What About Lizzy?

I’m sure you have heard more than you want to about Manti Te’o and his make-believe girl friend. The story has been told again and again about the fictional girl the Notre Dame linebacker fell in love with online whose “tragic” death inspired the man to play at the highest levels — and thereby (coincidentally) improve his chances of winning the Heisman trophy and going higher in the NFL draft. In any event, the story has been beaten to death — which is not to say we have heard the last of it. But one very interesting feature of that story was brought out by Christine Brennan in USA Today on January 20th when she noted the amount of ink that has been spilled telling Manti’s story while at the same time the story about the death of Lizzy Seeberg, a former (real-life) Freshman at St. Mary’s College, is widely ignored.

It turns out that Lizzy was assaulted by a Notre Dame football player in 2010. She filed a formal complaint with authorities against the advice of a friend who warned her that she shouldn’t “mess with Notre Dame football.” Her complaint was ignored and the football player was never even contacted by campus police; a week later Lizzy committed suicide. Her written complaint was later regarded as inadmissible: since she was no longer alive to testify it was mere hearsay. The player has never been charged. Further, the story was completely ignored for 2 1/2 months until it came to light as a result of a Chicago Tribune story. And yet we still hear nothing from the University about Lizzy’s death and the events that might have brought it about, while we hear endlessly about the death of a fictional girl who may well be part of a hoax designed by Te’o and even condoned by the University — which has been very public in defending the football player while it kept mum about Lizzy’s death.

What we have here is a combination of two things: (1) a new double standard which demands that college athletes be treated differently from other students, and (2) the culture of secrecy that surrounds and protects major college football and which came to a head recently in the Penn State scandal. It is clear that football players and even the coaches themselves, are held to different standards of conduct from the rest of the student-body at the major colleges. Football and basketball programs prefer it if the administration doesn’t get involved in their business, and they pretty much get their way.  After all, they bring in huge amounts of money and that is rapidly becoming the name of the game — if it hasn’t been right along.

The double standard we are all too familiar with encouraged many to brag about men like Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain who had illicit love affairs with hundreds of women — or so they claimed — and those same people would tar a young woman and cover her with feathers if it was said that she had slept with half that many men. Martina Navratilova pointed that out at the time and she was spot on. But while we still seem to expect women to behave better than men, the old double standard has been largely replaced by the new one that is seen mostly on college campuses, but is also evident in the culture at large. It reflects the hero-worship talented athletes enjoy as the law seems always to allow them more leeway than the rest of us. In our colleges and universities it translates into the high comfort-level enjoyed by the athletes as they are assured the protection of their coaches and administrators no matter how outrageous their behavior.

So in the end Lizzy’s death goes unnoticed while the airwaves are filled with the gossip about Manti Te’o and his fictional girlfriend. It’s enough to make a person take up strong drink — if he hadn’t already done so long ago.

Gender Equity

Edith Wharton was an early champion of gender equity, though I am not sure she gets the credit she deserves. One of the numerous targets she has in her sights is the infamous “double standard,” which applauds men for sexual prowess while at the same time condemning women for the exact same thing. In Age of Innocence, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, she tells us that “All the elderly ladies whom [the hero] knew regarded any woman who loved imprudently as necessarily unscrupulous and designing, and mere simple-minded man as powerless in her clutches. The only thing was to persuade him, as early as possible, to marry a nice girl, and then trust her to look after him.” In this particular novel, the tale winds in a compelling way around the theme of a woman who “loved imprudently” — Wharton’s compelling way. But the double standard is only one of the problems the women in Wharton’s day had, living as they did vapid lives in a man’s world. And Wharton is eager to point them out. She led a movement in its earliest stages of development. The movement has grown and now has a great many zealous followers.

There’s no question that the feminist movement has good grounds for their fervor and enthusiasms as women were silenced far too long. And they have drawn attention to a great many unacceptable, and even unethical, practices in our culture. Many of these practices still remain even after sustained attacks, however, as does the double standard. Martina Navratilova noted when Magic Johnson bragged about his “thousand infidelities” that a woman would have been tarred and feathered for making such a claim publicly. Further, there aren’t many women among the 1% of those who control the wealth in this country. However, painfully slow as it has been, there has also been some progress.

But with the progress there has also been the seemingly inevitable exaggeration as the notion of “equity” has been identified in the minds of many with “sameness,” and important differences are slighted over or shunted aside; certainly disallowed. This has occurred on many fronts, of course, and not just in the camp of women’s rights. The claim that women (in this case) have the same rights as men — or ought to — is based on a moral grounds, involving moral and civil rights. There can be no question that this argument is well founded. But when the notion of “equity” expands to include “sameness,” we are venturing into the realm of the absurd. There are important social, intellectual, physical, biological, and cultural differences among all human beings, not only between men and women. All of these differences should be duly noted while at the same time we acknowledge the rights of all. We should celebrate differences, not brush them aside in the name of “equity.”  Wharton certainly knew this.

There are many intriguing differences between males and females and it is one of the sad consequences of the feminist movement, and so-called “political correctness,” that we have become afraid to mention them for fear of the wrath of the Commissar of Culture. Noting differences between the sexes is dismissed as “stereotyping” and noting differences in general suggests that nasty word “discrimination,” which we forget was once a good thing. We have become oversensitive to the legitimate grievances of those who have been chronically disadvantaged. And in our concern that someone’s feeling might get hurt we become tongue-tied and intellectually impotent. It is wrong to hurt anyone’s feelings, but it is also wrong to hamstring those who have important things to say.

Fortunately, Wharton was not caught up in the gender equity frenzy, though she was wide awake to the plight of women. She most certainly was not tongue-tied nor intellectually impotent. Her main objective was to draw attention to the follies and injustices of her age. In doing so she was able to discriminate between pretense and honesty, the way the world was and the way she knew it should be.  She was aware of the slights that were being perpetrated daily against women in her culture and saw the reality that was buried beneath social protocols and propriety. And she was unafraid to speak about them. Most importantly, she didn’t have to look over her shoulder to see if she was being watched by the Commissar of Culture. That made it possible for her to speak her mind most eloquently.