With all the uproar over the shootings of Michael Brown and now Anthony Robinson, I’m very definitely getting the impression that both the protesters and the media are simplifying the situations to the point of tragic absurdity in their single-minded focus on police bias and misbehavior. And no, I’m not condoning any police incompetence, bias, or excessive use of force. But there’s another critical factor that is being totally overlooked. And it’s very fundamental.
Teenagers and even adults in their very early twenties are stupid in their lack of judgment. Virtually all of them, black, brown, white, multi-racial, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered, it doesn’t matter. Their brains are reprogramming themselves, and people in this age group make a far greater percentage of bad decisions than they will at any other time in their life. They allow peer pressure to override better judgments because belonging becomes a paramount value. They make unwise spur-of-the-moment decisions based on how they feel right at that instant. They become so focused on the moment that they’ll ignore the dangers involved in texting/cell phones while walking and driving to the point of getting themselves injured or killed or killing someone else. Their hormones are raging and readjusting, and the combination of hormonal and neural readjustment taking place simultaneously often results in poor judgment.
This is nothing new. Societies have known this behavior pattern for millennia, even if they haven’t understood the cause. They also imposed, in various ways, fairly stringent social codes… and the understanding that there were definite and often fatal consequences for bad judgment. For a myriad of reasons, in American society today, the entire thought that there are indeed consequences for actions has been minimized. Add first to that the fact that our advanced technology multiplies the impact of bad judgment. Add second that the pie-in-the-sky idea that any child can do anything. This combination has proved, and will continue to prove, deadly, especially to those young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
A number of the recent high-profile incidents in which young blacks have been killed began with illegal actions that escalated into confrontations. In a good many cases, the police officer felt his life was threatened, and certainly in some, the officer was injured before he fired a weapon. Everyone is asking why the police had to use force, possibly excessive force, and that is a good question, and one that needs to be asked, and answered, and those answers used as the basis for improving policing.
But no one I’ve seen is asking the other question. Why didn’t any of these young individuals understand the fact that there were likely to be adverse consequences for their actions, possibly severe ones — even if the police had managed to avoid using excessive force? Where were the adults who should have pointed out that even petty crimes can blight one’s future? Just recently, the actor Mark Wahlberg petitioned the governor of Massachusetts for a pardon to remove a minor felony conviction from his record because that record of conviction could make it difficult if not impossible to engage in certain business activities. If the white and wealthy Wahlberg is having trouble over one felony conviction, shouldn’t that suggest to minority youth – and their parents — that it’s a very good idea not to engage in illegal activities, that is if they want the best possible future? Or that, even if the police are arrogant and high-handed, getting into a confrontation on the street isn’t exactly conducive to future happiness and success?
This lack of understanding of consequences isn’t a problem confined to minorities, either. My wife, the university professor, deals with it on a daily basis. A significant percentage of first-year college students seem to think they shouldn’t be downgraded for failing to turn in reports on time… or failing to show up for lessons or classes. Many are so thin-skinned that even telling them that they need to improve brings tears to their eyes [and that includes young men]. The music department holds auditions for admittance to the program and to determine which students will get financial aid based on vocal ability. The audition dates are posted on the departmental website, and all students who have expressed an interest are also informed well in advance. Yet applications flood in well after the dates, often even after acceptances have been sent and scholarships awarded. Then there are the college students who don’t understand that they can flunk a class that is largely participation, such as chorus, if they don’t attend. Students are often stunned when they lose financial aid after their grade point average drops to unacceptable levels – but they have more than enough time for partying and social media.
The issue of rape on college campuses is another example – cases of young men from “outstanding” backgrounds not even considering the implications for them and their future – and the fact that such a felony on their record will close off most professional occupations, assuming they can even finish college after a prison sentence.
My niece, a high school art teacher who has won a number of awards for her art and teaching, was verbally assaulted by an angry parent who wanted to know how his son could be flunked from an art course. The parent either didn’t seem to understand that never turning in an assignment for the entire semester and missing a huge percentage of classes was an easy “F” or didn’t even know that his son was such a flake-off.
All across our culture, the message these young people are getting is that the consequences for failing to act responsibly are minimal… and that it’s all the teacher’s fault, or the administrator’s, or the police officer’s. Where are the parents and adults who should be pointing out, early on, that actions have consequences, and that failure to act responsibly can have permanent, if not deadly, consequences?
No…the police and the educators are far from blameless, but blaming it all on them is also a deadly societal cop-out, and it’s also incredibly hypocritical when the police are under immense public pressure to reduce crime and when teachers take all too much of the blame for parental shortcomings.