What do you feed a person, family… or an entire generation to give it an understanding of right and wrong, good and evil? How do you feed the concept of good and evil at all?
For what it’s worth, I was raised Episcopal, sang in the choir, and was an acolyte (you light candles and snuff them out). The Ten Commandments were taught to me as well, though at the tender age of seven, the words didn’t register. They just didn’t. I also had no idea what coveting thy neighbor’s wife meant. I knew it was supposed to be wrong…I just didn’t understand the words. Bearing false witness against thy neighbor… I knew we had neighbors on either side of our house, but the concept of bearing false witness didn’t compute, nor did I have the slightest idea what a graven image was. Having said that, on the subject of good and evil, my religious friends assure me that the Ten Commandments are the foundation upon which all things ethical are grounded.
My less religious friends, including a few atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and a new category for me, secular humanists, sincerely disagree with that concept and here is where I’m left scratching my head. My non-religious friends, not believing in heaven, hell, or any reward whatsoever after death, also appear quite capable of living ethical lives, helping their children, friends and neighbors through tough times. They also obey the Ten Commandments, though naturally so and with no thought of compensation or retribution. The question is: WHY? If it all comes down to being good for the purpose of getting into heaven, why would the atheists and agnostics bother?
I may have an answer for you. To a one, these non-believers usually answer with some form of, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” They help each other out when the tornado’s coming, their neighbor’s house is on fire... as do the vast majority of people given half a chance. I seriously believe that when your buddy is drowning and you run in to help him, religion is the last thing on your mind. So…if morality doesn’t come strictly from church and religion, where does it come from?
To my knowledge, there has never been a course in public elementary school or high school that teaches you right from wrong. They focus on math, science, literature, history, softball and such, but the hugely important concept of right and wrong is left for someone else to teach. You’ve already leaped ahead to the answer, haven’t you? Parents. Well, that’s how it should be but here’s the problem. 99.999% of parents never take a course in parenting…much less teaching ethics. Truth is, we’re all amateurs at being parents. We try. We to toss a tidbit of wisdom here and there. “Don’t steal or I’ll kick your butt” works pretty well…for a while, though eventually the problems can’t be solved with that sort of threat.
So… If the schools won’t teach it, the parents are ill-equipped to teach it, and the kids don’t understand what coveting and graven and false-witness mean, where do so many of these finely nuanced concepts come from? Hint: you don’t have to look very far… TV, movies, books, music, cellphones, Play Stations, iPads. And no one is in control of what is out there on the internet. No one. We have essentially no idea what kind of mental ethical “diet” our kids are on.
I’m going to divulge a bit of my own TV upbringing, and I’m not ashamed a bit. As a teenager, I watched Star Trek. The messages were, for the most part, clear, ethical, honorable, and nuanced. At the time, Spock’s “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” seemed like a good place to start. Later, in philo seminars and township meetings, I learned that this isn’t always the case. I watched The Waltons and learned that common sense isn’t common and that being a parent is a lot harder than being a buddy to your kid. If your big desire is to be a buddy, you’re in trouble and your kid’s in worse trouble.
In the movies, there were other kernels which stuck and took root. In the wonderful movie, The Rainmaker, Burt Lancaster, tells the eldest son who has been leaning unmercifully on his younger sister, that, “You are so concerned about what is Right…that you’ve forgotten about what is Good.” That one stopped me in my tracks. And I spent semesters at F&M peeling at the layers of that onion.
If you want to watch an intelligent, nuanced five-star television series, try out the first episode of West Wing. Yes, it didn’t debut yesterday, but I betcha five bucks that when you switch it off, you’ll say, “…wow.” The series is a template for how politics should be run, could be run and it’s nuanced as hell. I learned a lot, nuts and bolts, but then much more. Many of the strategies ( ones that have worked) in several administrations were lifted right from West Wing. Politics and ethics. Who would have thought that was even possible? What happened to the goal of doing what’s best for the country? Red or blue should be a second or third or fifth to being an American…and having an ethical code.
Long ago, the Greeks called them, Morality Plays, and those clever Greeks got the term just right. We don’t learn by memorizing sentences we barely understand. We learn by watching and listening to small vignettes playing out in life…to understand the consequences of when we do right and when we do wrong. If you lie to others, eventually your word means nothing to others and that’s a most sacred treasure to lose.
Books: If you’re still reading this, chances are you read books and you don’t need a primer on what books to read. I learned nuances of right and wrong from all over the dartboard. Plato’s Republic is one of my bedrock books if you want to scratch down to the basis of ethics. But Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fromme, E.B. White, Checkhov, Assimov, Bradbury…we could drown each other in names, but you get the idea. There’s great wisdom there if you care to crack a book.
So then, what’s the problem? Let me swing the conversation back to the first line of this article. One person, one family…one GENERATION isn’t inherently any better, worse, kinder, or more evil than another. The “Greatest Generation” were just the people who were confronted with WWII…and responded to the challenge. The Boomer Generation wasn’t inherently any cooler or more musical, they were just born at that time and got fed a different meal…Vietnam. The generations now aren’t inherently any better or worse, lazier or more industrious, but they are being “fed” a very different diet, one that no one has ever tested for its long-term implications. Imagine someone giving you an utterly new kind of baby food that’s purple and orange and no one’s ever raised a kid on it before. that’s where we’re at.
We have a “diet” now of children being raised by other children via short text messages…and lots of them. Sexting, too. We have a diet where a six year old, if he so chooses, can google a porn site and learn way more than he needs to know. We have sites that show how to build shrapnel bombs and Molatov cocktails. We have shows like South Park, and I’ve watched a bunch of them. They’re often funny, often clever…but many of the nuances and the ambiguity, farce, and irony are lost on younger minds. The message received isn’t necessarily the message that was intended. And the media’s hunger for more and more and more off-the-wall, scary, nasty, disgusting, sometimes perverse diet…has consequences. Feed a kid crap and the long-term consequences aren’t very good.
Like a lot of you, I grew up having watched, The Wizard of Oz, about twenty times more than any other movie. I never thought about why, but it was a meal in my collective ethical diet that was really good for me. Didya know that whole slews of soldiers in WWII took Somewhere Over the Rainbow as their quiet anthem? Something to get them through when they didn’t know whether they’d be around tomorrow. They’d close their eyes, remember their families and think: There’s no place like home. The journey, the odyssey, the trek, in this case down a long winding yellow brick road to find: a brain (truth) a heart (empathy and ethics) and courage, ( the fortitude to stand up for what you believe in).
Contrast that for a second with Star Trek which has survived 50 years. They were on an odyssey or trek as well. Spock (the Tin Man?) was the seeker of truth. Ole Capt. Kirk was the heart and the courageous one. Bones… Bones, the Scarecrow, was the soul of the Enterprise. Yeah…things have changed so much from the 30s to the 60s to the 2000s. We’re still lookin’ for the same stuff. But here’s the thing. Our kids need to have the right diet, too, if they’re ever going to get up to bat. They need to see or read or listen to some of those morality plays whether through books or film or that bad ole TV monitor. That TV monitor is just the refrigerator. It’s up to us to give them a balanced diet…now. We’re there and they’re almost out of time.