All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


09 November 2011

Hugging in School: The Power of the Inter-Tubes

From Professor Volokh over at the Conspiracy, we are treated to a blog post devoid of comment and linking us to an article which informs us that
[Nick Martinez, age 14,] said he quickly hugged the girl, whom he called his best friend, between classes. The principal saw it and hauled them off to the dean for an in-school suspension. The principal even told WKMG Local 6 that the hug was innocent....

The school has a strict no-hugging policy and is the only school in the district where hugging is not allowed. Under the policy, there is no difference between an unwanted hug, like sexual harassment, and a hug between friends....

In the former version of this blog, I wrote extensively about zero tolerance policies and my natural antipathy to them. I may do so again, but that's not what I want to do here. What I want to do now is talk briefly about the Internet, or the "Inter-Tubes", as I sometimes call them in moments of mirth.

Here's a comment from a Conspiracy reader:
Steve: I realize everything is stupid today, but way back in the Golden Age when I attended public school, I recall fairly strict policies against “public displays of affection,” as they were known.


(I)n the cable and Internet age when every local story is shared with a national audience, the fact that one kid somewhere in a nation of 350 million got sent to detention for a hug is obvious proof that everything is going to hell.

And here's another:
We weren’t even allowed to hold hands in public at my high school.

This is a normal thing. But the fact that Eugene blogs it, and in the context of other things Eugene blogs, it seems like some kind of damning indictment school administrators.

And two more:
Back in the early ‘50s when dinosaurs roamed the elementary schoolhouse halls, we played football with real tackling, mumblety-peg with real pocketknives, and marbles and tops for keeps. Some girls played these games too. We had no idiotic rules against “touching” either.

At the public school I attended there were always kids hugging, giving kisses, and even feeling-up each other alongside the lockers between classes.

I didn’t think it was such a great idea at the time because it seemed that the kids who engaged in this behavior were less academically successful, less likely to participate in extracurricular activities, and were less achievement oriented in general.

My own high school experience (I talk about high school despite the fact that the story is about a Middle School because the kid's 14, which means 9th grade; 9th grade is high school out here) is filled with a lot of memories. Leaving out names to protect the innocent, one of the starkest is noticing how sorta adorable two of my fellow classmates were kissing between classes. (I was also a little jealous/in awe of their relationship, which didn't last, btw.) I also recall being vaguely bothered by the intensity of the touchy-feeliness of another couple. In other words, there very clearly was hugging, kissing, and even some groping going on in my high school, even between 14-year old freshmen.

So let's go back to that first reader comment. Steve (the commenter) says with just the right amount of snark that it's silly to get worked up about a single failure of judgment in a nation of 350 million people. I pretty much agree with him -- that's a silly reason to get worked up. But as I read through the comments, I started to muse that even if this incident was a single lapse in judgment, and the fact that only one school in the district has such a policy suggests that it is, it needn't be thus. There could, conceivably, be districts where this sort of treatment of hugging is an every-day occurrence and there are social norms about such things that differ dramatically than what I grew up with.

And so I started to think about the Internet and the constant deluge of information we get these days. Perhaps, I wondered, the Inter-Tubes might be allowing us to see what happens all the time in other parts of the country, and perhaps this isn't always a good thing. I wonder if one of the reasons our country was able to survive so well for as long as it did wasn't that we didn't always make every local policy choice a national issue.

That's sort of abstract, so let me bring it down to the level of the concrete. I think policies on no hugging are silly and stupid, and I would argue against them in my community. But they also would be exceedingly unlikely (I hope) to happen in my community, because that's not how we roll. In other communities, as we can see in the comments above, that is how they roll. But with the Inter-Tubes, we get to read about it all the time.

In other words -- and I'm speculating wildly here -- people like me could have gotten just as upset about what those weird no-touching schools were doing back in the 50's, or back in the 80's and 90's. We just didn't know what was going on because we didn't read about it with our morning tea. It was happening on the other side of the hill.

So I'm wondering if having this sort of accessibility to "foreign" practices, that is, understanding all the things that your neighbors in the next town or next state are really up to on a micro level, is such a good thing. People don't go to war over nothing. But they often go to war because those godless heathens in the next town eat lamb, or something like that. I wonder if perhaps we weren't protected against stirring up that sort of inter-cultural nastiness -- at least to some extent -- by the relative paucity of information we used to have about what occurred elsewhere. We know those folks on the other side of the hill vote for President, just like us, and that's good enough for us!

But now, with the Inter-Tubes, we have 24-hour access to the happenings of the Edgefield school board in Posterior County, Egyptia. We get to see what they do as a matter of course, and we have the opportunity to get upset, and to make it an issue of national culture. The internet enables the little cultural facist lurking in all of us, who wants everyone to do things like we do. (Truly being a libertarian about things is hard work, and anyone who tells you it is the natural state of mind is lying to you.)

Please bear in mind that I'm not saying that this sort of hugging suspension happens all the time in the county in question. I'm merely suggesting that it's possible, and that the internet age has had a profound effect on how we relate to manifestations of that possibility, or possibilities like it. Finally, I want to caveat that I think the district policy on touching is a separate issue from the obvious ramping-up of penalties that has occurred in the last few years. That, I suspect, really is a national concern and not merely a case of differing local sensibilities finally coming onto each others' radar.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking this morning and that's what this blog is for.

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