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Leonard Pitts Jr.: Te’o debate asking wrong question

  • Miami Herald
  • Published Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, at 12 a.m.

You are missing the point.

Or at least, you are if you’re one of the bazillion people following the Manti Te’o story, dutifully trying to determine whether the University of Notre Dame football star was the victim or the perpetrator of a bizarre hoax. Granted, the story is irresistible as one of those 15-minutes-of-fame-kitten-stuck-in-the-well fables without which people who gather around the watercooler wouldn’t have anything to talk about.

Te’o, a Heisman Trophy runner-up, had generated an outpouring of sympathy after he played through pain, turning in a gritty performance that keyed his team to an upset win, right after learning that his girlfriend and grandmother had died within hours of each other. The grandmother was real. But as Deadspin, a sports website, soon discovered, the girlfriend was not.

Te’o, it turned out, had never met Lennay Kekua. He’d seen pictures of a woman, he’d spoken to what he thought was a woman by phone and corresponded with someone online. The “relationship” was virtual. Te’o says now that he was as surprised as anyone to learn Kekua did not exist. He was, he says, the victim of a hoax by an acquaintance, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. So now, people are debating whether Te’o duped us or was duped himself.

And missing a more fascinating question. What does it say that this story is even possible, that it is even credible that a man could have an emotionally intimate “relationship” with a woman who did not exist?

Here, then, in a nutshell is the great paradox of the communications revolution. It has left us both better connected and yet further apart, because actual contact is no longer required. Indeed, we’ll likely see more stories like these as texting substitutes for conversation, Facebook supplants friendship and we “live” ever more online.

Some of us remember a day when she wasn’t your girlfriend unless she’d allowed you to hold her hand or steal a kiss. You know, physical contact in an analog world.

But that was then.

One is reminded, in a twisted sense, of the outcry over a 1964 news story out of New York City. Though key details were later refuted, the initial version had 38 people watching from their windows as a young woman named Kitty Genovese was raped and killed, but declining to come to her aid because they did not want to get involved. That incident became an iconic illustration of an abiding sense that people were becoming alienated from one another.

If that was a legitimate fear 49 years ago, how much more legitimate is it in 2013, when the streets are filled with people who pass one another yet never see one another, sit next to one another yet never share so much as a nod of acknowledgment, so enrapt are they – we – in words and images on tiny screens. Indeed, if the ’70s were the Me Decade and the ’80s were the Greed Decade, it seems entirely likely historians of the future will remember this as the Screen Decade, the years spent looking down.

So while some people are asking what Te’o knew and when he knew it, some of us simply marvel that we have come into a time when such a story is even possible. Apparently, however, what supposedly happened to Te’o is common enough that it even has a name: catfishing.

It is relatively immaterial whether or not he lied. What is of greater interest is that the story illustrates a sea change in what now constitutes interpersonal relationships. And the new norm cannot help but seem a little odd to those of us who remember when a relationship – or at least an intimate one – presupposed that you and the other person had actually met.

Of course, that was the olden days. Now so much of our world is digital – movies, music, shopping, books – it’s easy to believe everything just works better that way. But guess what? Not everything does.

Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, appears in Opinion on Mondays.

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