Popular Culture: Who's Responsible For Mean People?

Is our culture responsible for mean people?

Posted Aug 10, 2009

Talk about hitting a man when he's down, literally and figuratively. Did you read the New York Times article on Friday about the surge in attacks on the homeless, many by so-called thrill offenders? There's even a genre of on line entertainment called "bum fight" videos that get posted on the Internet. In other words, young men beat up and set fire to these helpless victims for fun and profit. If I weren't such a civilized person, I would suggest a public flogging for all those convicted and their being forced to wear a t-shirt that reads: "I'm mean and I'm stupid."

The article reminded me of an appearance I made on Fox News a few years ago where I was asked to comment on a case in which two teenage boys videotaped themselves getting their five-year-old nephew high on marijuana while the child's mother was sleeping in the next room. Like the homeless assaults, such a profound and wanton of irresponsibility, callousness, and stupidity made me really wonder what how civilized our society actually is.

During my Fox News appearance, I emphasized that the perpetrators should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. At the same time, I suggested that such thoughtless acts do not occur in a vacuum. Somehow, these young men-and they are almost always young men-got the message that it is not only okay, but downright fun to take prey on people who are helpless to fight back. I added that our society holds some responsibility for these action as well. The legal pundit on the show immediately challenged me, asking who or what in our society told those two boys to get their young nephew high. But she was seeing the trees, but missing the forest. Of course, our society didn't teach these young men those specific behaviors, but it does send powerful messages, through parents, peers, and the media, about what is acceptable and what is not. These boys, and those who beat the homeless, somehow "missed the class" in which they subject was responsibility, compassion, empathy, and decision making.

There are likely a variety of contributors to such antisocial behavior. Poor education, economic hopeless, lack of an intact family, and a sense of disenfranchisement among young men can all "prime the pump" from which this senseless violence pours. Add in a popular culture that worships violence and plenty of unhealthy role models to turn to in film, music, and video games, and you have a boiling cauldron of frustration and anger with no healthy outlet.

So the question is: how do we get these and other young men to get the message? Yes, appropriate punishment is required for those who act so stupidly and cruelly. But deterrent has not proved to be effective. We need to understand the causes of this behavior and develop interventions that attack the root causes. But before that can happen we need to get the same message that we want these young men to get, that we as a society are partly culpable for their actions. Once we can accept that responsibility, we then have the power to institute change. We must look at ourselves as a society in the mirror, honestly assess what kind of culture we have created, and ask ourselves whether this is the culture in which we want to live and raise our children.

Am I optimistic about changing our culture for the better? At a macro level, sadly, no. There are just too many forces out there that are too powerful, mainly a popular culture that cares nothing about people and only about making money. Yet I retain hope at the micro level, with families, schools, and houses of worship. My greatest hope is that enough people will "think globally, but act locally" until the tide turns toward a society in which such obvious values as responsibility and compassion are the assumption, not the exception.