Well-meaning parents depend on computer chips to limit their children's television and Internet exposure to sexual explicitness and pornography, but there's always another child in another house who can break through the limitations. Teenagers are constantly challenged to test taboos before they understand what the taboos are all about.
There's renewed debate among young mothers over whether they ought to stay home with their young children. But there's not much debate about the value of mothers at home for teenagers. Such mothers are an endangered species even as the adolescent in our society becomes increasingly vulnerable. By "defining deviancy down," in the inspired words of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, we've diluted the absolutes that young men and women need to measure themselves against.
On a recent "Diversity Day" at a liberal, expensive, high-status private school in Washington, teachers and students of both sexes were encouraged to join hands in a circle if they were bisexual. Many did. One teacher, in the cause of openness and, one presumes, clarity in drawing distinctions, drew attention to herself as the sole lesbian in the group.
Neither Jonathan Swift nor Evelyn Waugh could write satire today. "Saturday Night Live" has become a reality show. Not so long ago, men and women who lived unconventional lives lived in dread of being "outed" by rivals and enemies. Exposure was equated with shame. Now, young people are pressured to "out" themselves, holding up their innermost private emotions for public inspection and approbation. Public identity is all, and it's all so sad.
Adolescent girls, who spend lavishly on cosmetics, make up their outer selves without having a clue to their inner worth. They're encouraged to cultivate lip-gloss morality. At a time in their lives when they should be testing themselves against the emotions that shape character, guided by the limits imposed by morality, they're pressured to conform to fads. Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents" wouldn't be about repression today because he couldn't find any. Self-expression has replaced self-restraint. In a civilization that abhors limits on all anti-social urges, the principal's office is just another stage.