Thursday, December 17, 2009

Adult Behavior is the Best Antidote to Moral Panic

A recently released survey stated what many of us had long suspected, namely that the sexting hysteria is vastly exaggerated. Sexting is merely the latest in a series of overwrought histrionics to consume and articulate the fears of parents. Before that it was rainbow parties. Before that it was sex bracelets. Nothing inflames passions more than the mortal fear that children are being led astray by a culture of evil that is growing more corrupt by the microsecond. This degree of hysteria never stops at those we deem most vulnerable, which is a big part of the problem. In a massive rush to judgment, we impose our will without understanding the context.

To provide a bit of needed contrast, here are a couple examples of past moral panics, which at least to these eyes seem as though they could easily make their way onto today's cable news cycle.

In Victorian Britain, campaigning journalist William Thomas Stead, (editor of the Pall Mall Gazette) procured a 13 year-old girl for £5, an amount then equal to a labourer's monthly wage (see the Eliza Armstrong case). Panic over the "traffic in women" rose to a peak in England in the 1880s. At the time, white slavery was a natural target for defenders of public morality and crusading journalists. The ensuing outcry led to the passage of antislavery legislation in Parliament.

However, it has been reported that the most extreme claims "were almost certainly exaggerated". Investigations of alleged abductions in Victorian England often found that the purported "victims" had participated voluntarily. Still, the "climate of prudery" prevalent in the late Victorian era made for easy scandalization of almost anything sexual, and various prohibitions were enacted. (emphasis mine) Parliament passed the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, raising the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen in that year.

This is, of course, not to say that the fervor over the sex trafficking which continues today has no basis in reality or fact, but rather that once something this patently inflammatory comes to light, for every genuine instance worthy of outrage, someone jumps on board the train to make a profit or to grab the attention of a ravenous public. (See Woods, Tiger, et al.) Nor is this meant to somehow negate the hard work or passion of activists in our age who do us all a great service by voicing and reporting upon the human trafficking of women that occurs on a far too frequent basis. What I am saying is that the real instances of oppression are damaging enough and shocking enough without the need of clearly fabricated cases that effectively bring the matter to a raging boil. When even one eventually disproved example enters the picture, many people have a tendency to lose interest or to discount the entire movement as a whole. All of that hard work for nothing. This may not be fair, but it is the reality any group clamoring for reform must entertain.

Not only that, laws that are enacted to pacify massive societal outcry often find themselves being used for nefarious purposes that their original intent never implied, nor intended.

In our country, a similar panic broke out around the same time as that of the UK.

A subsequent scare occurred in the United States in the early twentieth century, peaking in 1910, when Chicago's U.S. attorney announced (without giving details) that an international crime ring was abducting young girls in Europe, importing them, and forcing them to work in Chicago brothels. These claims, and the panic they inflamed, led to the passage of the United States White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910. It also banned the interstate transport of females for immoral purposes. Its primary intent was to address prostitution and immorality. The act is better known as the Mann Act, after James Robert Mann, an American lawmaker.

The Mann Act was frequently used as a blanket piece of legislation to deliberately ensnare those who happened to defy existing social mores or who spoke out publicly against the status quo. Though usually used to prosecute men involved with loose women or who pursued relationships with underage girls, prosecutors rarely stopped there. Jack Johnson, the World Heavyweight Champion of his age and first Black sports superhero, was unfairly prosecuted under the Mann Act because of his fondness for white women, particularly prostitutes. Though Johnson's dalliances were consensual and not adulterous, he never made any attempt to conceal them, which many a conservative figure found odorous and deplorable. As an aside,

In September, 2008, sixty-two years after Johnson's death, the United States Congress passed a resolution to recommend that the President grant a pardon for his 1913 conviction, in acknowledgment of its racist overtones, and in order to exonerate Johnson and recognize his contribution to boxing. In April 2009, Senator John McCain of Arizona joined Representative Peter T. King of New York in a call for a posthumous pardon for the boxing legend by President Barack Obama.

Charlie Chaplin's unashamed leftist views led him to be indicted under the auspices of the Mann Act, damaging his reputation and leading him to leave the United States to live in exile in Switzerland for the rest of his life. The Mann Act seems to be an equal opportunity offender of sorts, since even women found themselves on the wrong side of the law, as Canadian author Elizabeth Smart found out in the 1940's. One would have thought by now that we would have learned that legislating morality is both a very bad idea and quite impossible. Still, some persist in pushing it, even though the end result almost always backfires.

Going back to the idea of protecting children and teenagers by way of communal panicked cry, gallons of ink, and legion of self-proclaimed experts in the field, I think at times many of us believe that while we might not be able to control our own impulses or desires or even control the forces which push us in directions we do not wish to go, we can at least assert our force of will upon our children or, for that matter, someone else's children. However, that is a very dangerous and deeply unfair assertion upon which to base any act, because it completely removes free will from the equation. The Mann Act might have been crafted to protect women at face value, but it ended up being applied in the same ways and to the same extent that keep women from having control over their own bodies or from being able to make their own decisions for themselves. This condescendingly Paternalist point of view persists into our day and the sexting nontroversy is part and parcel of it. If only we could, in all seriousness, claim that we know better.

Simply because adolescents aren't legal adults yet doesn't mean that they can't make informed, healthy choices for themselves. Teens are probably much more inclined to use their sexuality in responsible ways then we give them credit for, but instead we are consumed with the ones who don't. This would be like believing all citizens of a country are exactly like its law-breakers. Furthermore, it's a myth that adults are somehow supremely evolved enough that they don't end up exhibiting childish behavior on a frequent basis. We like to believe otherwise, of course, but all one needs to do is read the first ten comments on any web forum and that assertion flies right out the window. No troll I have ever met could ever be confused as mature and rational. Many of them are likely older than I am, and I'm merely pushing 30. The superficial facade we display to the world outside of the internet apparently stops the instant we log on and start typing madly away.

A quote from the movie American Beauty has stuck with me over the years. In it, Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey's character, describes the struggles of his rebellious daughter, Jane.

Janie's a pretty typical teenager. Angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that's all going to pass, but I don't want to lie to her.

True. But it doesn't mean we have to linger in a state of arrested development, either. Immediately after I reflect upon this quote, a very familiar refrain comes to mind, one that has grown truer and truer with every passing year.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I no longer used childish ways. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Trust, love, respect, hope, faith, empathy, and compassion. These are adult traits and these are virtues which promise not just the assumption of the mantle of adulthood, but bring us into greater community with our fellow person. Once having adopted these things, there is no need for moral panic. Upon living them, there is understanding in the place of fear, love in the place of hate, shared purpose in the place of division, trust in the place of suspicion, and compassion in the place of anger. I would hope that we would wish to negate the charges of hypocrisy slung back and forth like some unceasing war with no end game ever even proposed. The boldest example we give to our children and to other peoples' children is our own conduct and our own behavior. We lead by example in ways we cannot even begin to fathom.

1 comment:

Clarissa said...

Great post, Comrade.

I believe that the reasons for this hysteria over sexting and rainbow parties lie in the repressed puritanical nature of this society. Screeching aabout the imagined sexual excesses of teenagers allows their sex-deprived parents to express their repressed sexual fantasies in a legitimate public manner.