Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

What Retching Has to Do with Moral Vision

(Warning: this blog contains graphic material not suitable for weak stomachs.)

Since when did watching people vomit become funny?

I admit, I do not watch these TV shows, so maybe it was just a coincidence. Last week, I watched my first episode of “Campus PD” on one of the cable channels. I have known about the show for some time, but since I work with college students, I frankly could not bring myself to watch it. Last week I worked up the courage. A couple of days later, I happened on “Tosh.0” (I think is the name).

Of course, with “Campus PD,” the viewers were regaled by a constant barrage of drunk college kids. In one scene, two young men are sitting, completely stupefied, on the curb (kerb, if you are an Anglophile) outside a hotel. Both of them have vomit between their feet.

A couple of days later, I just happened to be passing by “Tosh.0” as I channel surfaced and witnessed another scene involving someone puking. This time it was a guy in the buddy position of a hang glider. Apparently, he wasn’t taking too well to the ride. The host, Mr. Tosh, played and replayed the emetic episode, clearly enjoying the man’s discomfort and the awkwardness of the moment. Do his viewers really enjoy this fare?

I’ve seen similar things on “Jackass.” Please remember, I do not watch any of these shows. In each case, I happened upon them as I was passing on to somewhere else in Cable World. I thus conclude that, if I see this much vomiting on television in such brief moments, they must be happening quite a bit. And somebody must think it’s funny.

Some of us who work in the university have been reading a book, lately: Getting Wasted, by sociologist and college professor Thomas Vander Venn. In describing the various kinds of motives and means of social support that college students give one another while engaging in binge drinking, he reflected on how students describe even being hung over together as “fun” or “a good time.” He also mentioned one study in which neophyte pot smokers had to learn how to enjoy the sensation of being high, then alluded to the same pedagogical principle at work among college drinkers.

In other words, the “fun” associated with being drunk or high is in some significant ways, a learned behavior. You can learn that vomiting and passing out is actually fun. Hm.

Most importantly, what we’re not noticing is the implicit moral community associated with such fun. In interviews with Vander Venn, students explained repeatedly that having fun and good times is supremely important, worth the risks and consequences of blackouts and alcohol poisoning. They actually experience a kind of community, through the “drunk support” (his term) and consequence management associated with college party scenes.

Here’s the moral dimension: Students who believe this kind of behavior is “fun” and “good times,” are committed to what they perceive as a good – the pleasure, sociability and feeling of community that goes with the party scene. It goes with what Robert Bellah and other scholars have described as “expressivist individualism:” that “being myself,” no matter what anyone thinks and “following my own dreams” and “doing what feels right to me” are paramount. In fact, I have heard this sentiment from students. They actually say that they “do not care” what other people think. Of course, they do care, but they have been taught (subtlely, of course) to think that they shouldn’t care. Notice the ought in “shouldn’t.”

Another way to notice the moral vision of this behavior: how often do we talk with students about peer pressure? What is peer pressure, but moral pressure? “It’s fun. Come on! Don’t be a loser!” We need to notice the moral tone, perverse as it seems.

So, students believe that cutting loose, having fun, getting wasted, is a good. It is one that they fight to keep. They believe in the freedom associated with partying. They are in college. It is “their time.” Again, notice the moral vision.

If you’d like to look at this matter in some detail, see Christian Smith, et. al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011), especially the chapter, “Intoxication‘s Fake Feeling of Happiness.” It’s pretty sobering stuff.

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November 8, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, General, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Perhaps I too easily take to heart the coffee cup “de-motivator” I have about blogging: “Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.”  As a delinquent blogger, this saying makes me laugh.  But it also makes me hesitate.

That’s not the only reason I’ve been silent on this blog.  When I don’t know my own mind on some topic about which I feel deep importance, I hunker down for awhile, feeling that I have nothing to say.  This is the case with a topic that has become high profile on college campuses – the interest in spirituality.

Many people who work with college students (especially on the Student Affairs side) know about the extensive research from the Higher Education Research at UCLA (to name only one source) on this subject.  Even though students fiercely protect their prerogatives, they are not the free-thinking skeptics people often associate with higher education.  In fact, they are very interested in questions that we have come to associate with spirituality or faith.  If you pay attention to the literature that has become mainstream, however, students are not all that interested in getting boxed in by “organized religion.”

It’s no wonder.  We’ve been teaching young people to think this way about religion and spirituality for at least a generation.  No time for a long foray into history, but consider: thirty years ago Paul Vitz did a study of the references to religion in elementary school social science textbooks.  He concluded that, given how these references were handled, students would easily conclude that religious practice is either something that “primitive” people do in other parts of the world or (for this country, especially) it is something people did in the past.  Here, insert the Puritans.  You know how they fare in popular sentiment.

