The tragic suicide of a freshman Rutgers student this week has been on the front pages of both the written and virtual press. What seems lost in most of the reporting is the issue which is by far the most far-reaching and important. It’s not a question (or shouldn’t be) of whether the two students who contrived to show the victim’s tryst on webcam should be tried at this or that level of Felony. It totally misses the point of what needs to be talked about. New Jersey prosecutors, acting in the obvious role of “this must be my ticket to stardom” are speaking publicly about whether this can be categorized as a “Hate Crime,” and the threat of unimaginably long jail terms for the two students. Once again, my generation, and in this case even X-gen post-boomers, totally miss the key point of what has happened.
We have raised a generation of young people whose entire lives are on display, in public, on webcams, Facebook pages, and other forms which I’m sure I haven’t even heard of yet. These kids grew up with an understanding that because you COULD do something, that perhaps it ought to be tried. In spite of the constant unheeded warnings from the old-fart generation, today’s kids see no real reason NOT to post their lives for all to see. It’s really beyond belief that my generation would ever have thought that wild and raucus video taping at Spring Break - which you know would eventually be seen by the world in general and your folks in particular (Girls Gone Wild) was something that was smart to do. Everyone of the girls and guys in those tapes signed a model release (the producer might be a sleaze, but he’ s no idiot.) I think there must be a feeling that, having seen the promos on television at 3 a.m., there was a veneer of respectability which let their guards down. You see others behaving badly, but with no obvious consequences beyond a really bad headache, you think, “how bad can this be?” So it ends up perpetuating more questionable behaviour.
The kids have had webcams since grade school or Jr. High. It’s their world. That IS their world; they just assume that their lives are meant to be streamed live, that most of what we could consider as “out of bounds” in terms of privacy, are just silly old strictures from the Renaissance or Industrial Revolution (ok, those are a bit far fetched as they have probably never heard of either) which don’t apply to them. It’s as if we inhabit the same places, the same spaces, the same houses, but the essential rules which apply to personal conduct are overlaid, one on the other. We “adults,” and I use the term loosely, tend to have, in spite of our having lived through the “anything goes” 60s and “open book” 70s very different concepts of what ought to be kept to ourselves. If you lack that gene, like our kids do, then it really isn’t such a stretch to assume that a good practical joke, a prank, might be to leave your webcam on while your roommate entertains a visitor.
At the Kappa Sig house at Colorado College, where it was, of course, forbidden to bring girls to your rooms, there was a simple code. (And no, I was never actually lucky enough to try this out personally – so it goes.) If you were bringing a girl to your room you took a wire coat hangar and slid it over the door handle. That way your roommate, even the squarest of the squares, would realize he needed to spend another hour or so at the Tube Room (the sole TV) in the basement, or at the library. However invasive we were of each other during normal daylight hours, and we roamed the halls and rooms in search of essay answers, and chats about hockey, to name a few, there was no getting past that hangar on the door. You just didn’t mess with it.
In a world of co-ed dorms (which began he year after I graduated) and co-ed bathrooms, this all may seem a little antiquated, and perhaps it was. Nothing dispels romantic visions more than over exposure. When Jordan lived at the co-ed Emerson dorms in Boston, I had to admit that I was envious of the fact that living in such close quarters to me seemed to de-mystify the aura of the opposite sex, and made acceptance of each other a much more natural occurrence. Yet, to see the “crime” at Rutgers as a “Hate” crime as some prosecutors and “legal analysts” have done totally misses the point. In a world in which pranksterism lives coequally with self-exposureism, we need to find new ways of speaking to the kids about just what those boundaries ought to be, not have idiotically fanciful discussions about putting two essentially fine young kids in jail for a decade. Once again, my generation responds with the parallel answer of “zero tolerance,” that absolutely thoughtless dictim which proves in a single glance to young people that adults are incapable of sensible thought. No, let’s not worry about jail sentences, but rather, let’s take a minute and talk with our kids about where some of these boundary lines are in a connected web-laced, iChat world, and see if for once, we might be able to share some wisdom than simply stand on the sidelines of life and throw the book. We’re just sayin’…. David