by Barry Edelson


Disgraced Unto Death


We Should Not Confuse the Tools of Humiliation
with the Enduring Reality of Human Cruelty


In Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "My Kinsman, Major Molineux", an inexperienced young man arrives in a strange town. He spends an anxious evening trying to find the house of his relative, Major Molineux, a prominent man who, he hopes, will help him make his way in the world. He does not understand why no one in the town will help him, until, at the end of the story, he sees his kinsman, tarred and feathered, being paraded through the streets. The townspeople laugh at the spectacle, and the boy's reaction is to laugh along with them.

The story comes to mind following the appalling suicide of an 18-year-old Rutgers University student, who was apparently videotaped secretly by his roommate and another student while having sex in his dorm room. This private encounter was transmitted over the Internet, presumably because the perpetrators of this adolescent prank thought it was amusing. The young man's subsequent leap to his death from the George Washington Bridge has caused an uproar of hand-wringing and recrimination, most of it sadly beside the point.

Too much of the response to this incident has centered around the phenomenon that has come to be known as "cyberbullying". Too much attention has been paid to the incidental fact that this vicious act was perpetrated digitally. What possible difference does that make? Is the deliberate disgrace of another human being no less a crime when it is undertaken in the "real" world? Did the human species learn to laugh at other people's humiliation only with the advent of the Internet? It is frankly shameful that any university should worry about the civility of its students, and implement programs to address it, only in response to abuse in cyberspace.

Humans did not learn to laugh
at other people's humiliation
in the Internet Age.

Laws have been written in many states ostensibly to protect people, primarily young people, from being victims of digital-age intimidation and humiliation. But any sensible person who has spent any time occupied in the supervision of teenagers knows that the unformed cerebral cortex of an individual under the age of 25 is largely impervious to threats of deterrence. The fear of consequences even as severe as death is insufficient to deter many young people from destructive and self-destructive behavior. Legislation against such behavior, whether parental admonition, campus rule or government statute, does almost nothing to prevent adolescents from acting as such, and serves only to mete out punishment after the fact. In this case, the awful fact was a boy's decision that he no longer wished to live in a world in which such disgrace was possible.

The other issue that is utterly beside the point is that of homosexuality. Gay advocacy groups and prominent gay individuals have been indignant about the discrimination implicit in the filming and exposing of a homosexual encounter. It may very well be that his being outed in such a reprehensible way contributed to this particular young man's despondency, but no one speaking out on this point really knows that. Is it really so hard to imagine a sensitive and deeply private young person being just as humiliated by being depicted, nude and in sexual congress, with a member of the opposite sex? Imagine a secret video of you and someone you love having sex, someone with whom you enjoy a fulfilling relationship in full knowledge of the world, suddenly showing up on line? Unless you are an exhibitionist, you would be deeply offended and most likely compelled to seek legal redress.

We have rapidly come to accept as a truism that today's young people have different notions of privacy than their forebears, and that the proliferation of social media has turned them all into purveyors of self-generated pornography of varying degrees of explicitness. Clearly not all of them, as evidenced by this one boy's suicide, and many others victimized in equally harrowing fashion. In any event, generalizations about how social media have changed the culture must be tempered with the realization that Facebook was launched only in 2004, and that legions of its users have not yet reached the age of consent, let alone a time in their lives when they will wake up to the awful reality of a life without privacy. What would the totalitarian governments of yore have given to have had tens of millions of their citizens voluntarily expose the most intimate details of their personal lives? This party of exhibitionism has only just begun. Regrets over its drunken debauchery still lie over the horizon.

A generation before Hawthorne's story was written, Jane Austen has Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice say, "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?" For every generation through the ages of humanity, the disgrace of one's fellow creatures has been a source of entertainment and relief. But a thread of moral and ethical restraint has also been woven into our sordid history. Sociopaths notwithstanding, no one doesn't understand that the public humiliation of another person is a despicable act. Even a drunken or stoned teenager, egged on by his loutish peers, performs such an act precisely because of the hurt he knows it will cause. We have indeed put powerful tools into the hands of irresponsible children, but the tools that human beings employ to destroy their fellow creatures are utterly irrelevant. We are forever building more lethal weapons. Like Major Molineux's unworldly kinsman, we must all learn to live in a world in which compassion and magnanimity coexist with unbearable pain and cruelty, or die trying.

October 17, 2010


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