Barely a week seems to go by any more without someone in the public eye – or someone unfortunate enough to find themselves thrust into the public eye – being forced into a grovelling apology and ‘resigning’ (more often in reality being fired) from their job because of something they’ve said. That’s bad. What’s worse is that the offending comment might not even be something that they’ve said recently in many cases. The ill-considered comments of youth are coming back to haunt adults years later.
The latest victim, as I write, is Mohammed Elshamy, a twenty-five-year-old photo journalist who has just lost his job with CNN over anti-semitic comments that he made in 2011, as a sixteen-year-old. Now, anti-semitism is certainly a problem, as we’ve seen in the UK with the continuing scandal of a handful of Labour politicians who just can’t keep their mouths shut when it comes to the issue, but there’s a surely considerable difference between a grown adult who has made comments recently and a kid mouthing off a decade ago. I do wonder if things are getting out of hand when someone can’t simply say “sorry” for idiotic comments they made when they were still at school and have never repeated, and get on with their lives (and Elshamy has stated that “I unequivocally express my apologies to everyone”, which really ought to be enough). Obviously, if evidence that Elshamy was still a vocal and active anti-semite emerged, then things might be different – but can we not at least give him the benefit of the doubt? I’m going to take a guess that it’s possible that, as a kid, the Egyptian Elshamy was influenced by hardline Middle Eastern hatred of The Jews, and as he matured and perhaps met a wider group of people, his beliefs mellowed? That he might be genuinely mortified by the things he said as a sixteen-year-old? It’s a radical idea I know, that people can change as they move from childhood into adulthood, but one worth exploring.
I know that the person I was at sixteen is not the person I am now. Hell, the person I was at sixteen was not even the person I was at nineteen. At sixteen, you’re still developing your sense of self, or at least you should be – there is no way, at that age, that you have the life experience, the understanding, the maturity, the grasp of nuance or the empathy that comes with age (or should come – clearly, there are many adults who are stuck in their sixteen-year-old mindset). Teenagers think that they know everything, but in fact they know very little – it’s not their fault, but how could they possibly be experts in anything other than being a teenager? Their socio-political ideas are often extreme, passionate and inflexible, often following the herd of their peers and the lead of their parents, and influenced by teachers and the media without any mitigating or alternative ideas allowed to get through the confirmation bias filter. Teenagers develop extreme views because they want to fit into their society and not question or deviate from the collective, and because everything seems so simple and black and white at that age – there’s no one to rock the boat of your hot headed, gut instinct ideas of right and wrong.
But most people – not newspaper columnists or celebrities (who exist in a teenage-like bubble anyway) or career politicians or social media firebrands, but most normal people – will mature and open themselves to new experiences, new groups of people and new ideas. You might not agree with them all, but at least they can show that those who seemed different – those who you might have monstered in your childish past – are in fact just like you once you get past differences of opinion or upbringing. Or at least enough like you for you not to see them as complex individuals, rather than nothing more than part of a block group to hate unconditionally.
Pornographer Bill Margold used to warn potential new adult video performers that what they were about to do would be around forever: “what will you say when your kid sees footage of you having sex?” was the question he would hit them with as a reminder that they would have to live with their decisions for the rest of their lives. Social media is rather similar. Few people lock or close down their accounts (and evidence shows that closing a Facebook account, for instance, does not make it go away), and even fewer go back to purge embarrassing posts – some of which that they may well have forgotten even posting. And so these pages exist as a record of everything you’ve ever said or thought or done since you signed up, which for most people under thirty will not only be the whole of their adult life, but a big chunk of their childhood too. It’s not a surprise that these pages have been weaponised across the political divide by people who want to bring opponents down, and more depressingly, by the social justice mob whose only pleasure comes from being (faux) outraged and and constantly on the search for something – anything – that someone might have said that is beyond the pale of current attitudes. A single comment – better yet, a cluster of comments – that are sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic or hateful in one of a myriad of other ways will be stripped of context. Sarcasm will be presented as sincerely held belief. Jokes will be seen as serious comment. Juvenile bigotry and hyperbole will be presented as if it represents the person you are today. Often, this misinterpretation or over-reaction is a knowing one – the offended understand the context only too well, but choose to ignore it, because where is the satisfying sense of righteousness in that? A single comment that disagrees with any level of the current orthodoxy will have you excommunicated (“cancelled”) and thrown in with the Far Right and the Neo Nazis (once an extremist political belief, now increasingly “anyone who disagrees with me or who I don’t like”). The race to the bottom has been cynically used by the Right, against people like James Gunn, and the Left about no end of people. Sometimes, there is an unholy accidental alliance formed to take down people who both sides hate. And no one is treated more harshly than a heretic who has upset their own tribe. There’s nothing the self-righteous love more than to turn on one of their own, and while there is a certain schadenfreude in seeing someone given a taste of their own medicine, it’s ultimately a deeply unhealthy way for society to live.
This needs to stop. We should be allowed the folly of youth if that folly is all talk and no action. We should be allowed to express opinions that are currently unpopular or unfashionable without losing our jobs, having our social media accounts closed and our lives destroyed. And we should be allowed to make jokes, no matter how unfunny and offensive some people think they are. Instead of gleefully jumping into the mob that demands justice against transgressors, how much better would it be if people could take a deep breath and think back to all the times in their own lives where they too might have said something unsavoury – either because they sincerely believed it at the time, or because they were simply going with the flow, or because they were trying to be funny or simply because they were a stupid kid who didn’t know any better – and give someone the benefit of the doubt? If no one can make a mistake or change their minds any more, then we might as well live in a 1984-style dictatorship, where thoughtcrime is the worst crime of all with no statute of limitations.
We need people to become outraged over the outraged, and we need it to happen not only when someone we like or agree with is taken down by the social media mob, but when it happens to someone we disagree with – because if we don’t, then it just gets more and more oppressive and everyone loses in the end. Jumping onto a mob hounding to demand a resignation because of something someone once said – often stripped of context or reinterpreted by an individual with a particular agenda – is bullying, pure and simple, and the sense of satisfaction these people get from it is entirely the same as the petty, empty and misguided sense of superiority that the school cunt gets from torturing the little kid with no friends to stick up for them. It’s nothing to be proud of. Don’t be a dick.