Mind Matters — Reflect More, Judge Less

Have you ever done anything you regretted—especially as a teen? Two adolescent boys room together. One videos his roommate’s homosexual encounter, days later this man young plunges to his death. We all know something of the story of Dharun Ravi and Tyler Clementi.

Public opinion is quick to judge, constantly goaded by 24/7 media coverage of one stripe or another.

What if we considered how much these boys were alike, rather than different? Both were hormonal adolescents with brains not yet ready for prime time: that is, not thinking about the consequences of their actions. As I have noted in this column previously, there has been much research regarding the prefrontal cortex of adolescents, particularly boys. This is the area of the brain that puts the brakes on impulsive behavior and hormonal reactivity. And it has a way to go in a young brain before it is fully operative. What the teenager may know about right and wrong sitting at the kitchen table having a talk with Mom or Dad is far different from that teen in a situation that triggers his impulsivity.

So with this in mind, Ravi and Clementi were alike in at least one way: that both followed their negative impulses, unfortunately one to his death.

Individuals need to take responsibility for their actions, of course, and I do not mean my words to relieve Ravi of any wrongful behavior.

However, whenever I read about such high profile stories that involve impulsive actions by young teens (or even young adults) I do put myself in the shoes of both the victim and the accused. My compassion extends to both parties. I recall a story several years ago when a kid under the age of fourteen stupidly threw a chunk of ice off a bridge down onto a passing car. A mother of young children was killed.

The public, in their “concern” for the victim wanted to crucify the youngster. The public could only identify with the victim and denounced the boy as a “despised other.” This poor kid had no intention of killing anyone and had no idea of the consequences of his actions.

But human groups often seek scapegoats—someone on which to pin the blame. When we do this, we can feel smug that we didn’t commit the crime, we didn’t act impulsively. Yet we do speak impulsively when we react with quick judgmental opinions. The more we can project negative attributes onto the alleged perpetrators, the more we can detach ourselves from any human connection with them. But think for a moment: while it may be easier to align with the victim (which is in itself a good thing to do), imagine if the ice thrower or video-maker was your child as well.

Whenever there is a tragedy, there are many ripples of pain. We as a society certainly don’t need to throw stones of judgment to have the ripples be unending. Why add this to our own personal list of regrets?