State of the Union January/February 2006

Two Cheers for Hypocrisy

As the Gallup Organization has discovered, the young are another country—and one day it's going to be ours

I have not seen a Gallup poll asking the questions that every parent (and prig and lecher) wants to ask. And it may be just as well if Gallup doesn't bother. Gallup does ask, "What Are Teens Doing After School?" Forty-four percent say homework. Only 12 percent admit to "playing video games." A paltry five percent concede that they "talk on the phone." I say, "LOL" ("laughing out loud"), as the 11 percent who confess to being "on the computer" would put it.

Fifty-six percent of teens say "young people should abstain from sex until marriage." Sixty-four percent of teenage girls say so. What kind of abstention they say they're favoring, however, is open to interpretation. Gallup, in its analysis of this poll finding, brings in a professed expert on the subject, a "clinician and health educator" at a "teen sexual health center in suburban New Jersey." The expert avers, "Oral sex has become a popular way to postpone intercourse. Teens don't think of it as having sex." For another poll, titled "Teens' Marriage Views Reflect Changing Norms," Gallup brings in additional experts, from something called the National Marriage Project, at Rutgers University. (As long as Gallup is being New Jersey-centric, maybe Bruce Springsteen should have been questioned too.) The Rutgers people declare that 65 percent of young people have sex before they finish high school.

Put expert testimony together with a supposition that a few teens continue to use the ten-cent birth-control device advocated by parochial school nuns: a dime between your knees. Then add the observable fact that a fair portion of high school boys are still collecting Star Wars figurines and don't need a Yoda mask to go to a Halloween party. The conclusion is that regular teens are going at it like the Navy in port.

Our adolescents are hypocrites. And let's not forget that there are worse values than hypocrisy. A hypocrite knows good from bad, and maybe even right from wrong. This is more, it seems, than can be said for a certain former majority leader of the House of Representatives or several former reporters from CBS and The New York Times.

Whether or not teenagers act on their morals, they have a strong moralistic streak. Ninety-five percent consider "married men and women having an affair" to be morally unacceptable. Lively teen imaginations may be at work here, with mental pictures of icky grown-up bodies doing the deed. Still, the kids are within a +/- 5 percentage-point sampling error of total condemnation.

In the matter of abortion, 72 percent of teens consider it morally wrong, and 32 percent would make it illegal in all circumstances (compared with 17 percent of adults who take this absolutist view). And if we inspect the poll numbers on what might be called "Right to Life Lite," we find that 55 percent of teens believe medical testing on animals is immoral as well.

Perhaps logic is not to be expected from moralists, let alone very young ones. While nearly three quarters of kids think abortion is morally wrong, only 42 percent think having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable. What's a girl to do? And though practically all adolescents condemn adultery, two thirds of them condone divorce. Maybe this is credulity, and the kids really believe that their parents are divorcing "for the sake of the children" and not for the sake of the pool boy or the twenty-six-year-old executive assistant. Divorce famously imposes more hardships on women than on men, but 74 percent of teenage girls countenance split-ups, versus only 58 percent of boys. That confirms a suspicion that divorced dads take their sons to sporting events on alternate weekends, while divorced moms complain about divorced dads to their daughters nonstop.

Although fewer than half of teenagers think it's all right to have sex before marriage, 62 percent think "young people are responsible enough to be sexually active" at age eighteen or younger. Meanwhile, only 41 percent think they are responsible enough to drink alcohol before they're twenty-one. Kids are apparently unfazed by the idea that they can be old enough to vote, join the Army, get married, make babies, be tried as adults and executed by lethal injection, but as for having a beer ...

Such conundrums cast more doubt, not so much on the values of youth as on the value of polling teens. Gallup itself provides the strongest case for skepticism. In a poll on alcohol use an improbable 17 percent of teens say they have "occasion to use alcoholic beverages." Only nine percent say they've been a passenger in a car driven by a teen under the influence of alcohol. And seven percent (the few, the defiant) admit to having been that driver. If the preceding numbers are even remotely factual, we are dealing with adolescents so different from those of my heyday that they may be the spawn of intergalactic alien invaders. Either that or we really do have a horrific drug problem in this country. Kids have abandoned knocking back brewskis and have taken up imbibing godawful substances we've probably never heard of. (I have a fuzzy recollection that this has happened before.)

Kids will find some way to alter their painfully acute and frustratingly inchoate little consciousnesses. For a sample of teen consciousness I give you the following from a Gallup poll titled "What Frightens America's Youth?" As would be expected in a generation for whom 9/11 is the most shocking event in the history of mankind, the most common fear is terrorism. But what is the fear that comes in only one percentage point behind terrorism? Spiders.

The kids are yanking our chain. They have taken to heart the W. H. Auden poem "Under Which Lyre," which cheers the eternal war that young, playful, mischievous Hermes wages against mature, pompous, government-approved and corporate-sponsored Apollo. I doubt the kids have taken the poem to heart literally, or know of Auden or of Hermes, except as a brand of bling. But in their own thoughtless way they're thinking,

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
        Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
        A social science.

As to what values youth in fact has, time will tell. But time will not tell us much, because we'll be senile or dead. Meanwhile, the path to greater wisdom is not charted by the interrogation of teenagers—or, probably, by the interrogation of anyone, whether in a Gallup poll, at Guantanamo Bay, or in anonymously sourced deep-think interviews for important periodicals. We'd be better off heeding the Dian Fossey lesson: We know as much as we do about gorillas because they cannot speak.

P. J. O'Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book is Peace Kills.
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