By The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board:
“I am forever grateful that I got to be young and stupid before virality was invented.” So said Lydia Polgreen, editor in chief of HuffPost, in a tweet on Aug. 2. By the next day, it had been retweeted hundreds of times and “liked” by thousands of readers.
Sean Newcomb may wish he had been born a generation ago. The Atlanta Braves left-hander, age 25, came within a strike of pitching a no-hitter — and was barely done when he was confronted with Twitter posts he had put up in 2011 and 2012 using racial and homophobic slurs. Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner was busted for making similar tweets when he was in high school. These came to light not long after Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Josh Hader had been exposed for doing much the same at age 17.
All apologized, with Hader saying, “I was young, immature and stupid. There is no excuse for that to happen.” All three will have considerable work to do rehabilitating their reputations and making amends for their nasty online remarks. Being in high school when you expressed bigoted sentiments certainly does not relieve you of the obligation to show that you’ve reformed.
But these incidents are evidence of the hazards of living in an age when youthful stupidity can attain immortality. Likewise for not-so-youthful stupidity, as tech journalist Sarah Jeong, a Korean-American who was born in 1988, was reminded. Shortly after she was hired by The New York Times, she found herself called to account for caustic tweets aimed at white people. Jeong, who said she was “counter-trolling” harassers, also apologized.
When news breaks of youngsters being embarrassed or ruined by stupid things they said or did online, a lot of their elders say, “There but for the grace of the World Wide Web go I.” A few decades ago, kids could graduate from high school without fear that their worst decisions or utterances would haunt them for life. Then, a brief lapse of judgment could be just that – brief, and soon forgotten. But the internet never forgets.
Each such revelation is a reminder that humans are universally fallible but often capable of reform. So citizens of the 21st century may need to fashion some informal new customs for the treatment of such sins and missteps. And we suspect there will be a shift toward a slightly more charitable treatment.
That’s what happened once politicians found they could no longer expect journalists or others to keep quiet about their sexual shenanigans. When Sen. Gary Hart was accused of having an extramarital affair in 1987, the scandal torpedoed his pending presidential campaign. Bill Clinton’s presidency survived the exposure of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, though barely. By 2016, Donald Trump’s history of philandering appeared to have no effect on his electoral fortunes. Once offenses are known to be common, they are less likely to be deemed unforgivable.
In a world where mistakes never disappear, many if not most of us are vulnerable to being harshly judged for fleeting conduct that does not show us at our best. The general ethos may evolve away from “an eye for an eye” and toward “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Until then, two suggestions: Think twice, at least, before putting anything online. And consider deleting your old tweets. Someday you may be glad you did.