It's all fun until somebody gets hurt." Anyone who hasn't heard that line at least once while growing up was raised by wolves. It's a universal, cross-cultural warning, ubiquitous and popular because it's true.
Case in point is the late Ms. Audrie Pott. By all accounts a gregarious, charming daughter of a middle-class suburban family, the 15-year-old made the fateful decision to drink herself into a stupor among what she thought were her friends. They weren't.
Ms. Pott was sexually assaulted while passed out. She awoke to find her body covered with comments such as "X was here" written in indelible ink. Worse, the crime was photographed. Worse yet, photographs were circulated via text messages, with commentary that was anything but sympathetic. Ms. Pott will never be 16 years old. She hanged herself last September. The last comment her mother remembers from her?
"I can't do this any more."
Why did this crime happen? Because, as one of the alleged assailants said during a police interview, "it would be fun" to humiliate the young woman. Why did no one - outside the group privy to the photographs and commentary - know about this horror? Because, as a person familiar with both the incident and the accused remarked to the police, "I didn't want to throw anyone under the bus."
Ms. Pott is not alone. Her death echoes that of other teens both in cause and surrounding indifference. We don't have comprehensive statistics, but suicide is the third-leading cause of death in teens, and studies both in the UK and by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control suggest that about 45 percent are provoked by bullying, including cyberbullying - a particularly virulent form of this sociopathy.
From where do these behaviors come? Why has childhood in the United States insensibly morphed into a version of "Lord of the Flies," only with better food, shelter and instant communications? Look in the mirror.
We all secretly crave the vicious rumor, the nasty innuendo, the open slight and hidden smear. We all like to see our fellow humans humiliated and shamed, especially if they are somehow different from ourselves. That's why negative political campaigns work. It's why people felt perfectly comfortable accusing a 2012 presidential candidate of being an accessory to murder. Not to mention that whole pitch-granny-off-a-cliff-to-her-death thing.
We like hate; its simplicity is comforting. Hence, the "1 percent." So are stereotypes, which is why all the readers on the left end of the spectrum are smirking. They shouldn't, before they consider how they feel about the Catholic church's refusal to approve of adoptions by gay couples, for example. Lack of consideration for another's point of view is not a problem exclusive to any part of the political spectrum. It's endemic in our society, which is why the president thinks it entirely appropriate to puff himself up with righteous anger when politically thwarted, and why the National Rifle Association will be accused of murder when the next mass killing with firearms occurs.
What can we do to halt the tide of coarsening, not only of our political discourse, but also in our social relations? What can we do about a society that tells 16-year-old boys that it is perfectly fine to write crudities on an incapacitated young woman, and humiliate her with photographs later? Or that being a member of an exclusive group is more important than empathy, even if the absence of that most precious human gift results in suicide?
A solution will require our society to do a difficult thing: take a serious look at itself. What are our goals? To succeed at all costs? To feel good about ourselves regardless of accomplishments? Self-indulgence? Taking the easy way out? All these attitudes, deeply rooted in service to the ego, will have to be attenuated if we want to heal the social malaise and soul-sickness that results in a society so disordered that the sort of crime suffered by the late Ms. Pott is not a once-in-a-lifetime, but a once-a-month, event.
It won't be an easy task, and it won't be quick. It will require an adjustment of public attitudes about many things including responsibility; empathy; reticence; guilt and shame. Because these are social constructs, doing this will take agreement among the elements of our society, and a unity of approach to instilling them in coming generations. Everyone will have to be involved: educators, politicians, religious leaders, businesses and yes - families. Doing this may not be popular at first. But it must be done, before we find ourselves drawing lots to determine who will be the next Audrie Pott.
And the one after that...
Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.