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By Gil Troy, Chronicle for Higher Education, 7-17-11

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Our Moral Conversation With Students 1

Dave Plunkert for The Chronicle

Most Americans have not noticed, but Canadians are still reeling from the June 15 riots in Vancouver following the Canucks’ loss to the Boston Bruins for the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup. Thousands of drunken fans trashed the city’s downtown, torching cars, breaking windows, looting stores. Canada’s trauma offers a modern morality tale, of particular interest to academics because it illustrates students’ malleable, situational, Matrix morality.

Vancouver’s leaders blamed anarchists. But thousands of online clips told a different story. These were probably the most posed for, photographed, videotaped, posted, and forwarded mass crimes in history. Unlike the balaclava-clad goons at G-8 protests, many of the rioters played to the ubiquitous cameras while burning, bullying, smashing, or grabbing. Alcohol, not ideology, stoked the rioters; they were looking for kicks, not playing politics.

Like so many drunken students who act foolishly Saturday night only to be embarrassed when their friends watch them forever after on YouTube, the rioters’ thuggery, however fleeting, went viral. As these vandals-for-a-night slept off their hangovers, the recriminations began. The Vancouver police received 600 gigabytes of data, comprising 15,000 images and 3,000 video files.

The mass postings exposed some heroes. Some citizens defended random stores, rare sentries choosing to stand for order against the epidemic disorder. Alas, sometimes footage showed annoyed rioters stomping good Samaritans.

On the Facebook page “Canucks Fans Against the 2011 Vancouver Riots,” thousands of outraged Facebookers named and shamed the rioters caught on video. Camille Cacnio, a student-athlete, was seen smiling while she looted two size-42 male tuxedo pants from a store. Outed, she posted an apology that is a document for our age, demonstrating what passes for moral reasoning among our students. Cacnio apologizes to her friends, family, school, and city, along with her teammates, employer, favorite hockey team, and the charity where she volunteers. Listed in her Facebook profile, all were implicated.

Cacnio takes “full responsibility” and is “sincerely” sorry. But, she adds, these actions were out of character. She was “influenced by mob mentality.” “I was,” she explains, “immature, intoxicated, full of adrenaline, disappointed in the loss, filled with young rage, and have a ‘go-out-and-do-it’ kind of personality. … It was a spur of the moment kind of thing and I just got caught up in the chaos.”

She admits: “As bad as it sounds, the stealing was pure fun for me.” Anyone who has watched students “party” should recognize the phenomenon. Many live an intense, hyperaccelerated cycle, working hard and partying harder. When they party, they let go. Studies estimate that more than 40 percent of college students have engaged in binge drinking.

Women have closed the once-considerable binge-drinking gender gap, and the impact is significant. In addition to abandoning their traditional role of restraining their male peers, many more drunk women now face predatory males. Inevitably, claims of sexual assault on campus have spiked—attracting White House attention this spring. One study linked two-thirds of unwanted pregnancies on campuses to alcohol abuse.

Cacnio claims to have a conscience, once the thrill and the buzz subside. “As soon as I left the riot I knew that what I did was wrong,” she wrote. “My levels of alcohol and adrenaline in my blood had seriously died down, and I was no longer surrounded by the mob.” Here, Cacnio’s Matrix morality emerges: It was not her fault. She blames the situation, and the stimulants. She is not in control, she simply responds to whatever she happens to be plugged into, much as the movie The Matrix suggests that humans in the future, plugged into simulated reality, will respond to stimuli rather than exercise free will.

Feeling absolved by her passivity, Cacnio turns her “apology” into an indignant attack against “this social media form of mob mentality” now targeting her. She denounces this “21st-century witch hunt,” echoing a blogger’s line. She characterizes herself as the victim of “this new social media court” that convicts, then publicly humiliates, without due process. Presto, chango: The looter becomes the martyr.

Cacnio and others who confessed epitomize this Matrix morality, insisting that they are good people who were seduced by the mania of the moment. More than 20 years ago, in The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom said students were, in general, “nice, as distinct from being moral or noble.” But being nice at least was a consistent and benign lodestar. Today’s challenge is these moral shape-shifters, lacking core commitments.

We in the professoriate have failed our students by abdicating moral authority, even as our campuses steep in bacchanalian excess every weekend. The occasional anti-alcohol campaign, such as the Dartmouth-led Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking, characteristically avoids moral language or ethical reasoning. It approaches binge drinking clinically as a public health problem. And it fails to mobilize the most powerful army of campus role models—the professors.

Yet to start taking responsibility would require a cultural counterrevolution. Many of us academic careerists, often teaching to fulfill course requirements rather than to nurture moral grandeur, are too overextended and too cautious to lead boldly. Tackling students’ binge drinking might risk our professorial popularity ratings. Anyone who can go from happy vandal to apologetic sinner to self-pitying victim so quickly is likely to turn on professors who start upholding standards, rather than saying, “Thank you for standing for something. Universities should build moral character, not just sharpen the mind.”

It is easier to ignore the problem or blame forces beyond the ivory tower. But college acceptance now offers admission to heavy drinking, drug abuse, and risky sexual behavior. We enjoy a rich intellectual tradition that could trigger valuable debate, favoring moderation and discipline over moral sloppiness and excess without preaching or imposing specific boundaries regarding alcohol, drugs, or sex.

Teaching is not just a job; it is a calling. Most of us who become scholars believe in learning’s redemptive power. We have a responsibility to help solve the problems plaguing our universities, and so we must accept the challenge of stretching our students—intellectually, morally, and psychologically. This fall we should begin a professor-driven moral conversation about binge drinking and the culture of campus partying. Cacnio’s non-apology and the dozens of YouTube clips from the Vancouver riots would be excellent catalysts, not just to start the conversation, but also to launch a revolution.

Gil Troy is a history professor at McGill University.

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