The incident at the Lincoln Memorial involving a group of boys from Covington High has become a national Rorschach Test. Some see a group of privileged white teens taunting a Native American with a peace drum. Others see a group of school kids who did little to nothing wrong.
People are entitled to disagree, but what is completely unacceptable is the level of violent imagery directed at kids by adults. The respected journalist Reza Aslan tweeted "Honest question. Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid's?" A writer for Saturday Night Live offered oral sex for anyone who managed to punch one of the kids in the face. Trevor Noah let these school kids know that not only did "everyone" want to punch these boys out, but he did too. The list goes on and on.
The violent rhetoric escalated, as violent rhetoric tends to do. The entertainment news website Vulture had to fire a writer after he wrote "I just want these people to die. Simple as that. Every single one of them." The school had to be temporarily closed as a result of death threats.
These are adults talking about harming children! It can't be excused as a joke. It can't be explained away as "the heat of moment." Many threats and much abuse takes place in the heat of the moment. High tempers are no excuse.
All this has a highly gendered aspect to it. It is very hard to imagine Reza Aslan or Trevor Noah saying that they want to punch out a 17 year old girl. There has been a lot of talk about boys and "toxic masculinity" lately and conversations about masculinity are well worth having. But the Covington High incident shows that we are far too quick to believe the worst about boys and too quick to reach for images of violence in retribution for their perceived sins. What could be more toxic for America's school boys than their having the sense that they are objects of suspicion and that adults are this ready to wish them harm?
When these high school boys move on to college, they will encounter a world where too many adults think that, because boys and young men are so dangerous, pain is actually good for them. The influential journalist Ezra Klein has written that college men (and only men) need to feel real fear before any sexual encounter: "Because for one in five women to report an attempted or completed sexual assault means that everyday sexual practices on college campuses need to be upended, and men need to feel a cold spike of fear when they begin a sexual encounter." (A post in the near future will discuss the claim one in five women have been the victim or sexual assault of attempted sexual assault.)
At Vassar College, an Associate Dean once went as far as to say even the pain inflicted on young college men who have been falsely accused of sexual assault is good for them:
To use the word [rape] carefully would be to be careful for the sake of the violator, and the survivors don't care a hoot about them. . . .[wrongly accused students] have a lot of pain, but it not a pain that I would necessarily have spared them. I think it ideally initiates a process of self-exploration. 'How do I see women?' 'If I didn't violate her, could I have'? 'Do I have the potential to do to her what they say I did?' Those are good questions.
This is not how boys and young men should be growing up. Adults are going to have to be a lot more restrained, a lot more thoughtful, and a lot more careful with their language. Don't we know by now that violence, pain and fear are not the answer? Can't we at least start by not saying threatening things to children and not wishing bad things on even innocent young college men?