A Cultural Crisis

by Conor Dugan | 5/4/98 5:00am

It was with great dismay that I read of another shooting by a young perpetrator, this time in Pennsylvania. But rather than making an argument for more gun control, an argument against the implement of destruction, I would like to attempt to make an argument which cuts to the true root of the problem which has less to do with guns and their use by youth and more to do with a cultural malaise.

This latest shooting and those in Arkansas and Kentucky are symptoms of a cultural crisis which surprisingly enough runs just as deep, perhaps deeper, on our own Green as it does in the small towns of Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. What we are seeing is the manifestation of a culture which places no value in man's inherent and essential dignity.

These are the dangerous consequences of a culture which has reduced humanity down to economic, sexual and racial terms and man to a mere object.

After the terrible incident in Arkansas, I remember reading something about one of the killers. His parents had divorced, and his father rarely had a chance to see him. A person talking about how good the father was said that he tried to call several times a week and gave him nice gifts. The quotation touched a nerve as it should because of the warped sense of fatherhood and familial relations contained in its conception. Fatherhood had been reduced to presents and phone calls, showing the reduction of human relationship (especially familial) to mere economic terms. The child in this conception was like a simple machine who had to be filled up by gasoline once in awhile.

The truly scary thing is that this description is not the exception, but the rule. All of us born in the States after a certain date in January, 1973, were a simple choice in the eyes of the law for all nine months before we were born. That is not to speak of what many of us and many children are reduced to after those nine months. Like the young killer we were reduced often to objects. Shipped from one day care to another, with this nanny or that, given gifts to try to fill the void and shiny new wheels on our sixteenth birthdays, we are a generation forged in emptiness, created by generations which have done so much to reduce humanity to warring clans, relegating the essential questions of humanity to the private realm, building up choice while breaking down solidarity.

And this is why these shootings are not so far away from Dartmouth or the decadent Europe where I am at this moment. Humanity by its very nature yearns for the transcendent and in this yearning, in this search, it asks the questions of who man is and who his creator is. These questions lead back to that inherent human dignity which precedes any other question, a dignity which resides in all humanity uniting each man to another and coming before any of the other labels or categories into which man is so good at dividing himself. It is when this dignity is known and respected, when it becomes the path on which to judge other action that man truly is able to realize himself. This respect of dignity leads ultimately to human solidarity, for in mutual respect grows a connection between men.

But, then we are again gripped by the harsh reality of our upbringing and these latest events in Arkansas and Pennsylvania. To judge by these things, one must come to the conclusion that human dignity is not the truth around which society, government, and life is ordered in the Western world. It seems that by forgetting this inherent dignity we have reduced man to a mere object, a tool, to be discarded by random bullets fired by children or to be butchered by men and women who bear the initials M.D. after their names. And this objectification does not always play itself out in death but plays itself out in every arena of human life. By shoving these fundamental questions which naturally arise in a religious context out of the public square, we have imperiled man's very being.

This sad state of affairs plays itself out even more sadly on typical college campuses such as Dartmouth. In a school which has trouble allowing its students to publicly celebrate Christmas, is it any surprise that these profound questions are allowed only to whispered in the selected safe zones of its religious? And thus is it any surprise that these assaults on human dignity which manifest themselves in the horrid manner of Arkansas and Pennsylvania, manifest themselves in some many little ways on this campus? From the subverting of dignity to political ideology by those on the left and right, to the random and not-so-random hook-ups, to the drunken and dangerous stupors "enjoyed" by students each weekend, to reduction of people to simple terms of race, sexuality and economics, and to the nonchalant attitude visited upon sexuality and abortion, Dartmouth is our living example of a culture gone bad which objectifies man and subverts human dignity to everything possible.

It does not have to be this way; it only is this way. Man's yearning for transcendence exists; it is our culture which tries to deny it and put it away in some innocuous private box. Our call is to allow this yearning, this push, to flow out and recapture this culture. This call starts here on Dartmouth's campus. If those on the administration continue to ignore that which exists in their hearts as well, then it simply follows to bypass the administration. Two paths exist for us.

One path is paved with nice cars, two children who stay out of our hair with the au pair, sex without consequences, a marriage of no commitment, a nice job which allows us to retire at 65 (or earlier) to the warm beaches of Florida and all the other trinkets which make life long and pleasurable. Of course, this path is also paved with the strife and emptiness that comes from dividing man by the artificial terms mentioned above, by truly objectifying him. This is the path on which we are; it is the path which begins by denying the questions we all have, that movement to transcendence inherent in the human heart and ends with a judgment that man does actually lack these things and thus is not profound in the least and not deserving of the respect which that profundity entails. The other path begins by thrusting these profound and exciting questions into the public square -- throwing them onto the Green, if you will. And in so doing we will have started ourselves towards the respect of dignity which this profound crisis of culture warrants.