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Posts Tagged ‘judgment’

It looks as though the Yuri Wright affair may finally now, mercifully, be over. Yuri Wright is a senior in high school; but not just any student at not just any high school: he was a nationally recruited cornerback at football powerhouse Don Bosco in New Jersey—or at least he was until recently, when Bosco expelled him.

What a life he was having. Colleges from around the country, including Michigan, Notre Dame, Colorado, Wisconsin, and many others, all wanted him. Then, suddenly, Michgan pulled its offer. Why? It turned out that he, like most other high school students, had a Twitter account. And for lo these last many months, he had been tweeting regularly, even during time he was ostensibly in school. What was he tweeting? Well, I will not recount or reproduce the tweets for you; though he closed his original account, screenshots were retained by many media outlets and are widely available on the internet. Be forewarned, however: They are vile. They discuss sexual acts graphically, they use disgusting language to describe women, they are obscene, profane, pornographic, they use derogatory racial epithets, and on and on. And it is not just one objectional tweet: there are lots of them, over a period of months.

When they were “discovered”—although he had some 1,600 followers, so it was not as if they were exactly private, and, quite frankly, I find the claim by Don Bosco to have been unaware of their content hard to believe—Michigan pulled its offer; other schools, like my alma mater Notre Dame, were apparently considering pulling their offer as well. Don Bosco then decided to expell him. Again, I am not particularly impressed with Bosco’s assumption of moral high ground. It cost them almost nothing: the football season is already over, and Yuri was probably on scholarship to Bosco anyway; so there was no downside to them to expelling him in January. Since Yuri has now opted to attend Colorado, the affair seems to be over, at least for the time being.

There are many lessons one might learn from this episode. One is that nothing on the internet is private. Nothing. Ever. Another lesson: whatever is once on the internet is there forever. So anything you write you should imagine that literally every person on the planet will read: Do you still want to write it?

But this was a high school student, not an adult. So some argued that he should be forgiven, given a second chance. I read many people saying things like, “hey, that’s how all high school students talk these days—especially boys in New Jersey!” I also read claims that his words were offensive only to older-generation white people who were unfamiliar with hip-hop culture or the language in some rap music. Some Notre Dame fans who had wanted him to commit there argued that Notre Dame’s Catholic mission requires it not only to forgive a mistake but also to teach virtue, so perhaps Notre Dame had a moral obligation to keep recruiting him, in the hopes that it could turn him into a virtuous person.

Right. Let’s not kid ourselves. Notre Dame would not even sniff an applicant who had displayed that kind of spectacularly questionable character and judgment—unless he was a spectacular football player. And it was not “a” mistake: it was months of display of very low character. It is moreover simply not true that all high schoolers talk like that. Not all high school boys view women like that; not all teenagers see the world and the races like that. To claim otherwise is an affront and slander to the vast majority of good kids out there—yes, even in New Jersey! And it is all still repellent and wrong regardless. Accepting it as inevitable or expected merely increases its occurrence, which is the opposite of what we should want.

That suggests the lesson I think this affair indicates. We are all about tolerance and freedom, as we should be, because it is required by the respect we should show to the decisions that free people make. But respecting the decisions that free people make requires not one thing but two: It requires not only giving people the liberty to act on the basis of their decisions, but it also requires holding them responsible for the consequences of their decisions. We often forget that second part—understandably so, since it is often unpleasant. But it is precisely as much entailed by respect for individual agency as respecting liberty to act is. Punishing people who act wrongly just is respecting their individual agency.

Shielding people from the unpleasant consequences of their decisions does them no favors. Not only does it inferfere with the process of developing good judgment, for that can happen only on the basis of feedback; but it disrespects their agency as not, in fact, up to the demands of liberty.

Now in Yuri Wright’s case, he is in that nether-realm between boyhood and manhood, so he is still developing his character and his judgment. And by the outward signs, things have not been going well. The fact that he has now already returned to tweeting with a brand new account, without taking even a short-term moratorium to reflect on his his life, is also not an encouraging sign. What better time, then, to hold him accountable for his actions, to make clear to him that those aspects of his character are unacceptable, and that bad judgment suffers bad consequences. Otherwise the feedback he gets will be all the wrong kind, and we might find that his judgment leads him to even worse places in the future.

