Is it what we do or what people see?

You probably remember that back in January the video of some white kids confronting a Native American went viral. In the ensuing debate, someone said on Twitter that the kids were only in hot water because they’d been caught on video — and seriously, how many of us wouldn’t be in trouble if our teen years had been videorecorded?

I’m not interested in writing about the incident itself here, but about that assumption. Because it’s simultaneously reasonable and not so reasonable.

It’s reasonable because for most of us it’s true. We’ve probably all said and done things that would embarrass us if they went viral tomorrow. Some of my jokes, in hindsight, were quite inappropriate for work; the coworkers I joked too would have been entitled to complain if she’d wanted. I would hate it if this wound up being shared on YouTube or Twitter as proof of what a horrible jerk I must be.

And I’d also have to live with the knowledge that lots of people have said much worse jokes (or threats. Or come-ons) and get away with it because the interaction wasn’t caught on video, and nobody filed a complaint or went public. If it were me, that would sting too.

But “everyone was doing it, the others just didn’t get caught” shouldn’t be a get out of jail free card. That was the standard defense of Nixon among my Republican friends in high school, that all the politicians did what he did, they just weren’t caught. Even if that were true (and I believe Nixon was an extreme case by the standards of the time), that would be an argument for restricting presidential power in some fashion, not just letting people get off scot-free. After all, you could say the same thing about any murderer, burglar or rapist — lots of people did the same thing and weren’t caught! Why should this guy suffer? Heck, that is what people say about rapists, all the time: boys will be boys, it’s just horseplay, a little sexual assault when you’re young shouldn’t affect your future.

Or consider some of the coverage of the Steubenville rape case, in which one news station described two students raping a passed-out classmate as “a cautionary tale” about the modern “digital world,” as if the big issue was the rapists discussing their actions on social media, not that they’d raped a passed-out classmate.

Then there’s the question of how something fits into the person’s entire life. If someone Tweets something offensive or does something wrong but they’ve had a stellar record otherwise (I don’t mean just that they’re important or rich, but that they’ve shown themselves otherwise good or moral), does that one wrong thing erase the good stuff? Is it something they deserve to lose jobs for or a mistake we should forgive? Again, the answer is “it depends.” Just how bad was the offense? Was it in fact a one-off or part of a pattern? Were they young and stupid or old enough to know better? If it was bad, have they worked to redeem themselves?

In short, there’s a definite dividing in between “stuff we should be forgiving about, even if it’s caught on video/captured in Tweets” and “stuff that is unacceptable, even if it’s common.” I don’t know where exactly to draw it, though rape and harassment fall solidly on the unacceptable side of the tracks (and if you commit rape or assault as a teen, you . Perhaps I’ll eventually have a grand theory, perhaps it’ll always be case-by-case.

But “we’ve all done stuff we wouldn’t want caught on video,” while a fair point, definitely does not resolve the argument.


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