Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Steubenville, Choices, and a Culture of Ableism

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

If you are a member of my generation, you probably recognize this quote. (Hint: It's from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I can't cite the page number because I don't have the book in front of me, so if J.K. Rowling or any of the people at Bloomsbury or Scholastic are reading this, please don't sue me.)

But anyway, going back to that quote. It's the kind of quote that goes up in classroom posters and facebook profiles. (Remember when facebook had a "favorite quotes" section? Those were the days.) It's also, unfortunately, the kind of quote that everyone conveniently forgets when, say, a couple of talented high school football players rape a drunk sixteen-year-old girl.

There was a lot of outrage over the way several major broadcasting companies (CNN, MSNBC, Fox) seemed to consider the "guilty" verdict more tragic than the crime itself. Take this quote from CNN's Poppy Harlow:

"Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart."

This quote is not just a symptom of a sexist society--a society that shames women for expressing their sexuality and then disregards their right to put boundaries on it--but it also shows the deep-seated ableism that underlies many of our values. Our society admires people who are smart, strong, beautiful, talented, and outgoing--and the people who are lucky enough to possess these attributes are much more likely to get away with breaking the rules. Why? Because our society is more repulsed by the idea of stripping away a talented person's potential for success than by the act of traumatizing a young woman. If the school outcast had raped this girl, would anyone take his side? Or what about a man suffering from mental illness? If that rapist were sent to jail, people would say he deserved it--that he "has no place in society."

I'm not going to pretend these boys don't have it bad. America's prison system is terrible, and it's hard enough to get a job in this economy without having a criminal past. So yes, in a way, this jury severely "debilitated" these boys. (But then again, there was a well-known neuroscientist at UPenn who was sent to jail for raping a prospective student--and he's now working as a research consultant at the university where I work. Apparently, if you're a enough of a big shot, then a rape charge isn't that much of a deterrent.)

But to focus on the tragedy of debilitating these boys is to ignore what our good friend Albus Dumbledore taught us all those years ago--it's not about ability, but about choice. And, well, let's be honest--these boys made a really bad choice.

This is especially important, because smart, sociable athletes often grow into our society's leaders--and if it's a choice between the kind of leaders who know nothing but success vs. those leaders who respect other people and make thoughtful, considerate choices, I don't have to tell you which option I'd pick.

[This post seemed very wise and worldly when I composed it in my head, but now that I've actually written it down, it feels like I just wasted a whole post on stating the obvious. But then again, if this were obvious to everyone, I probably wouldn't feel the need to write it.]

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