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Mt. Lebanon's "Top 25 List" Object Lesson

Never mind the details — let’s find someone to blame

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Maybe you don't know exactly what happened in Mount Lebanon, where a group of high school boys stand accused of humiliating a group of high school girls by treating them as sex objects. Maybe you don't know any of the details, or any of the people involved. But judging by the public outcry the story has generated, that's no reason you can't start looking for someone to blame.

In case you haven't been following this crisis, let me bring you up to speed. Reporters recently unearthed a list titled "Top 25 of 2006," in which boys in the South Hills school district apparently assigned letter grades to the physiques of their female classmates, and repeated rumors about the girls' sexual activity. The story was front-page news in the paper that broke it, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and has been fodder for talk shows and water-cooler conversations ever since.

I don't want to minimize the importance of this story to the people involved: By accounts I've heard from within the district, the list is cruder than many of the students themselves expected — which is saying something. But I do want to minimize the importance of this story to everyone else, because hardly anyone knows what actually happened.

Because minors are involved, reporters have, understandably, withheld names and other details. For the most part, they have refrained from quoting any portion of the list, so hardly anyone knows what, exactly, is on it. Hardly anyone knows who, exactly, is on it, or who compiled it, or why.

Much of the public outcry, then, treats the Mount Lebanon kids the way they are accused of treating each other: as objects to be judged on appearances, and on third-hand accounts of their behavior.

You might think that, given the near-total absence of details, it would be tough for people to assign blame. Not so. If anything, it allows you to judge everyone involved, without any inconvenient facts getting in the way. And plenty of people are doing just that. The P-G has hosted a "reader forum" for people to weigh in on the situation; scores have done so every day, some writing posts longer than this article.

I probably don't have to tell you what it's like on talk radio, or in Internet chat rooms. You might almost call it voyeuristic, the public fixation on high schoolers' sexual peril and predation.

Some observers blame the parents of the boys … without knowing who the kids are, much less how they were raised. ("Each of the parents of the kids that created the list should … teach them write [sic] from wrong a little better," one member of the P-G online forum posted.) Some blame the parents for the clothes worn by their daughters — girls these critics have never seen. ("[E]ither the parents of these girls are complete morons … or just refuse to see what's right in front of them.") Some people who've never seen the list say it's like the ones they made when they were in school, so what's the big deal? That argument is denounced by other people who've never seen the list, but are convinced that if they did, it would show a shocking decline in morals.

Lots of people blame mass culture for the kids' alleged behavior: They contend that magazines like FHM, which purports to survey the "year's hottest women," inspire sexist attitudes. If so, I blame mass culture for our response to the kids' alleged behavior. After a decade-plus of talk radio, the rise of blogs, and factually challenged "talking head" TV shows, we've learned that it doesn't matter whether you know what you're talking about … just so long as you talk about it with a great deal of conviction.

Maybe MTV encourages sexist, and oversexed, behavior in kids. But CNN and Fox encourage us to believe we can fairly judge that behavior from a distance.

For a culture that enjoys an orgy of judgment more than any other kind, a news story like this does an almost perfect job of titillation.

I'd give it an A-, at least.

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