieged by the million and one experiences “that flesh is heir to.” It is how we react to those experiences, and the nature of those experiences themselves, that determines who and what we’ve become. Nothing to do with basic badness — that develops later as we interact with the world around us; in other words, nurture of the potential with which we are all born.
It is with an awareness of this principle that those of us involved with the development of children should teach and parent and treat, and not with the dangerous and silly notion that little children are born bad.
And where should the blame lie for those five kids and countless others like them?
Someone said it in another context and in other words, but the same idea applies.
“I have seen those responsible and they are us.”