The Raw and the Cooked, an iconic work in linguistics and anthropology by Claude Levi-Strauss, demonstrates the oppositional categories that we firmly hold in our minds. The mind/body conundrum is one with which I have wrestled a bit here. Why does this matter? Ignoring the entire grey scale, or should I say “brown and beige scale” in between black and white, is a relevant example. Categorizing people as either black or white, as either male or female, without recognizing intermediate positions, is a widespread form of social oppression.
Naked and covered, or naked and dressed, is also such a category. Why does this matter in the Western world? At a time when many of our young people are being criminalized for nonviolent, victimless crimes it does. The widespread incarceration, largely but not exclusively, of minority youth, damages the fabric of our society. No youth of any race, ethnicity or skin tone is immune to this all out for-profit war on the young. Privatized prisons profit from the captive bodies of our young people–primarily black and brown males–slavery of our times. A new book on this subject is The new Jim Crow : mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. (I am in line to borrow a copy at the local library, so have only heard parts and read reviews to date.) The facts, not just statistics, but facts, are appalling: we are the most incarcerated nation in the world. Not so many years ago, young male bodies were a commodity sent to Vietnam. Today, there is an illusion that those serving in the armed forces do so by choice: some do; some don’t. Those of low socioeconomic status may have no other option, and gamble with their very lives when they “voluntarily enlist.” The voluntary enlistment of guardsmen and women, forced to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, is most certainly a fiction.
Today my subject is not quite as dramatic, but may, nonetheless, severely impact the future of a high school student. If hearsay is correct, a young man changing in the gymnasium of our public high school has been charged by police with sexual harassment. If these charges are upheld, he will become a registered sex offender. I know nothing about this student other than that he is 18, and will thus be charged as an adult. If he must register as a sex offender, his prospects of future employment, not to mention his reputation, are at stake.
This is the sort of overreaction to any minor infraction that makes it nearly impossible for young people to negotiate the world today. The offense this young man committed was not one of public nudity, but of changing from pants to gym shorts while wearing boxers. Boxers and men’s bathing suits cover the same areas of the body. Police involvement in a high school student’s efforts to get to class on time and be changed for PE so as not to lose credit, is yet another symptom of our societal need to control every minor nonconformist act of the young.
A recent New York Times article by Erik Eckholm reported that criminologists agree that police presence in high schools does not prevent crime, but does funnel many students into the courts (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/12/education.) Student behaviors typically brought to the attention of the principal or vice principal are now matters for law enforcement, and high school students are caught early in the dysfunctional loop of our criminal justice system.
My older son, who graduated from the local high school six years ago, reports that he routinely changed from shorts to pants in the gym, and that there was neither reaction nor repercussion. We must turn down the spotlights trained on non-violent behaviors of young people, occasionally trying to scramble over the virtual barbed-wire fence that education has become. We must save that energy to pursue corporate offenders whose actions have systemic, adverse social effects. There is no one too small to fail. Let us concern ourselves instead with the corporations above the law because they are too big to fail. Much effort is being put into anti-bullying campaigns, and rightfully so. These efforts are focused on preventing harassment and sexual assault among students. Yet adults, and a criminal justice system spiraling wildly out of control, bully an even greater number of young people.
Let us hope that the person “harassed” by the sight of a young man’s boxer shorts recovers in short order. Let us also hope that any person harassed by this sight never turns on the television, watches a movie, or opens a newspaper or magazine, wherein young men seductively attired in tight underclothing routinely appear. Let us hope that this nonsensical incident has already been laid to rest, and that this young man is able to pursue his post-graduation plans without interruption or blemish on his record.