Sunday, January 27, 2013

From Busy Bodies to "See, Hear or Speak No Evil": Our Cultural Confusion Over Privacy

I’d like to discuss two seemingly unrelated items in the news lately. First, the “scandal” involving consensus all American linebacker for Notre Dame, Manti T’eo,  and second, the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion a constitutional right.

For those of you who don’t follow sports, Manti T’eo just finished what was arguably the greatest season ever for a defensive college football player, winning 7 national awards as the nation’s best defensive player, and finishing second in the Heisman voting, the highest finish ever for someone playing only defense. Part of what made the season so compelling was that his girlfriend from Hawaii died from leukemia after the second game of the season.  Story after story was written about T’eo managed to fight through this tragedy, putting the commitment to his team over his own grief and depression. The game after T’eo received the news of her death, the Notre Dame student body dressed in leis during the game as a sign of their solidarity and prayers for him.

Except that, as it turns out, this girl never existed. Someone had been “cat-fishing” T’eo on line for months, they had become intimate, and he believed he was in a real relationship with this girl, even though he’d never met her in person.  In December, the girl who had supposedly died called him, and he realized, much to his embarrassment, he had been duped. To protect himself from looking stupid, he didn’t tell anyone, not even his parents at first, and lied about it a few times in subsequent interviews, as if she had been real.  And then Deadspin, an on-line gossip site, broke the story that the girlfriend and her death were a hoax. 

The media reacted with outrage. Without a shred of evidence, they claimed T’eo had invented the story to gain sympathy and improve his chance at winning the Heisman trophy.  There were stories written that compared him to Lance Armstrong, the disgraced cyclist who had cheated his way by using steroids to win 7 straight Tour de France races, or to other athletes who beat their wives, or used drugs, or killed people and got away with it.  They demanded to know more, probing every facet of his life.  The public was fascinated by the story, ratings were up, newspapers and magazines were selling, so they pressed as deeply into a 21 year old’s personal life as they could, interviewing friends, family, team mates, acquaintances, trying to get into the juicy, lurid details.  A young man had been tricked, he admitted as much in embarrassment, but the media demanded more. 

What in the world does all this have to do with Roe vs. Wade?  Forty years ago, the Court struck down a state law that made abortion illegal in Texas on the basis that the law violated the privacy rights of the mother. By framing the question as “privacy,” the Court begged the question in assuming there was only one person’s rights at stake and not two:  the mother’s and the baby’s. But that’s precisely the issue! No one disputes a mother’s right to remove her appendix or tonsils or sore tooth.  But in the case of abortion, a baby is not merely the appendage of the mother—the developing child in the mother’s womb has his own organs, his own arms and legs, his own, unique DNA.  As the saying goes, I have the right to swing my arms around wildly if I want to, but that right ends precisely at the front of someone else’s nose.  That’s why it’s a ridiculous argument to say one can be “personally opposed” to abortion but “cannot impose” this view on others: If you substitute abortion in that mantra for any other crime that violates the civil rights of others, you can see how silly that is: I am personally opposed to rape, but I cannot impose my views on rapists who disagree with me. I am personally opposed to torture, child abuse, robbery, theft, and beatings, but I can’t impose my beliefs on torturers, abusers, robbers, thieves or thugs. The whole point of law is to protect the civil rights of others, especially the most vulnerable, those who can’t defend themselves.  We’ve failed tragically as a country in protecting babies’ lives in mothers’ wombs because we’re confused about what privacy is…..and what it isn’t. 

And that’s how I believe the Roe/Wade decision and the Manti T’eo story are linked. Both cases involve the issue of liberty and privacy, and how far we can go in either direction without violating the other.  In T’eo’s case, I believe the drive for ratings pushed the media, in the name of liberty and freedom of the press, to dig too deeply into the life of a senior in college, violating his privacy. In abortion, the notion of privacy is elevated to such an extent that the liberty rights of the baby are trivialized and held forfeit.

