Bullies, big and small

When I was sixteen, a close friend presented me and a few mutual buddies with his Bullet List and asked if there were any specific students we felt should be added. I laughed. We all laughed. It wasn’t a serious murder plot; we were dumb kids blowing off steam in a wholly inappropriate way. Several times over the last few days, I’ve thought about what would have happened if that stupid list would’ve found its way into the wrong hands.

As most educators have probably heard, a popular blog posted some of the most vile, racist remarks made via Twitter after the re-election of Barack Obama. Now major newspapers are running with the story. Many of these remarks were made by children. And you can attach whatever significance to their remarks that you choose, but at the end of the day, one fact remains indisputable: they were made by children. Kids do stupid things. You did, too.

Please stop reading immediately and find some kind of medal for yourself if you can’t think of something you said or did between the ages of 12 and 17 that caused someone else pain. Now imagine if you were never allowed to move on, because for the rest of your life every search engine would return results about you alongside phrases like “BIGGEST TWITTER RACISTS” and “Redneck students’ racist tweets go viral.” Imagine being connected to your worst moment for the rest of your life and you have some idea what these ignorant young people have awaiting them. Anyone who has heard the name “Libby Hoeller” knows what a minor indiscretion as a teenager can do to one’s Google search results even ten years later.

Bullying is exclusively the province of the powerful, so if you’ve been powerless for even one second, you have the perpetual, inalienable right to act like a jerk to whatever or whomever wronged you. At least, that seems to be the message many are trying to send to our kids. This apparently extends to how we treat children, too. Is tweeting racist remarks offensive? Obviously. But is it more offensive than an adult blogger calling the schools these kids attend to ensure that they’ve been expelled? More offensive than forty year olds proudly outing the identities of racist children?

There are quite a few overmatched parents who can’t be there to monitor every single social media interaction their son or daughter has. And we are failing them and their kids miserably when we let the mistakes of youth be paraded in front of the world, and when we decide some kind of warped vigilante justice is more important than shaping our kids into better citizens. Is the die really cast at fifteen? Can we really discard a high school freshman because he or she foolishly published some racist thoughts? Are we honestly going to pretend that this student invented racism, and that he or she didn’t learn how to be stupid from equally ignorant parents, or even a world that allows codified, institutional racism to pervade virtually every nook and cranny of our existence?

Apparently, the answer to all of these questions is “yes.” We are going to ignore it because people deserve to be punished. First the students who said stupid things. Then the parents who don’t monitor their kids’ social media output. Then the schools who don’t immediately acquiesce to the demands of morally repugnant, ethically challenged bloggers, desperate for enough clicks to keep Nick Denton from moving him or her to Dogbot, or whatever other hits-starved blog serves as the Gawker Media ring of fire. And all the aggrieved parties will proudly wave the banner of “doing what’s right” and “teaching kids about consequences.”

Well here’s a note from someone with a child, and who has spent the better part of my life instilling the best values I can into tomorrow’s leaders: YOU’RE NOT HELPING. Public shaming, scattershot “blame everyone” mentalities, using the full weight and power of adulthood to crush children…these are not the messages I’ve been trying to convey?

Thanks for the effort, but frankly, you absolutely suck at teaching kids anything if this is how you do it. And I hope to God you’re own children don’t ever feel the public wrath you’ve called down upon these kids, these hapless dopes who tried to act tough on Twitter. I hope your sons and daughters never get caught sexting, or publish inappropriate pictures to Instagram, or foolishly post pictures of themselves doing keg stands to Facebook. I hope they never use a sexual, racial, or homophobic slur, regardless of context. I hope their emails never get hacked, and I pray they never post something they regret on a blog. I sincerely wish none of that ever happens to these allegedly adult bloggers and their future children.

Because if they do, there are a lot of people watching who would like to teach you what schadenfreude is all about.

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