It's Individual Responsibility, Not Community
For a group of teen-age high schoolers in a small town on the Ohio River near the conjunction of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, life changed forever last week. Actually, it changed several weeks before, the moment at least two young boys, 16 and 17, sexually violated a 16-year-old girl at a drunken weekend party. More charges against more teen-agers, who not only stood by and did nothing, but filmed the event and put it on the internet, are pending.
Nothing about the incident is redeeming, not even the guilty verdict which sends two high school football players to juvenile detainment for one year in one instance, and two years in the other. The rape verdict will stick with the two for the rest of their lives; the rape and violation will haunt the girl for the rest of her life. Others who stood by and did nothing or filmed the debauchery will be tagged for life, one way or another.
The initial thrust of the story was about the impact on the small town of Steubenville, a town damaged badly when its steel industry folded. That impact view included concern for its football team and the unity of the town. Perhaps that gave the story context, or, even explained away, to an extent, the abhorrent behavior of the teen-agers. However, this is not a story about a town, its struggles, its pride. This is a story about individual behavior and its consequences, something we too often bury with narratives about hard times, poverty, inequality, or psychological trauma.
There really are no excuses, and such behavior, not necessarily of this sexual nature, nor not exclusive of it either, occurs in communities all across the country. Whatever the cultural or sociological or psychological rationalizations are given, the fact is society is becoming ruder, cruder, more violent, and the sense of individual responsibility is diminishing.
Let's take a look at what happened in Steubenville.
It's a weekend and a group of teen-agers, apparently not a fringe group, decide to have a party. Not only is there beer but hard liquor, too. The young girl, the victim, is drinking vodka. According to friends, she is rolling on the floor. She's out of control. The party moves and she moves with it in a car with at least two boys. One is a "friend" who is filmed violating her. By the time they arrive at the next party, another house (where are the parents?), she's nearly comatose. They drag her around like a dead body, nude. She's violated again. Other kids film the incident.
Eventually, one puts it on YouTube. Kids text each other about it. No one intervenes. The girl wakes up the next day without clothes and apparently without recall about what went on. Then she hears about the filming and watches the video. She gets a call from one of the boys who is later convicted of rape. He tells her not to say anything. Everyone runs for cover and her mother takes her to the hospital to be checked. The evidence, however, is on the film. And, it was enough to convict.
There were no heroes that night. No one came to her rescue. No one apparently even texted that what was going on was wrong. No one spoke to anyone else. They texted: impersonal, uninvolved, watchers, vicarious participants, insensitive bystanders, uncaring. These are teen-agers in a tight community who know each other. But they don't communicate anywhere on a human level.
Was there any sense of individual moral responsibility? Some witnesses were forced to testify. I suspect that there will be considerable community bitterness toward the victim, toward those who were forced to come forward, and even to those who testified against the girl and for the defense. Undoubtedly, the community will seek to come together, to forgive, to forget, to heal or maybe to rationalize. The question is whether anyone will address the issue of individual actions and responsibilities and the dumb old question of right or wrong. Might be too old fashioned, too much tinged with religion and lessons of moral behavior, and contrary to the popular need to deal with "feelings" and "sexual expressions" or "acting out".
The continued desensitization of our society, whether toward rudeness, crudeness, sexuality, or violence, and the failure to address the fundamental battle between good and evil does not bode well for our society.