Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bullying, Relativism, and Youth Suicide

In September 2010, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington bridge after a roommate video-taped him having an intimate encounter with another older man.  He became a nationwide symbol of the problem of bullying, especially among homosexual youth, and youth suicide.  The nationwide reaction included anti-bullying campaigns and calls for greater tolerance of homosexuality. 

It was not only Clementi; in the preceding year another thirteen year old girl hanged herself after bullying from peers that included sexting, text messages of a sexual nature.  The problem is not only homosexuality, but bulling and youth suicide more broadly.  The philosopher Peter Kreeft has recently pointed out that since the 1950s, we have seen a 5,000 % increase in youth suicide (1).   Increasing intolerance toward homosexuality simply does not explain this. 

Since the 1950s, American society has only become more tolerant and accepting of homosexual behavior, not less.  Until 1973, the American Psychiatric association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder.  So did the American psychological association until 1975 (which caused my grandfather to leave the APA in 1975).  In the 1950s movie, The Road to Bali, starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, a character commented that the gods would never allow the abomination of a marriage between two men.  Today, however, homosexual practice is widely accepted and surely had no stronger supporters than Hollywood itself.  So, on the contrary, as homosexual practice has become more widely accepted, the rate of youth suicide has not decreased, but has actually increased.  Why is this so?  Why has youth bullying and suicide become more of a problem, not less?

Clementi did not commit suicide because he felt bullied because he was gay.  He committed suicide because for some reason, he decided that there was nothing in the world worth living for.  If decreasing tolerance cannot explain youth suicide, what else can?  What else changed at the same time?

The answer is secularism and increasing moral relativism.  If I asked a class of my students today whether objective moral values existed (by which we mean moral values that exist independent of what people think), their answer would nearly be identical.  Most students would reply that of course objective moral values did not exist “because different societies thought different things.”  I do not dwell here on the disastrous lapse in logic, the confusion between moral epistemology (perception of moral values) and moral ontology (existence) of moral values.  Obviously to say that a person does not believe in x is not proof that x does not exist.  Otherwise we would have to say that the fact that 12th century Europeans did not believe in America was proof that American did not exist, which is absurd.

What really concerns us is the terrible consequences that follow when the youth become convinced, as they are today, that moral values are wholly subjective.  If a person thinks that moral values are subjective, then he thinks that they are wholly dependent on what other people think.  If a person thinks that moral values, including his own moral value are wholly dependant on what other people think, then what other people think becomes of paramount importance.  If moral values depend on society, and if one’s society, whether American, college, fraternity, or high school peers decide that a person does not have moral value (through bullying), then it necessarily follows that that person does not have moral value.  If subjectivism is true, then what is left to such a person save to throw himself off of a bridge?  If moral values are subjective, they depend on what other people think, and if everyone else thinks that that person is worthless, then he really is!  Second, moral subjectivism also provides an enormous incentive to be the bully.  Better to bully other people into thinking they are worthless than risk being thought worthless oneself. 

The cries for greater tolerance will not solve the problem.  Society is more tolerant and accepting than it ever has been, yet the problem of bullying and youth suicide is worse than ever.  The only hope is for people to begin to recognize again that human beings really do have objective moral value.  Modern secular society provides no basis for this.  Having denied God, it has denied any basis for objective moral values.  Without God, morality is just the result of evolutionary conditioning or societal norms- there is nothing objective about it.  As secularism and denial of God has increased since the 1950s, so has bullying and youth suicide. 

Hope for the youth lies not in more secularism, but in less.  For in Christianity a human being knows that they have objective moral value, no matter what anyone thinks.  They know that they have been created by a perfectly good, loving God, who made them in his image, suffered and died on a cross for them, and wants them to enjoy eternal union with Himself.  What bully could have a chance against such knowledge?

(1) http://www.integratedcatholiclife.org/2011/11/dr-kreeft-how-to-win-the-culture-war/ 


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  2. Granted, there is no direct causation between increased bullying and societal acceptance of homosexuality. However, do you think there could be a potential for increased hate crimes against homosexuals if gay marriage is legally banned?

  3. I think it unlikely for a couple reasons.

    It's not just that there is no evidence that bullying is worse because people are less accepting of homosexuality; it is actually the opposite! Over the past 50-60 years, our society has become more accepting of homosexual practice than ever before. In spite of this, bullying and suicide have gotten far far worse than they have ever been. So actually, there is an important correlation between increasing acceptance of homosexual practice and increasing bullying and suicide. But if greater acceptance would lead to less bullying, this should not be the case. So how do we explain that as society has become more accepting of homosexuality, bullying and youth suicide have become bigger problems?

    I can think of a couple possibilities:

    1. Homosexual practice does entail significant medical and mental risks. It is simply a statistical fact that homosexuals are significantly more likely to engage in short-lived relationships and suffer from stds than heterosexuals. As society becomes more tolerant of homosexual practice, homosexuals will feel more free to engage in homosexual practice. But this won't make the negative facts associated with homosexual practice go away. Short relationships will still leave them mentally hurting, as will stds, and the shorter life span that accompanies them.

    2. Greater acceptance of homosexual practice has come largely as a result of increasing secularism. Since God doesn't matter or doesn't exist, then there is no real morality and so nothing is really wrong. Hence, homosexual practice is not really wrong. The problem, like I say above, is that if morality is not objective, then it is subjective and depends completely on what people think. But people in this position are in much greater danger of being bullied and being bullies.

    So, no I don't think it likely that if states that currently allow gay marriage outlawed it, this would lead to greater bullying and violence against homosexuals. This is because we know that in the past (1950s and earlier for example) when society was less accepting of homosexuality, there was also less violence and bullying against homosexuals. Maybe we need to think more about why.