Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Fresh Prince, Pop Tart Guns, and the Klan

It's not exactly a secret that the official stance of this blog is that society is slowly degenerating into a morass of weak-willed pussydom, but it's rare that this particular aspect of Western civilization manifests itself by being so obviously apparent and occurring with such alarming frequency. As a representative sample, in case you haven't been paying attention in the past week or so:
  • A Maryland boy was recently suspended because he bit his Pop Tart into the shape of a gun. And when I say "shape of a gun" I mean "something vaguely resembling something that has a handle and a point but in nearly every other way does not, indeed, look anything like a weapon, because it is, in fact a Pop Tart." True, he held the Pop Tart like a gun and pointed it at people, but that is beside the fact that it is, in fact, a Pop Tart. And while the weapon was loaded with ammunition, that ammunition was strawberry jam, long held to be the biggest offender in breakfast pastry weaponry. Sadly, the only thing the gun-shaped Pop Tart was capable of attacking was his arteries.
  • A school in Pennsylvania recently had a total lockdown--including a terrifying afternoon where people weren't told exactly what was going on--because a student had a ring tone of the lyrics to the theme song from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." You see, the lyric "shooting some b-ball outside of the school" sounded a little bit too much like "shooting people outside of the school." Despite the fact that this was clearly a ring tone of a song and not an actual human being making any sort of threat, a (no doubt) well-meaning secretary pulled the trigger, so to speak, and called the cops. The best part of this story is the vision of half a dozen school administrators gathered around a cell phone interpreting the lyrics to a TV theme song from the 90's to see if a kid got to go to the shrink or not.
  • Finally, Oberlin College recently cancelled classes for an entire day because there was a report of someone walking around campus wearing a Klan hood. The day was instead spent in discussions with students and faculty about handling the situation. After investigation, however, it appears that the supposed Klansman was most likely simply a woman wearing a blanket.
I'm not one to draw broad, tinfoil-hat conclusions based on a few anecdotes, but since this sort of thing can't really be quantified and regressed, it's the best we've got. In each of these cases, someone whose imagination is actively looking for threats and dangers misinterpreted the real situation, and the reaction was well out of line for what ended up being the case.

Obviously, none of these incidents occurred in a vacuum. Zero-tolerance laws about pretend guns are well known in our school system, but that doesn't make it any less realistic (or justified) when we hear about it. The Oberlin incident occurred after a month of racial incidents and tension, so everyone on campus was already nervous.

Still, the broad idea in our society is that we should be "better safe than sorry," but I'm not so sure that is the case. Certainly, after recent events involving mass shootings, everyone is looking for any sign to prevent such disasters from happening again, but the cold fact is that mass violent incidents are incredibly rare.

Are the overreactions to miscommunications doing a lot more harm than we think? Given the first two examples above, people acting normally and without any ounce of hostility suddenly find themselves suspended from school or causing a lockdown and terrifying the entire student body for what turns out to be absolutely no reason at all. Are students simply going to shut themselves down for fear of triggering some unknown, severe reaction? Are kids going to become less creative and more submissive to authority simply because it's been psychologically beaten in to them? Remember, these aren't incidents were teachers are trying to control the students, which has at least some justification given the nature of having a building full of cranky, energetic, and (later) hormone-driven kids. These are incidents were cops are called in after kids do something innocent, and they aren't going to be screwing around when some presumably credible middle-aged secretary calls in a potential shooting.

There is also the very real danger of heightening the sense of false alarm. When everything gets called a crisis, then people (and especially kids) start not caring quite so much. What happens when the next lockdown happens for no reason? How long will it take before everyone stops taking it seriously because someone make a Cinnamonster grenade or played the theme song from Full House too loud? I'm not really trying to be facetious, but there is a real problem. People aren't going to treat every pastry bomb like a school shooting; they're going to treat every school shooting like a pastry bomb.

This is, of course, not necessarily limited to our educational system. (School are just more visible because everyone is willing to pay any cost regardless of rationale or reason when they can justify it by crying out "Think of the children!" as loudly as possible to drown out anyone foolish enough to argue with that parent.) The definition of a "crisis" has devalued itself so much that it's hard to determine where the line is anymore. Crises used to be triggered when the Commies were landing in Seattle or a president got assassinated. Now it's a red-banner, screen-scrolling disaster when milk hits six dollars a gallon or two cable companies are going to merge or it takes an extra half hour to vote once every four years.

And I am, in fact, going to borrow that tinfoil hat for a moment, if you don't mind. Once something is deemed a disaster, it's generally bad enough that only one entity has the authority to fix it, and that happens to be the government. But now that we've devalued the concept of a crisis, it means more justification for the government to act with the consent and even active appreciation by the population, who is now conditioned to think that everything is a crisis, and only the government can solve crises. (OK, you can have it back now.)

How did we get here? I don't know, but I'm sure there are plenty of sociological explanations. I think it is twofold: first, we've painted an idealized vision of how the world should operate. We want to have the freedom do do what we want, but we want to snatch that freedom away as soon as a percentage point of danger shows up on the radar. People are naturally risk-averse, but we've gotten to the point where the costs of dealing with prevention are so low because we're able to pass that cost on to everyone else.  Secondly, we've become increasingly content with simply ceding authority to deal with the difficult stuff to various agencies--whether they be schools, corporations or the government--and then justifying away the negative aspects of the consequences of doing so. Sadly, it's also become normal for people who resist this to simply be dismissed as warmed-over red-baiters and modern-day Birchers. (Apparently all of my political culture references are from 1958.) There's also a certain amount of generational divide going on, as the generation brought up with the dreaded bogeyman of self-esteem programs encapsulated with promises of technological prosperity that have yet to be delivered suddenly find that the entire world isn't under their control.

So where do we go from here? I don't know the answer to that, because it's going to involve a tectonic shift in our modern culture that I don't think will be either easy or fast or even desirable by most people. My fear is that, in the near future, the costs of false alarms are going to be much, much greater than a day of missed classes, and the consequences of such alarms are going to correlate less and less to actually solving the crisis and more with pushing some sort of agenda.

The Pledge: Cowboy up, folks. Not everything is a crisis, and not all crises can be solved. If we don't learn how to deal with that, we--as a society--are going to simply grind to a halt.

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