Since the horrific shooting, each time I see pictures of Vester Flanagan (aka Bryce Williams), my heart is broken. For his victims. For his family. And yes, for him.
Flanagan seemed to have everything going for him. He had career opportunities in the broadcast industry, which many people would give anything to pursue. He was handsome, well educated, athletic.
We may never understand the complexities of Vester Flanagan's mind. But there is a cautionary insight in Flanagan's writings that have been released. One statement jumped out at me immediately. In his "suicide manifesto," he wrote, "I have a right to be outraged!"
Flanagan's head was apparently filled with indignation and outrage. Far from appreciating the many decent people he knew and worked with, he saw racial and sexual slights everywhere. His pathological hypersensitivity made him difficult to work with, and ultimately unemployed.
What a tragedy.
Yes, he was unbalanced. Yes, something was seriously wrong. But I see little "somethings" like this on college campuses all across this country: young people with every opportunity to have lives filled with purpose and accomplishment and strong relationships. Lives they — and we — have good reason to be proud of. And yet there is a significant number who are perennially, chronically outraged.
Too many of our young people have been taught — and are learning too well — that sources of outrage are everywhere they turn. They are being taught that men are the enemies: incipient rapists, crude barbarians and abusers. They are being taught that people who trace their ethnicity to Europe exploit and mistreat and discriminate against people whose ethnicity is elsewhere. If they are not Christians (or not believers at all), the meme is that Christians are "haters."
Where are these "lessons" coming from? They're everywhere. Some of them are being preached in classes on college campuses. They shape angles on the news, in film, television and music. And of course, they're ubiquitous in social media.
The tendency to look for the absolute worst that human beings have to offer is oh-so fashionable right now. And I submit, it's worse than it has been, not only because of the pervasiveness of social media, but because of the new turns that the arguments have taken.
It used to be that discrimination was specific conduct that could be pointed to, and addressed. Now the message is that it is like toothpaste in a towel: it is "privilege", systemic and all-pervasive, like the air.
Once, the conduct that was actionable was serious and substantive. Now, it is every minor act and expression: "micro-aggressions" and "triggers."
Young people are being taught to look for these slights, to see them everywhere, to be outraged by them. And so they do, and they are. They remind me of laboratory rats, who sink into depression and self-destructive behaviors, feeling trapped in a system that they cannot escape or improve. Because that is the message they are getting.
This is beyond irresponsible. It is demoralizing. It is also deeply deceptive
Because here's the truth: no matter who you are, if you're reasonably nice, most people want you to succeed. They'll root for you. Help you when you're down. And it really doesn't matter what gender, or religion, or race, or color you are.
Here's another truth: yes, there are also going to be some people who are ignorant, mean, spiteful or jealous. They'll celebrate your failures. They'll even try to precipitate them. They'll find whatever you're sensitive about, and use it as a weapon: you're smart, or you're not; you're fat or you're skinny; you're short or you're tall; you're talented or clumsy. You're gay, you're Jewish; you're black, you're white; you're native or you're not from this country. We've all got something , and there are always going to be people who spot it, and target it.
It isn't a white thing. It isn't a black thing. It isn't a male or a female thing. It's a human thing.
Fortunately, it is also a human thing to be kind, to reach out, to help, to speak up. And it is not only much more common than cruelty, it is a much healthier focus, especially for young people who look to adults for insights about the way to view themselves, others and the world.
This isn't about ignoring "truth" or whitewashing history. It is about putting truth and history in context. By way of example, within the past month, we saw a young black man shoot three people on live television, and another young black man help three other men bravely save 500 people on a French train, at great risk to their own lives. We've seen horrific stories of police officers abusing their authority with fatal consequences. And we've read the story of a police officer who saved the life of a suicidal woman by handcuffing himself to her.
All of these stories are true. Which ones do you want to focus on? Which ones do you want your children to focus on? To emulate?
To be quite clear, I am not suggesting that courses in which discrimination is taught, or films that inform about grievous abuses of human rights throughout history, are producing a society of Vester Flanagans. But we need to ask ourselves whether we are teaching our young people to overcome hurdles — or to be overwhelmed by them.
In matters of the environment, we are told to take responsibility for our "carbon footprint." Our individual efforts — or lack thereof — matter. We should be just as concerned for the worldview we pass on to the next generation as we are for the ecology. It is just as poisonous an environment to raise a generation of young people who are taught to look for harassment, racism, sexism, ageism, and every conceivable human hatred at every turn.
We need to be finding the everyday kindness, courage, heroism, sacrifice, friendship, outreach, and impact. Emphasizing that, especially in the face of cruelty and violence, will inspire the next generation — and give them something to which they can aspire.