Friday, August 30, 2013

Conversations We Need to Have

August 30, 2013

There has been a good bit of talk about the need for a national conversation about race. The President has been presidential in helping us think about what is needed. He is right about the need for a conversation, but I would like to suggest that there are two other conversations we need to have as well.  I write from the heart of the academy where we have been trying with mixed success to have these conversations for a long time.

We need to talk about race and inclusion. We need to talk about the challenges of being young and black, young and Latino, young and gay. But we also need to have a conversation about what it means to be young, lonely and caught up in the hook-up culture where sexuality, commitment and the need to find meaning for one’s life lead to fragile relationships and non-existent families.

This is a story as old as human kind but in our day where we can know sexual satisfaction without the possibility of pregnancy, it takes on new dimensions.  When there are no consequences for sexual activity, what does “No” really mean? How do we learn that what gives me pleasure may give someone else great pain for a lifetime? And if we are gone when the sun rises, who really knows the cost of the encounter. Are there really no victims?

Too often young men are still schooled to view sexual conquest as a marker of manhood and young women have learned that they too can measure attractiveness by their conquests. Never mind the growing data about sexually transmitted diseases. How about the shallow humanity that measures value by the ability to father a child or worth as the ability to bear a child who gives meaning to a young woman’s life in an otherwise loveless environment. And who cares about the ability to nurture and care for the life you have created?

What we have seen happening in Texas where in the name of limiting abortion the predominately male lawmakers have voted into law a plan that would effectively end the medical services offered to poor women illustrates the point. Limit abortions but do nothing to limit unwanted pregnancies because helping young men keep their pants zipped does not have the political appeal limiting abortions has. In a world where football is king you need to keep women in their place. The lesson of the Steubenville rape case does not seem to have sunk in.

I have intentionally linked football and sexual activity to bridge the distance to our next needed conversation.  We need to talk about athletic success. We have told our children that no does not mean no and built around that misinformation a lot of structures that confuse and give comfort to those who really think women are the problem: they really do not know what they want. But in doing that we have created a culture where athletes are larger than life  and where second place is unacceptable. Is it any wonder we have a problem with performance enhancing drugs?

To tell people that being second is unacceptable and that you ought to do anything you can do to win and then also telling them that taking advantage of drugs that help you win is unacceptable can certainly muddy the water. Come on! Winning is everything; it is all that counts, right? So now we are saying that is not true. Ok, but let’s not be surprised when a few do not get the message. And of course lying is wrong, except when it is in the service of a greater good.

So let us have a real conversation about race as uncomfortable as it makes us. Let us be grateful that we have a President who is willing to take a learning moment and remind us all of the responsibilities we have to our children. But let’s also tell those children that we have not been the best of parents when we gave them Rhett Butler as a role model in Gone with the Wind, or when we winked when we found out that Charles Lindbergh, in addition to being anti-Semitic was also the father of seven children out of wedlock with three different women.
It should be no surprise then that we ignore professional athletes who left not only broken hearts wherever they went, but also issues of child support.

We were wrong to tell you that being second was not good enough. Beer and the Babe hit sixty home runs. No wonder Barry Bonds thought a few other substances might help as well. And if we didn’t tell you that one lie leads to another, we are sorry. We knew that. The point is that we have lots of things to talk about and there is not enough time, but we have to start somewhere and now is the moment.

Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute.