A couple of weeks ago, one of my kids got in trouble at school. It wasn’t a capital offense but it was serious enough to warrant a lengthy discussion some might describe as “a talking to.”
At the end of this conversation, when said child was still profusely apologizing, crying to the point of hyperventilation, it was time for the lecture to end and reassurance to begin. So I uttered the same words my mom or grandparents or teachers had said to me when I screwed up. And I am sure your parents or the like said something similar to you.
“It’s OK. We all make mistakes. Every single one of us. But as long as we understand why it was wrong, apologize, learn from it and grow, it’s OK. That’s how we become better people.”
But as my child’s tears began to dry, I wondered if those words were still true.
Last week, a 27-year-old woman was forced to resign her position as editor of Teen Vogue before she had even started over insensitive things she tweeted when she was a 17-year-old.
I hate to use the words “cancel culture” and “woke mob” because, like everything else in these Divided States of America, these terms have become highly politicized and are screamed way too many times on all of the cable news networks every night.
But you know something has started affecting all of us when politicos from both sides of the aisle are blaming “cancel culture” for nursing home deaths, sexual harassment and/or inciting riots, an insurrection or various other misdeeds.
Obviously, “cancel culture” didn’t deserve the blame for any of those situations, but whatever you want to call it, the act of publicly shaming and trying to ruin a person by stripping them of their job and good name forever is becoming an increasingly horrifying practice in this country, reminiscent of something out of a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. We may not be handing out scarlet “As” to Hester Prynne anymore, but there are folks being stamped with scarlet “-ists” and “-phobics” of every kind every single day.
And it’s no longer limited to politicians or high-profile figures.
Perhaps some of these are deserved. But many are not. And some of these digital crucifixions seem to be purposeful and the result of malicious mining of the social media feeds, texts, emails, college papers or now just a memory of a conversation you had with someone who you don’t like or who you think screwed you over somehow or who broke up with you or who you are competing with for a job. And often these “cases” are made without any context whatsoever. And increasingly, there seems to be no statute of limitations on such “offenses,” as in the case with the Teen Vogue editor.
Her tweets were no doubt insensitive, and I am sure they embarrass her greatly and make her want to throw up now. But she has apologized multiple times, has been publicly shamed worldwide, and again, she was 17 years old. Is that not enough flesh?
How many of us cringe at multiple things we said or did — especially in our teens and 20s? When you are trying to figure out who you are as a person, you are definitely going to trip up. Probably more than once. Sometimes that’s out of cluelessness or ignorance or misguided attempts to be funny or fit in. But sometimes it’s not even that. The goalposts on what’s OK and what’s not OK are shifting so rapidly — which is a wonderful thing in most cases — but we can’t persecute someone for not being prescient enough to know as a teenager that in a decade (or two! or three!) the Good Word of Twitter Scripture would be teaching us otherwise.
Our energy needs to be focused on “canceling” people who are truly malicious human beings or have exhibited clear and consistent patterns of -ist or -phobic behavior in the here and now, not ridding society of everyone who had a bad moment a lifetime ago.
I was talking with colleagues the other day who are around my age, and we were discussing all of this and how common it was for boys in high school to call each other very derogatory terms — they viewed as a joke — but that no one would use today.
Most of those people weren’t -ists or -phobics; they were just being dumb ass kids. And I would be willing to bet most of them are good people who are teaching their own children not to say those words. Because they aren’t those dumb ass kids anymore, and they have also learned over time how hurtful those words can be. That’s how evolution as individuals and evolution as a society works. We are always striving to be our better selves.
At least we should be. I am not so sure anymore.
We have to allow for growth and grace and forgiveness. Or then what’s the point of all of this? Why would anyone even bother to apologize, if that apology is never going to be accepted?
Can you imagine having to add these lines to those words we tell our children:
“It’s OK. We all make mistakes. Every single one of us. But as long as we understand why it was wrong, apologize, learn from it and grow, it’s OK. That’s how we become better people. BUT, I will say, if someone got a screenshot, a photo, an iPhone recording or video, this could come back to haunt you and this one moment may end up defining you for the rest of your life and ruin you, so if that happens, I don’t know what to tell you. Actually, maybe you shouldn’t even bother taking responsibility or apologizing because it seems admitting any guilt whatsoever just makes it worse. So probably just tell anyone who ever asks that you don’t what they are talking about and to F off.”
And if that’s the lesson we are now teaching, what does the next generation of humans look like?
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