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In the WSJ yesterday, Peggy Noonan argued that President Obama might have been well served if he had had some “adult supervision”—someone, that is, older and wiser who could have advised Obama to steer away from issues that appealed to him out of his youthful but naive enthusiasm and toward issues that mattered more for the country. She suggests such a person could have told him to hold off on health care reform and concentrate on the economy instead.

Noonan is going in the right direction, but she did not get to the heart of the matter. It is not, as she says, that “youth has outlived its usefulness,” but rather that the adults are acting like children.

I was recently having yet another discussion with one of my children about cause and effect. Decisions lead to actions, and actions have consequences. When the consequences of decisions are good, you generally get positive feedback, which is the signal that your decisions that led to them were good ones; by contrast, when consequences are bad, the negative feedback is the signal that the decisions leading to them were bad. A good parent gradually allows a greater range of decisions to be made by the child as she gets older, and at the same time the parent gradually exposes his child to more and more of the consequences of her decisions so that she can develop the judgment required to one day be an adult and navigate a complicated world on her own.

It struck me, as we were talking, just how close the conversation we had matched the kind of discussion so many American adults, including in particular many of our political leaders, need to have. When the ten-year-old blows his lunch money on gumballs and Silly Bands, his parents can, after a stern lecture, bail him out. From this, however, he might get the idea that money comes from “somewhere else” (his parents), and that when he needs it, there’ll always be more there. He may have no notion of wealth production, of the complicated and delicate institutional and cultural mechanisms required to allow for the production of wealth, of the fact that wealth is limited, or of the fact that wealth comes only from the productive labor of actual individual human beings.

The “money comes from Dad” theory of economics is understandable, and even a bit charming, in a ten-year-old. Like the “milk comes from the grocery store” theory of production, it is false and fantastical on all the important points, but the full story is complicated and unnecessary for children to master—until, that is, they become adults. As adults they will need to take responsibility for the budget of their own family. They will therefore need to understand about the scarcity of resources, about the relation between decisions and consequences, about the tradeoffs involved in spending their time, talents, and treasure in one way rather than another.

The good parent gradually exposes children to more of these realities as they mature, to help prepare their powers of judgment for the rigors of independent and free—but also responsible and thus accountable—adulthood.

Therein lies the problem, I think, for much of our culture today. Too many adults have been sheltered from too much of this reality for too long. Their powers of independent judgment have suffered commensurately. Through more expedients than one cares to count, governments at all levels and many other institutions have conspired to sever the link between decisions and consequences, and thus to prevent the feedback from reality that is necessary to develop adult judgment. This is all done with the best of intentions: we wish to diminish the pain from bad consequences. But like so many good intentions, this one can, when taken too far, issue in unintended bad consequences. Those consequences may be unintended, but they are real; and a growing population of adults with juvenile worldviews and immature judgment is very real, and very worrisome, consequence.

The story I tell here is abbreviated, of course, but I think it has more to it than one might initially suppose. Many of our political leaders today are either academics or career politicians. Whatever else one might say about those two lines of work, neither is conducive to the production of worldviews or judgment informed by the rigors of reality. Both worlds in fact take enormous pains to insulate themselves from those rigors—in both cases, one supposes, to free their members to ascend intellectually to apprehension of The Good, which is, as Plato explained, necessary to rule well. We might debate whether either group is actually apprehending The Good, but there is much less debate, I think, about whether such people are fit rulers.

Consider just this one question: What economic worldview is likely to be adopted by people who have spent their entire lives in academia? Who went from kindergarten to grade school to high school to college to graduate school to the professoriate, never having taken part in the economy’s productive sectors? Everything seems easy and simple to someone who knows nothing about it, and people who are smart, as academics and politicians usually are, can be easily led to believe that they need no experience with something to understand it well enough.

To come back, finally, to where we began: It should not surprise us that our political leaders do not understand wealth production, do not appreciate how difficult it is to run a general store let alone an industry, do not let their ignorance stop them from boldly undertaking to manage them anyway, and will be shocked, shocked when things do not turn out as well as they had imagined they would. This is exactly what happens when adolescents try for the first time to run their own finances. Just imagine what would be the result if you put your adolescent in charge of your family’s entire household economy.

Unfortunately, we do not have to imagine it.

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