We need to really think if people should be forgiven for something they did when they were young

We need to really think if people should be forgiven for something they did when they were young

Is there any path to redemption for the publicly shamed?

CultureFebruary 11, 2019 By Reilly Capps

How hard should we punish people for stuff they did wrong when they were young? 

In Louisiana they often try their teenage murderers as adults. Give them death or life in prison.

The more barbaric the place, in fact, the less likely they are to offer clemency, a way back. Some countries, like Saudi Arabia or parts of Syria, lop off thieves' hands and adulterers' heads.

That feels like a mistake, doesn't it? Can't a thief reform, or a killer go straight?

Yet on social media, increasingly, we're taking the Louisiana, the Saudi Arabia approach.

As people get called out for racist, sexist or transphobic speech, Tweets or pictures from their past, they get destroyed on Twitter and Facebook. Doxxed and humiliated, they leave the platform. The shame follows them into real life. They lose their jobs and friends. 

But we need to really think about if people change over time, or if we should hold them accountable for something they did when they were 16.

The examples pile up too quickly to even keep track of. The governor of Virginia, growing up in a racist state, wore blackface as a teen. Mark Wahlberg, when he was 16 living in a racist place, Boston, beat up an Asian man and called him "Vietnam f——-- s—-" and talked to police about "g--ks."

These men still have their places in society — but a lot of people, maybe most people, are arguing that they shouldn't. 

For them, the question is: What's the statute of limitations on being a racist? Or a dick?

Is it forever? Or do people get a chance to change?

More and more, it seems like, the impulse is to cut people off.

The strangest incident lately was the Covington Catholic fiasco, when those MAGA-hat-wearing kids seemed to be taunting a Native American on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Vigilantes on Twitter, such as Kathy Griffin, called for the boys names to be published and for their lives to be ruined.

Ruined! For a non-violent offense at the age of 15 or 16! We don't even put away 15-year-old murderers for life. And the crazy thing was that even after other videos surfaced that showed that the whole situation was just a big dumb shouty clusterfuck, some of the Twitter crowd refused to walk back their anger, and said the teens should be run out of the country.

The true instigator, the villain fanning the flames — is Twitter itself, with algorithms set up to launch the craziest, most inflammatory shit to the top of your feed. Jaron Lanier is great on this. 

Anyone with a heart would say that, if the kids did something wrong, there has to be a path to redemption for them. Even the weird, reality-challenged nuts called the Black Hebrew Israelites, who arguably started the whole mess by calling the Covington kids "incest babies" and "future school shooters" who "give f——-s rights" — they need a chance to say they're sorry.

We can't just all go on hating each other, and amplifying the hate, until the end of time. 

photo - Jon Ronson book

Nobody tackles the present moment as well as Jon Ronson. "So You've Been Publicly Shamed" is his 2015 book about people destroyed by the Internet's mobs, mostly for things that, in retrospect, just didn't seem that bad.

Ronson profiles regular people who lost their jobs because they made off-color jokes about dicks or AIDS — jokes that happened to rub the wrong person badly online.

In the years since, things have only gotten worse, more reactionary, more vindictive, more petty. 

And when people do actually screw up? What's the path to redemption for these people? A Twitter parole board, staffed by the same Twitter mobs, who decide that a person has paid their debt to society, and they should be allowed back into normal society?

South Africa had a truth and reconciliation commision, where they reconciled with the apartheid racists, and didn't jail them for life.

In America, now, we love redemption stories. Don't racists deserve the same shot? 

Does hating them forever, especially for stuff they did at 16, make sense? 

Do we want more Louisiana-style, more Saudi Arabia-style justice? 

And what's all this vortex of loathing and blame doing to our souls?