The Shame Of Punishing People For Their Childhood Mistakes

Ruining someone’s life because of the stupid things they said as a child does not seem a very progressive thing to do.

Have you ever said anything unpleasant and hurtful to another person, maybe when you were a child? Probably. If you are not a bigoted dickhead, then you no doubt feel terrible about doing it now, but kids are stupid. They literally don’t know better and will take a Lord of the Flies approach to life, mocking or verbally abusing anyone who doesn’t fit it, even when they don’t really mean it, because by and large, they don’t want to find themselves picked on by splitting from the herd.

Childhood tribalism and nastiness is a horrible thing, and for the victims, it can be something that they carry with them for years, brooding on injustice, damaged by insults. But like I said, kids are stupid. Their brains have yet to develop. Their social skills are limited. They live in a socially isolated world of school and home, and they are all given to showing off, being smart arses and trying to annoy their parents. No matter what we tell them and how we educate them, they are going to say and do idiotic things that they might regret within a few years.

The question is: if those idiotic things are not criminal – if they fall short of actions for which an adult can be imprisoned or even fined – should they then follow a person around for the rest of their lives on a permanent record? I think most of us, on reflection, would say no. Even the school bully needs the chance of redemption. Indeed, I would hope that we might all agree that it’s sensible for most non-violent crime to expunged from anyone’s record after a while, as long as they have reformed – if they have turned a new leaf and not committed a crime for a decade, surely then it is counter-productive for their past to linger on like a bad smell as they try to get jobs or homes or anything else that might involve a background check? It makes sense, then, that the non-criminal actions of our youth – things that might hurt feelings but are not legal offences – should not be recorded at all – certainly not by the police. Yet here we are in 2021, and police forces across the UK  are busying themselves ruining lives by recording ‘non-crime hate incidents’ – non-crimes that will nevertheless sit on your newly-created official file and turning up on DBS checks, where the difference between them and actual convictions is often treated as negligible.

There’s the argument – made by people who are wholly convinced that the beast will never come for them – that anyone uttering an insult against any of the protected groups should face the consequences of their actions. Fair enough. No one should be free from criticism over unpleasant comments or hateful action. But we might note that ‘non-crime hate incidents’ are, by their very nature, something of a subjective offence. Obviously, these incidents are not going to be tested in court; rather, the deliberately vague rules surrounding these ‘incidents’ specifically state that it becomes hate-driven if someone – anyone, not even the person it was aimed at – perceives it to have been so. Well, in our current society, where mere criticism can be retooled as hate speech by people looking to deflect any disagreement or simply with malicious intent, what could possibly go wrong with that? Stripped of any due process and at the mercy of police forces who are both keen to establish their social justice credentials and rack up as many easy cases to ‘solve’ as possible, is it any wonder that we’ve seen over 120,000 such incidents recorded in just five years? That’s 24,000 a year – almost 66 a day – who have not broken the law but who have nevertheless been recorded by the police as hate speakers.

It’s bad enough when this happens to adults: who wants to be branded as a hate speaker over a critical Tweet against a mouthy activist or celebrity, or for making a clumsy joke about a recently-deceased national hero? Twitter in particular, with its 280-character limit, seems the ideal platform for being (deliberately or otherwise) misunderstood on, and the police investigation of ‘offensive’ tweets is now so common that it usually goes unnoticed and unchallenged. But we might also note that over 2000 of those NCHIs are from under-seventeens. Children, in other words, some of whom will be leaving school, applying for universities or jobs with these incidents listed, context-free, on their newly acquired police records.

Social media has now been around long enough to ruin lives. We’ve already seen how an indecorous childhood tweet can and will be dug up by enemies and rivals to destroy someone at the moment of their greatest triumph – just look at the recent situation involving the would-be editor of Teen Vogue and her leading accuser, both brought down by indecorous and ill-thought childhood posts. Hell hath no fury like a jealous Millennial, and you can bet that everyone’s Twitter feed, going back to their very first day on the platform even if that was in 2006, will now be furiously poured over in search of something – anything – that reveals them to be an awful, socially unacceptable person. No matter their age at the time, no matter what they might have done or said since, no matter how much they might apologise. Bringing down a rival is even more pleasurable than destroying an enemy, it seems. Forgiveness of past sins is a concept long since abandoned in favour of ruining lives, our very worst moments used to define us forever.

Putting someone’s angry response during a spat, their bad joke or their tasteless insult on a permanent record rather than, say, just quietly telling them to dial it in a touch is to often do something worse than the initial incident. True, free speech doesn’t mean that we are free from consequences – but when you allow the most easily – or, more often, maliciously – offended people to make the rules and decide when a comment becomes hate speech, then we open up a black hole of tit-for-tat revenge where the consequences can be awful. And when the comments were made at a time when a person is too young to have legal agency, how can we possibly claim that they represent the person that they have become? Do we really deny everyone the opportunity to change as they get older and wiser?

In any case, is it not odd that the same people who claim to be the socially conscious, caring opponents of hate and bigotry will cheerfully destroy someone’s life over a single ill-considered, juvenile comment? Wrecking lives over childhood mistakes is not noble, it’s not clever and it’s certainly not any sort of justice.

DAVID FLINT

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