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.

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