September has been a grim month. Three boys—15-year old Billy Lucas in Indiana, and 13-year olds Asher Brown in Texas and Seth Walsh in California—took their own lives after being subjected to relentless anti-gay bullying in school.
And then, just one day before this miserable September ended, news came of another tragedy. This time, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year old college student, believed it was better to jump off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River 600 feet below rather than live through being outed and humiliated at the hands of his homophobic roommate who streamed video of Tyler’s sexual encounter with a “dude” for the world to see.
I suppose the best one could hope for is that the roommate now understands that it was a stupid, terrible impulse on which to act. And that he knows, now, that a single stupid act can have unimaginable consequences that rip a jagged tear through time and people’s lives.
A few months ago, researchers at the University of Michigan issued a study reporting that today’s college students display significantly less empathy than their peers from 30 years ago. Their data showed that the decline had grown precipitously in the last 10 years. They speculated that overexposure to media had desensitized an entire generation.
I did not want to believe the study. I did not want to believe that a rising generation had less empathy than those that came before. I did not want to believe that new technology, which holds such promise for forging new communities, would instead desensitize its natives to the humanity around them.
But I wonder. A colleague told me about a website popular with the students in the college class she teaches. I will not name it. It features a person who deliberately race-baits and pulls “pranks” on marginalized people. Gleefully, her students described the episode in which the protagonist, posing as a contractor, packs his truck with Latino day laborers, makes hateful remarks during the ride that they don’t understand, pulls up to a federal immigration office and tells them to get out, this is where the work is. He then removes a whistle from his pocket and blows it loudly. The pay-off for viewers, the boffo moment, is the sight of the workers scurrying off in all directions.
Some will say that the audience for this sort of entertainment—and for the illicit sex video filmed in a college dorm room—are sophomoric college students who will, in time grow up and become responsible adults.
Let’s hope so. And let’s dedicate ourselves anew to the work needed to make it more than a hope.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.