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.


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

A Harsh Assessment of Young Adults

I just finished a book by an author not so enamored with the effects of technology on the “net generation.”  Entitled, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, (Penguin, 2008), it mounts massive data from various surveys and organizations to argue that, for all their tech savviness, most young people use the internet for entertainment and social networking and not for (the author’s main concern) “expanding knowledge.”  Hence, the claims made for the educational benefit of the internet are badly exaggerated, even dishonest.

Mark Bauerlein, the author, is not “anti-young.”  He acknowledges regularly throughout the book how curmudgeonly he sounds, but his point is not to run down young people.  It is, rather, to sound the alarm about the myth-making by educators about the educational benefits of various forms of computer and internet-based entertainment.  Worse, he’s concerned about the way some of these educators are talking about plain, old fashioned paper-based books, as if we don’t need them any more.

Perhaps the most damming chapter is “The Betrayal of t he Mentors.”   Here he uses the term “Twixters” to refer basically to the same age period that Jeffrey Arnett calls “emerging adulthood.”  Bauerlein mentions an article from Time magazine (24 January 2005) that describes this demographic category: “22 to 30 years old, have a college degree or substantial college coursework; come from middle-class families and reside in cities and large urban centers.”

There’s the demographic.  Now the problem.  Bauerlein continues: “What makes Twixters different from other people with the same demographics from the past is the lifestyle they pursue after college. [ ] Instead of seeking out jobs or graduate studies…they pass through a series of service jobs as waiters, clerks, nannies and assistants.  Instead of moving into a place of their own…they move back home with their parents or into a house or large apartment with several Twixter peers.  Instead of forming a long-term relationship to marriage, they engage in serial dating. [ ] They have achieved little but feel good about themselves,” (170).

And the betrayal of the mentors?  Here we turn to Bauerlein’s deep concern: teachers who jump on the bandwagon of disdain with their own toward books and more traditional forms of learning.  Bauerlein again: “In casting Twixter lifestyle as genuine exploration and struggle, neither the author nor the researchers nor the Twixters themselves whisper a single word about intellectual labor.  Not one of the Twixters or youth observers mentions an idea that stirs them, a book that influenced them, a class that inspired them, or a mentor who guides them,” (172).

I still don’t know what I think about this book, but I’m inclined to share Bauerlein’s concern.  As he says, there is no question that this generation is bright and full of talent.  But they seem more achievement-driven than thoughtful and they’re (generally) impatient with intellectual struggle.  And the thoughtful ones turn too easily to dismissive sarcasm for ideas that don’t seem immediately to match their beliefs.

The internet isn’t going away.  We need to learn how to use it educationally, with good means of assessing learning without buying the hype of vendors.  At the same time, I’m solicitous for the leisure of slow, thoughtful reflection, for young people.  How else will they become wise?

August 12, 2009 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture | , , , , , | 5 Comments