Leonard Pitts: Manti Te’o story offers lessons: Better connected, farther apart

01/27/2013 12:00 AM

09/12/2014 6:17 PM

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 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 water cooler 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 one another. 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, farther 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. 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 acknowledgement, 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 he lied or not. 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.

About Leonard Pitts Jr

Leonard Pitts Jr

@LeonardPittsJr1

Leonard Pitts Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004. He is the author of the novel, Before I Forget. His column runs every Sunday and Wednesday. Forward From This Moment, a collection of his columns, was released in 2009.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he wrote a column on the terrorist attacks that received a huge response from readers who deluged him with more than 26,000 e-mails. It was posted on the Internet, chain-letter style. Read the column and others on the topic of September 11.

You can also read Pitts' series, What Works?, a series of columns about programs anywhere in the country that show results in improving the lives of black children.

Leonard also wrote the 2008 series I Am A Man, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.

Email Leonard at lpitts@MiamiHerald.com or visit his website at www.leonardpittsjr.com

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