The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
Anyone who survived high school English is probably familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter.” Set in a Puritan Massachusetts community during the mid-1600s, the book is about a young woman forced to wear a scarlet “A” on the front of her dress as punishment for adultery.
I was never a huge fan because I was repulsed by the mob mentality and depth to which people would sink in shaming a fellow human. Luckily, we’ve evolved past that kind of behavior, right?
Thanks to social media and led by a tweeter-in-chief who never met a middle-school put-down he didn’t like, all of us, at any time, are primed for the virtual whipping post. Our society is convinced no one ever changes or deserves a second chance. You are what you did a decade ago or 30 years ago or even yesterday when you had a really rotten day.
We use this public condemnation to bring companies to heel, force people out of the closet, condemn celebrities and “challenge” politicians. And dare you think this outrage ethos is a problem only of the far right, please look over there at the hyper-woke social-justice soldiers on the left. We’ve all got stones in our hands at the ready, itching to throw them.
One of the latest examples from the Public Square of Shame is the condemnation of Parkland, Florida, school shooting survivor Kyle Kashuv after Harvard rescinded his acceptance. The teen had posted his acceptance letter on Twitter, which led someone to inform Harvard about disgusting racist comments Kashuv made when he was 16.
His actions happened months before the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when Kashuv — who graduated second in his class — was working in a shared Google Doc with other students. He’s apologized profusely for the bigoted statements he says were made by someone he “no longer recognizes,” but Harvard isn’t buying it, nor is the pitchfork-holding online crowd.
I’m not going to defend anyone using racist epithets, and in spite of Kashuv’s eloquent apologies, maybe deep down, he is an irredeemable racist.
However, as someone who raised four teens, I can tell you that 16-year-olds say ridiculously stupid, even hateful, things at times. They go along with horrible ideas from horrible people because they are trying to discover who they are and because high school is a cesspool in which everyone is just trying to not drown.
There’s a reason we keep teenagers busy with football and volunteering and after-school jobs: they literally can’t be trusted to think past the moment and are highly influenced by whichever group they happen to be in at the time. Don’t believe me? Consider that representatives of my high school graduating class walked a cow up three flights of stairs and left it there as a senior prank. A cow.
As an adult, I now realize that action was probably livestock abuse, that people could have been seriously injured and that it cost the district classroom-needed money to rescue a cow. But back then? I thought it was hysterical.
It is a miracle that adolescents grow up and turn into men who cook dinner for their wives and visit their elderly grandmother and pay taxes and realize that, back in the day, they said or did stupid stuff. But they do, because that’s what adulting is.
I’d wager my firstborn child on this truth: The majority of us have done things we deeply regret and held opinions we realize are no longer valid or were woefully uninformed. We’ve evolved, we’ve grown, we’ve changed our minds. And none of us want to be remembered for one bad moment — or even a series of them.
Like I said, maybe Kashuv is a hardened racist. I don’t think so, but if he is, his best chances of real growth and change would be through the challenging, broad-based curriculum and cultural exposure of the sort Harvard offers. It’s too bad the university — which once employed faculty who owned slaves — couldn’t see that.