But this tension between liberty and privacy is a tension we feel as well. When we see some one doing something wrong, how much rope should we give him, respecting his privacy, or how soon before we intervene? It’s an issue for the school, too: If we hear about something you did at a party off campus on Friday night, what should our position be? It may surprise some of you to know that unless JPII’s name is involved, I don’t think it’s any of our business. We simply pass on to parents what we heard, and then it’s up to your parents how they handle. We care about you, and worry if you’re involved in dangerous behavior, but ultimately, that’s between you and your parents—it’s not our business, unless the school’s name or reputation is sullied by your behavior. Two examples to clarify: Suppose we got word that four of you were drunk at someone’s house this weekend, what would we do? We’d simply tell your parents, and leave it at that—your parents can handle it with your from there, and how they do so is not our business.  Second example, at my old school, about 15 guys got into a fight with 15 kids from another school at a local park. I and the other principal were called by the police, and the incident was reported in the newspaper the next day, identifying the two schools. In that case, the school’s name was involved, so we took disciplinary action in addition to whatever else their parents did. That’s our policy here.

But what about you? When do you intervene when your friends are doing things that worry you?  A couple of quick thoughts: First, how close is this person to you? Our obligation to act is higher if this person is a close friend vs. a facebook friend or mere acquaintance at school.  Think of the analogy of family: If a young brother were doing something like smoking pot or drinking too much, we’d have little problem confronting him or her. So too do the obligations of friendship require us to move quickly and effectively to help our friends.  Second, does that person’s behavior put other people at risk? If so, we must instantly intervene, lest innocent people are hurt by our inaction. Third, these aren’t easy decisions. I think it’s good instinct on our part to want to respect other people’s privacy. But it’s an equally good instinct to care for others and be concerned about them. If you’re not sure what to do, don’t suffer through that alone. Talk to a trusted adult, a trusted teacher, your parents, or a friend’s parents. They may be able to help.

May God give us the courage to act, the patience to respect others’ privacy and the wisdom to know the difference.

Monday, January 14, 2013

In His Words

We celebrate Martin Luther's King Day on Monday. Here's one of my favorite excerpts from among his writings, taken from a Christmas sermon in 1967, less than four months before he was killed:
I've seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.... But be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.


Sunday, January 06, 2013

Alabama vs. Notre Dame, Some Thoughts

So who is going to win tonight, God's team, or Alabama? I think most of you know I am an alumnus of Notre Dame, so there won’t be a lot of crimson red in my house tonight. On the other hand, I spent the entirety of my life in Alabama prior to coming to Tennessee in 2008, and if Alabama wins, I’ll have the consolation of the fact it would be four years in a row that an Alabama team has won the national championship—Alabama three times, Auburn once.  

Staying on theme, in addition to their current #1 ranking in football, Notre Dame has the highest graduation rate of any football program in America. Their players go to class, study and graduate. Manti Teo, their most recognizable player, who came in second in the Heisman trophy balloting as a defensive player (the highest ever) and is a unanimous all-American, is also an academic All-American.

In fact, contrary to what many believe, one of the best ways to prepare your self athletically is to work hard in the classroom. Talk to Coach Joslin on this subject, as I did recently, and he’ll tell you that in his experience, a good student in the classroom usually translates to a good football player, a good leader, someone the team can rely upon.  That’s because  whether it’s practicing on the field or doing homework or attending class, how we conduct ourselves is a matter of habit, and a good work ethic is a habit that translates in multiple directions, like the ripples of a rock thrown in a pond. You don’t turn a habit “on” or “off” just because you change locations or activities. Our habits are branded, seared into our character, for better or worse, and affect all that we do.

We don’t really need to look for national guys like Teo to show this—we can look at our own alumni.  One of the keys to both Golden and Wesley Tate’s success is they bought in here, did their work, and put themselves in a position where they could play football at two premiere academic institutions, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. Paige Baechle, Jordan’s older sister, was a 4.0 student here, and is now playing basketball at Centre College and was just recently named player of the week in the Southern Athletic Conference for the second week in a row—she leads Centre in scoring and rebounding.  Cailin Harris, class of 2012, was a four time all state soccer player, and on that basis was offered a full scholarship to Kentucky, but because of her academic successes was later offered Kentucky’s highest academic scholarship, making her invaluable to her soccer program in that they didn’t have to use up a scholarship to get her.  

And let me emphasize this point: being a good student is NOT primarily about ability. It’s about work ethic.  Do you remember the children’s parable about the turtle and the hare who run a cross country race against each other? The hare was faster, but lazy, and often ran ahead, took naps and played games along the way. The turtle plodded forward slowly, consistently, never taking a break. The turtle won the race in the long run.  It’s tempting for people who are naturally smart to become lazy, coasting through their classes when they’re young, but in the long run, they’re not the ones who end up excelling in college or even running major corporations later on. That was one of the conclusions by the author of Seven Habits for Highly Effective People, Steven Covey, who studied top-level leaders in a variety of industries, to see if they shared any common characteristics. They did, and it wasn’t natural ability. Rather, it was the habit of “being pro-active” to solve our problems, delaying gratification, doing the hard work first, like homework before television or on line gaming.

