I know all about making stupid mistakes as a teenager – because I raised teenagers, and because I used to be one. Like most people, I would not want to be condemned for something I did or said as a 15-year-old.
I think that’s how a lot of people are feeling about the case of a white high school freshman in Virginia who is seen on a Snapchat video using the n-word. A Black classmate saw the already three-year-old video last year; appalled by it and the casual culture of racism at his high school, he held onto it and shared it publicly when the young woman had chosen a college.
“I wanted to get her where she would understand the severity of that word,” he told The New York Times.
He got his wish: Amid the social media furor that followed, the University of Tennessee dropped her from its elite cheerleading team and then pressured her, successfully, to decline her acceptance.
Like so many examples in the age of online shaming, there are at least two sides to this story, coolly captured in The Times piece. Black students had long complained that the high school had not taken reports of pervasive racism seriously. “A report commissioned last year by the school district documented a pattern of school leaders ignoring the widespread use of racial slurs by both students and teachers, fostering a ‘growing sense of despair’ among students of color,” The Times reports.
Jewish readers, mindful of the explosive growth of anti-Semitic invective online and in public life, can relate to this despair. Jewish organizations regularly call out purveyors of anti-Semitic words and deeds, and are often frustrated at the lack of consequences. What would your reactions to this story be if, instead of using the n-word, she had said “kike” or “hebe”?
On the other hand, Jewish groups usually focus on public figures and adults, or individuals who either show a pattern of anti-Semitic behavior or have some influence. There’s no indication in the Times story that the young woman had a reputation as a racist. Earlier this year, in a public Instagram post, she urged people to join the protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Many of these commenting on The Times story feel the young woman was paying too high a price for an ugly message she sent privately to a friend as a 15-year-old, and that the young man should have sought an apology instead of revenge. “It seems that Ms. Groves had an immature adolescent moment trying to sound gangsta, that’s it,” writes a reader from Santa Monica, Calif. “So now she shoulders the payback for centuries of true racism and hateful acts, not to mention the last four painful years of Trump and his ilk’s blatant racism?”
Many readers held up the incident as the latest example of “cancel culture,” which it is not. Cancel culture is about the boundaries of speech, and whether one can express unpopular or unorthodox views without fear of social backlash. No one (or at least, hardly anyone) is defending the young woman’s right to use the n-word. This is a story about public shaming, and the frightening ease by which a conflict that may best be handled person-to-person or within a community gets adjudicated in the court of national public opinion, with its players as human collateral.
The University of Tennessee’s response to that shaming was spineless, but they were treating it as a public relations problem, as opposed to an educational or values challenge. The school could have reacted in a way that drew on the principles of restorative justice rather than, okay, cancel culture. But with its own troubled record on race, the university couldn’t afford to offer a creative solution to the controversy.
Both students were failed by forces greater than they: institutions that refused to confront racism and hate, and a culture that prefers to perform virtue rather than seek and tolerate just and edifying solutions.
I’ve covered a number of controversies over anti-Semitism, often involving a celebrity who offered a tasteless or mean-spirited remark about Jews or Israel. I’ve seen organizations charged with policing anti-Semitism rush to condemn and punish the guilty, rather than seek a conversation or use such incidents for what we use to call, in a less fraught environment, a “teachable moment.”
Pro-Israel groups were early adopters of cancel culture and public shaming, trying to draw strict boundaries around what can and can’t be said about Israel and the Palestinians.
And some Jewish organizations engage in the very same rituals of public shaming they might otherwise condemn. The despicable Canary Mission, for example, posts dossiers on student activists who are deeply critical of Israel. Even when these students say hateful things, the enterprise reeks of McCarthyism. Other pro-Israel groups were early adopters of cancel culture and public shaming, trying to draw strict boundaries around what can and can’t be said about Israel and the Palestinians. I’ve been in rooms with Jewish conservatives who, in the same breath, condemn a “snowflake” culture that seeks to protect delicate young people from uncomfortable ideas, while demanding that Jewish students be shielded from hearing pro-Palestinian perspectives.
And who really wins in these rituals of exposure and censure? The complainants look uncharitable and vindictive; the wrongdoers feel more aggrieved than chastened; onlookers pick a team and root for blood.
Public shaming is a time-honored and necessary tool when trying to bring large institutions and powerful individuals to heel. It’s a moral disaster when applied to ordinary, and ordinarily flawed, people.
Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week.