To: The youth of America
From: A teacher in his mid-30s
CC: The Internet
Re: Social media
So as you probably have heard, President Barack Obama recently won reelection. Moreover, the youth vote was just as significant this time around in 2012 as it was in 2008. This surprised some “experts” because voter enthusiasm was supposedly low this year and that often translates to a low turnout, especially among youth, because of a belief that if you don’t believe in it or like it you won’t do it. You’ll find out as you go through life that “experts,” especially if they are pundits, are quite often wrong (statisticians, on the other hand? Surprisingly right). Good job on keeping things going and if this was your first time voting, I have to say you’re lucky to have voted in such an important election. My first presidential election was 1996 via absentee ballot. Not exactly the excitement of pulling the lever in person.
I watched election returns on Tuesday night and went to bed at about 1:00 a.m. after Mitt Romney finally conceded. I didn’t fall asleep until 1:30 or 2:00 because I was so hyped from the Obama victory. The next day I was a zombie through most of my classes, but I did have a great conversation with a few students in my study hall, a couple of whom voted and a couple of whom were too young to do so. We talked about the Electoral College and how that worked (and how fortunate they were to see it work in a year that they–seniors–were taking government), and why there was such a focus on Ohio and not on, say, Texas or California, which had more electoral votes. It was the type of intelligent conversation I don’t hear enough among adults when it comes to politics and I think I closed it with some advice: “Keep following the news, and if you get frustrated, that’s okay. Politics is frustrating and makes you want to bang your head against the wall, but you should stay informed.” I have been reminded time and again by “experts” in my field that I do not have a monopoly on knowledge and am not a sage, but I’m pretty sure I was in the position to offer said advice.
But as bolstered as I was in my face-to-face conversations with those students, I have to say that I was both disappointed and disgusted by what many said over social media. On Wednesday morning, Buzzfeed posted screen captures of various tweets, mainly from teenagers that expressed outrage at the president’s reelection and had prolific use of the “n” word. Yesterday, Jezebel called out quite a number of those tweeters (twits?) in their piece, “Racist Teens Forced to Answer for Tweets About ‘N—–’ President” (they’ll put the word in the headline; sorry, I won’t). Go through the article and you’ll see some reprehensible language as well as a running excuse, “My account was probably hacked.”
The comments on the piece are pretty interesting as well. Several people actually seem to come to the defense of the tweeters (twits?) because of several reasons: “you wouldn’t have posted this if Romney had won,” “well, black people call each other n—– all the time,” “you’re shaming them publicly and that’s going to mess up their lives,” “blah blah blah First Amendment,” and my favorite, “they’re just kids (often followed with, ‘they don’t really know what they’re saying’).” Most of the other commenters fall on the opposite side of that argument, saying that, no, it’s a good thing that racism and hate speech like this was called on the carpet so publicly.
I fall in the latter camp. It’s one thing to be upset that President Obama was reelected; a few of my friends posted how upset they were at the election results. However, none of them used a racial slur because they all realize that you can be upset about a president who happens to be black winning an election without resorting to calling him that word. Furthermore, I don’t buy the argument that this is a First Amendment issue, because Jezebel is letting these fine youths say what they’re saying, then is calling them out for it. I also don’t buy the argument that they’re kids and they don’t really know better. Because first of all, they’re teenagers and by that age, there is a certain amount of common sense that they should have. Oh sure, I did stupid crap and said plenty of stupid crap when I was a teenager, but I was smart enough to know that I wasn’t going to say racist things or put them in print (because a) you just don’t do that and b) I’m not a racist). I teach in a high school. I get to hear people use the word “Jew” in the same pejorative fashion they use the word “fag,” and I have no qualms about calling them on the carpet right in front of their peers.
Here’s the thing. I realize that as the youth of America, you are smarter than people give you credit for. I go on #stuvoice chats every once in a while and I see some great stuff; plus, I know what it’s like to be underestimated by adults because I was a teenager at the height of the whole “Generation X is a bunch of slackers” thing in the early 1990s. But not everyone sees things the way I do. In fact, many people choose to focus on only the negative aspects of a particular group of people, usually because they don’t like those people in the first place. Do you want to know why adults might see you as entitled or snot-nosed or disrespectful or bratty? Furthermore, do you want to know why so many adults who are in charge of your schools still demonize social media? Well, this is why.
No, really. This is why. They don’t see the value in Twitter or Facebook or whatever innovative app is being pushed at us through articles and PD because all they can think of is the time when you were posting racist things or spewing insults about faculty and administrators or bullying other students. The feeling of discomfort, disgust, or pain often resonates longer than that which is pleasurable or positive. So what you do online–the words you choose, the actions you take, and even the excuses you give (“I really didn’t mean it,” “I was joking,” “Oh, we’re just having fun,” “It’s my personal tweet,” “My account was hacked,” “First Amendment”)–makes more of an impact than you realize. You might have a short attention span and think that something you said a week ago is “old,” but your parents, your teachers, your guidance counselors, your principals, members of the community, college admissions officers, future employers … well, they may not. Furthermore, what you say may, to one or more people, represent not you as an individual, but the entire group of teenagers in your community or the youth of America as a whole.
Like I said, this is why you’re arguing about Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, or whatever with your teachers and principals. And this is why you’re not taken as seriously as you think you should. I am sure you find my comments here disrespectful, but I only wish to point out the unfortunate truth of the actions of those who wind up representing you in the eyes of older generations.