Mrs. Mayberry, if you ask her, will tell you proudly that Wesley didn’t have strong Math skills when he first arrived a JPII, but he worked hard, and by his senior year, was taking advanced Math here. That’s what this place is all about—wherever you are, whatever your God-given abilities and talents, work hard, extend yourself, build good habits, and develop pride in yourself along the way.  

Enjoy the game tonight, those of you who are football fans. But look deeper than the football---in the end, work ethic, scholarship, and a full commitment to what we often call around here the “renaissance-ideal,” --a commitment to excellence in the classroom, the arts, on the playing field, and in the development of our faith—leads to a successful, fulfilling and happy life.

And one last thing…..go Irish! 

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Our National Tragedy

This is Mr. Weber's New Year's assembly address to JPII students on January 3, 2013. 

I hope all of you had a wonderful, restful Christmas and were able to spend a lot of time catching up on sleep, visiting with your family, and slowing down.  On behalf of the faculty and administration of JPII, I wish you a blessed new year and pray that 2013 will be a year of joy and peace for you and your family and a time of great personal growth as students, as Christians and as young men and women.

Just before exams last month, an almost unspeakable national tragedy occurred in the small town of Newton, Connecticut. A twenty year old boy walked into Sandy Hook elementary school and gunned down 20 children, ages six and seven, as well as six adults that tried valiantly to protect them, including the principal, the school psychologist, and four teachers or aides. Moments before he entered the school he had murdered his mother, and after massacring the children at the school, he committed suicide.

It’s impossible to make any sense of that.  People have tried. I will not.  It is a horrible reminder that despite the fact that most people are good and decent, evil is still real and our world is still broken, in need of redemption and healing.

It is also a reminder that each moment of our life is precious. I heard a talk recently in which the presenter told the true story of a woman he met who survived Auschwitz, where so many Jewish people were gassed to death during World War II. This woman was 15 when she was herded up by the Nazis and placed on a train with her 8 year old brother. They had been separated from their parents. During the long and horrible trip on that train, she noticed that her brother didn’t have any shoes on, and she chided her brother like an elder sister might: “You’re so stupid—why can’t you keep your things together, for goodness sake?” It was the last time she ever spoke to her brother—she never saw him again.  He did not survive. When she left Auschwitz, she made a vow, saying she “walked out of Auschwitz into life. “ The vow was “I will never say anything to someone that couldn’t stand as the last thing I’d ever say. “

We grieve for the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers of these children who were killed in this national tragedy at Sandy Hook.  I suspect that some of older brothers and sisters of these victims, too, had fussed at their brother or sister that same morning, maybe as they were getting into the car for school that day. I am sure they’re eaten up with guilt and regret, wishing with all their hearts that they could take back the cross words that would be their last exchange together. Pray for them.

There are a lot of people making new year’s resolutions this time of year. Gym memberships are swelling as people try and lose the weight they’ve gained during the holidays. Might I suggest that we resolve to do our best to live by the vow of the Auschwitz survivor—that the words we say to each other might hold up as the last things we’d ever say?  Will we always be successful in this? No, we won’t. But it’s worth living for.   

I think, too, the lesson from this national tragedy is that we have to look out for each other. We’ll be reviewing over our emergency lock-down procedures these next few weeks, and we’ll be practicing them with you. Look for that very soon. But no plan, no security system, no protocols can guarantee our safety. What’s most important is that we talk with each other, and take a kind of “neighborhood watch” approach--all of us looking out for each other. If you have a friend who is struggling emotionally, talk to an adult you trust and share your concerns with him or her. Don’t worry about that person all on your own.  The sooner that person gets help, the less wound up her or she will get. 

I ask one thing from you now. As you know, our doors lock as the school begins each day. Unless that person is a student in JPII uniform, do not open our back doors for visitors. If you think it might be a teacher or staff member, teachers have keys, so you don’t need to open it for them. All visitors are supposed to go through the front door by the flag pole and check in with the office, so send them around. Yes, I know you want to be kind. But just like airline security procedures create a little inconvenience for all passengers, so too must we all insist on front door only. 

Work hard this semester. May God bless you in 2013.

Thank you.