I woke this morning to news that Russia and the new Ukraine government are in a political standoff with military options mobilizing. There was also news of another major storm that has temperatures as far south as Austin in the 30s heading east and picking up steam and looking like it will slam the east coast again. Then there was the appalling news of a school in Nigeria where terrorist had killed a schoolyard full of children and burned their bodies in some twisted attention grab in the name of a twisted view of their religion. The news went on and on with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. I watched and read and listened to a litany of events that should make a grown man seek refuge. But one horrible story gave way to another, and the incredible news of the Nigerian tragedy faded from the television screen and a smiling anchorman talking about a rampant pack of Chihuahuas in Arizona segued into a story of absolute silliness. Those dead children were worth a 20 second mention – about the same as a pack of ankle biting dogs.
When I was young the world was larger. Not many people flew and the internet wasn’t even a dream yet. There were 3 major television channels and the anchorman for the national news at 5:00 was a trusted and respectable man. Today, news is on 24 hours a day on approximately 300 channels a day. Of course about 23 hours a day of that stuff on all 300 channels doesn’t really pass for news but is instead a flurry of opinions and fireballs thrown to provoke controversy and stir political passions for ratings. But it is there, nonstop. And it is full throttle and fully encased in violent picture, horrid stories, and pain on a global level. Have things gotten worse than they were 20 years ago? No, there are no new sins. There are just more people talking so they are finding more awful things to talk about.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a diatribe on the news. We need to know what is happening in this ever shrinking world. And I do not loathe the speed and access with which we get news from around the world. I do however worry about the access our kids have to so much awful news that is presented in sensationalized formats. Kids today are bombarded with images and stories and words that would have never been allowed on a television screen just 20 years ago. Now those images are not only on TVs, they are also on phones and tablets, and computers.They are everywhere and there are so many of them that they have begun one-upping each other on the graphic scale for attention and “clicks”.
Here’s the danger of our current state of information access and presentation: When our kids see things that are disconcerting and should be alarming over and over then they will become less disconcerted and less alarmed each time they see it. When our kids hear of the deplorable acts of extremists in Nigeria over and over they soon start tuning out the news and are less shocked by the event. And here’s an even bigger complication – when our kids play video games and watch movies and television shows that show these types of horrible things then they are even less sensitive to it when it occurs in real life.
I do not fear that kids today are less human than those of 20 years ago but I do worry that their definition of humanity has changed. When easily accessed entertainment mediums constantly bombard our kids with violence and gratuitous sex and salacious language then the norm of acceptability is constantly redefined and what is shocking becomes further and further removed. How do I know it affects our kids? Because when I heard the news I was momentarily appalled but I wasn’t shocked, and until I sat down to start writing I wasn’t outraged either. Now I am angry with myself for accepting the news of schoolyard kids being murdered, for political and religious extremism and not having the human decency to pause and think and pray on what has happened.
Our kids today are growing up with constant access to images and words and actions that are not humane and cannot and should not be in the lexicon of our humanity. We can’t stop that. But we can be what we are supposed to be. As adults, as teachers, and as parents we must be fierce guardians of our kids’ innocence and their sense of right and wrong. We cannot shelter them from the atrocities of this world but we can help them understand right from wrong and we can help them understand the fading but absolutely necessary skill of empathy. We cannot prevent people from sensationalizing bad things but we can stop those things from coming into our homes and our classrooms and our personal discourse. We cannot stop the fact that the world can be scary and mean but we can shelter our kids and help them grow their humanity rather than allowing an exploitative world to take it from them one image and word and action at a time.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr once spoke of the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” and the “fierce urgency of now”. He was of course talking about overcoming the atrocities of bigotry and achieving equal civil rights for all man. Today we need that same “fierce urgency of now” in our public and a personal reclaiming and guarding of our children’s rights to innocence. We cannot be a part of the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” by being so personally desensitized to sensationalism that we become a condoner of vile games and shows and music that target our children’s fragile formative years. We cannot abdicate our role as guardian of our children’s minds and souls to a box of wires that gives them entertainment but also redefines their worldview of humanity.
It is time to be shocked again when shocking things happen.
It is time to be saddened again when people are hurt.
It is time to be outraged again when children are targeted.
It is time to be human again.