Add in the public-private constitutional divide long-established in our society.  Religion is “private,” something that people are free to do with their associates without government interference.  But religious faith must stay in the private realm, which allows it to deal with personal values of all sorts, but does not allow people to be part of public debates (even though religion is always very much in the news).  There are important questions involved, here, but the big thing is that we don’t want anyone “imposing” some brand of religion on us.  The result has been that another vision has been “imposed.”  And it’s not a neutral one.

So, in a thousand subtle ways we have taught kids – long before they get to college – that religion is not all that important except for personal values and, furthermore, it may actually be rather dangerous (especially conservative evangelical versions of Christianity).  Churches have gone along with this process.  Here I refer to the “moralistic therapeutic deism” discerned by Christian Smith and others among teenagers and emerging adults.  Religion is for the purpose of helping people be nice and feel good about themselves.

Yet people hunger for transcendence, for contact with the Lifeforce or whatever word you’d like to use if you want to avoid using God.  If religion is more or less ruled out of bounds, what do you have left?  Spirituality.  And it will inevitably look and sound like how people talk in the literature.  Spirituality is about contact with the transcendent, and authenticity, and compassion, and expansiveness and…

I’m not surprised that the social scientists asking college students what they think about spirituality and religion are discovering the “spiritual not religious” response.  We pretty much taught them to think this way.

August 1, 2011 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Worried about Sex, Again

They call it “gender neutral housing,” an ironic term, since it’s anything but gender neutral.   According to the news accounts I’ve read, Rutgers University is trying a pilot project the coming Fall semester in which students can choose roommates of either sex.  In this new arrangement, people will be able to live with their partners (gay or straight) or have roommates of the same or opposite sex based on any other consideration they choose.  As a guy, I could choose a female roommate who is not my girlfriend, or she could be my girlfriend.  As a guy, I could choose a guy who is my boyfriend, or not.  Any way is OK.

The appeal for this change came from the GLBT community and, from their perspective, it makes perfect sense.  It allows for the expression of the most equitable roommate arrangements with regard to as wide a range of sexual expressions as possible.  I see their point, but I’m worried about other consequences.

Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas, has studied and written about emerging adult sexuality and, if you’re any kind of Christian (liberal or conservative; pick any label you wish) his findings should be a matter of concern.  (To get a sample of his work, go to www.changingsea.org/regnerus.php.)  One study shows that only 16% of adults between the ages of 18 and 23 have not had sexual intercourse.  In the same age group, among those who are romantically involved, only 6% are not having sex of some sort.

As Regnerus points out, this news is really not new news.  In fact, most of us who work with young adults are sick of hearing about it, because we feel 99% hopeless that we can change these statistics.  Aside from the occasional sex-and-dating stuff that some campus ministers still try to do, we have largely abdicated this field.

But the idea that there is not a cost for this approach to sex among college students (to limit my emerging adulthood reference to my work context) is false and dangerous.  And I’m not merely talking about the utilitarian consequences (e.g. STDs) of sexual activity.  I am talking about the emotional/spiritual wounds.

(At this point in the blog, I feel the need to say, “I’m not a prude.  This post is not about pining away for some purer, simpler time, nor is it a right-wing diatribe.”  There, I feel better.)

Another author has written of the “no regrets” mantra of young people (Christian Smith, Souls in Transition).  In interviews, young people, after describing some of the most painful, heartrending experiences, commonly say something like, “But I have no regrets.  It (the painful experience) has made me what I am today.”  Many of the “its” have to do with sexual activity leading to unhealthy relationships, unwanted pregnancies and a list of other collateral damages.  It starts with sex, but it does not end there.

Back to Regnerus: serial monogamy is the thing.  Students are generally not promiscuous.  The free love days are long gone.  They still want to get married (even though they’re marrying much later than earlier generations).  They have one partner at a time and they still have a sense of loyalty and boundaries while in that relationship.  But virtually all are having sex with that partner.  Sexual intercourse.  So, it turns out that sex still is more than just recreational.  It’s relational.  And when the relationship breaks up, it can be and usually is soul-searingly painful.

So, rather than just going with the democratic flow, like Rutgers has done, I think it’s high time for colleges and universities to re-examine our housing practices.  I know.  We are not in loco parentis, but I think this excuse is really a dodge.  We in higher education are held responsible in a million other ways for our young charges, even though we’re supposed to stay the heck out of their private lives.

I don’t have an answer, but I see the problem and we in higher education need to start talking about it.

April 9, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture | , , , , , | 5 Comments