Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Young and Stupid No More

In the interviews and press conferences that have followed the revelation of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid use, a common refrain has been “young and stupid.” Rodriguez has used this excuse repeatedly, as evidenced in the quotes from his latest presser:

“When I entered the pros, I was a young kid in the major leagues I was 18 years old right out of high school, I thought I knew everything and I clearly didn't.”

“I was 24, 25 years old. I keep going back to - I entered the game when I was 18.”

“I wish I went to college and had an opportunity to grow up and at my own pace. I guess when you are young and stupid you are young and stupid.”

“I didn't think they were steroids. That's part of being young and stupid.”

“I was 24, 25. I was pretty naive and pretty young.”

“My mistake came because I was immature and I was stupid.”
Way to throw an entire age bracket under the bus Alex! Both Michael Phelps’ and A-rod’s reliance on the dumb-and-young card got me thinking about how tired I’ve become of that excuse. It’s a prevalent excuse for college undergraduates to use to justify dangerous behavior. For example, it was rare for me to get through a session on responsible alcohol use without someone stating “but we’re young and should be allowed to make mistakes!”  

It’s true – young adults make mistakes (news flash: so do older people).  Mistakes are a part of life. However, in fraternity and sorority life, I think we’ve broadened the definition of mistake to include anything that a person should not be doing. A mistake is an accident – and usually a temporary or single-incident one. A mistake is locking your keys in your car. A mistake is forgetting to call your Mom on her birthday. A mistake is breaking a rule you did not know about. The important thing is that we never meant for these things to happen.

Underage drinking is NOT a mistake. It’s a choice. Any person with a pulse knows that the drinking age is 21. It’s time to stop using the “young and stupid” excuse to justify this behavior. My feelings about the drinking age will appear in a future essay. However, at this moment, it’s illegal to drink if you are not 21 or older. If you do, be prepared for the consequences.

Hazing someone else is NOT just a mistake. Nobody can ever say: “Whoops, I just accidentally hazed that person!” It is also a choice. At this point in our history, I don’t believe anyone can claim ignorance on hazing. Thanks to the media and active educational efforts by universities and headquarters, no fraternity/sorority member should be ignorant to the fact that hazing is in most cases illegal and in all cases wrong.

The same can be said for sexual assault, vandalism, drug use, and almost every other calamity that threatens fraternities and sororities. “Young and stupid” is not an acceptable excuse anymore. Young people may not be as wise as older people, but they are not stupid. They may be overconfident, or harbor feelings of invincibility, but they are not stupid.

Ignorance of rules can be a problem, given that there are so many nowadays. That’s why policies and rules should be shared in as many forms as possible, and as many times as possible. However, I don’t think we need to tell 18-year-olds that underage drinking is illegal more than once for us to hold them accountable to it. I understand some of the cognitive theories that have caused us to rationalize youthful behavior over the years, but I’m tired of how these have also caused us to lower expectations. Previous generations did not have the luxury to wait until they were 22 to be mature. I wonder sometimes if the 18-year-old brain today is only stupid, immature, or ignorant because we let it be. We shouldn’t be captive to our assumptions, or fearful of raised expectations.

If we view our actions as choices, and not mistakes, then maybe we can begin to return to an era of individual accountability. I was arrested for underage drinking when I was 19. I was young – but not stupid. I knew I was breaking the law, and I paid the consequences (including an excruciating confession to my parents). I don’t view it as a mistake. I made a bad choice and did my best to own it.

It’s okay to be young. It’s okay to be immature. It’s okay to be stupid. However, it’s no longer okay to rationalize poor choices because of those reasons. President Obama has called for a new era of responsibility and, in my mind, there is no minimum age to join this era.