Paris Brown: Social media means your awful 17-year-old self is shackled to you forever

The attacks on Britain’s first youth police commissioner for some carelessly offensive tweets show that unless you’re an unusually cautious or discreet teenager, you’re writing a patchwork public diary without realising it.

 

Some days I thank the stars that Twitter wasn’t invented until I was 32. The occasion this time is the Mail on Sunday’s comically disingenuous “exposé” of Britain’s first youth police commissioner, 17-year-old Paris Brown: yet another pseudo-scandal drawn from Twitter’s bottomless well of fauxtroversy.

The tweets revealed by the paper’s reporter Russell Myers tell us many things about Brown. She swears. She gets drunk. She talks about sex that she may or may not be actually having. She uses carelessly offensive language. She thinks weed is funny. She is “self-obsessed”. In short, she is a teenager. To Myers her opinions are so horrifyingly alien that the police might as well have hired Alex from A Clockwork Orange but anyone who actually remembers being a teenager might not be quite so alarmed. (Obviously it’s wonderful to find the Mail standing up so firmly for the rights of gay people and immigrants, although I fear that Myers is in for quite a shock when he reads the rest of the paper that employs him.)

Teenagers are messy, thorny creatures, maddened by hormones, rubbed raw by the onslaught of new emotions and unprecedented situations, prey to obscure resentments, petty prejudices and half-understood, third-hand ideas, often self-righteous and thoughtlessly cruel but just as frequently (though less publicly) vulnerable and compassionate. Growing up is a long process and Brown is still in its midst. The central theme of the TV shows Girls and Fresh Meat is how malleable we are even in our early 20s, constantly re-presenting ourselves to those around us as we fumble towards a stable, adult identity. To a 17-year-old, even a tweet from a year ago can seem like the work of another, more embarrassing, more incomplete person.

Every now and then I’m gut-punched by the memory of something stupid or unpleasant I did in my teens, as I’m sure most people are. Coming-of-age tales from Great Expectations to The Catcher in the Rye tell us again and again what emotional havoc young people can wreak even while believing their intentions are just.

But for people of my generation these are only memories, blessedly undocumented. The problem with social media is that it preserves every step of this chaotic journey. Growing up is a process of rewriting yourself but Twitter and Facebook function as palimpsests of all the versions of yourself that are better forgotten until, if you’re unlucky enough to be of public interest, the traces are uncovered years later by malicious reporters and magnified to unrecognisably grotesque proportions.

I used to think that social media’s muddying of the border between private and public was most problematic for older users whereas so-called digital natives understood the rules of the game, but of course many don’t, for the simple reason that they are of an age when they don’t understand much about the way the world works. Unless you’re an unusually cautious or discreet teenager, you’re writing a patchwork public diary without realising it, revealing things about yourself that you don’t consciously intend to stand by years, or even weeks, later. Even adults sometimes tweet things in the heat of the moment that they later regret so why would people too young to be trusted with a car or the vote be infallibly wise when it comes to what they give away online?

We’re increasingly aware of just how foggy teenagers’ understanding of social media’s implications can be. As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett recently wrote in the New Statesman, following the Steubenville rape case, “Rather than seeing the web as a witness to their lives, standing outside the action, as many of the older generation would, younger people consider it a component of their lived experience. The internet doesn’t just confirm your existence: it is your existence.”

No doubt Paris Brown’s monstering by the Mail will scare some teenagers into thinking twice about what they say on Twitter and Facebook but thinking twice isn’t really adolescents’ forte. They are too caught up in the fierce nowness of life to consider which tweets or posts might one day rise up to cost them a job or a relationship.

And yet young people are aware there is a general problem. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance at the Oxford Internet Institute, advocates an expiration date on online data to establish the “right to be forgotten”. He cites a 2011 study by the University of Berkeley that found that 84 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds wanted this right enshrined in legislation.

Mayer-Schönberger told the Guardian last week: “Our brains reconstruct the past based on our present values. Take the diary you wrote 15 years ago, and you see how your values have changed. There is a cognitive dissonance between now and then. The brain reconstructs the memory and deletes certain things. It is how we construct ourselves as human beings, rather than flagellating ourselves about things we've done. But digital memories will only remind us of the failures of our past, so that we have no ability to forget or reconstruct our past.”

“Right to be forgotten” legislation is currently moving through the EU but this is really more of a moral issue than a legal one. Even if “incriminating” information is out there, we don’t need to dwell on it. Better to forgive youthful errors and let people like Paris Brown outgrow their crasser, shallower selves. It’s fantastic that Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Ann Barnes has rebuffed opportunistic calls for Brown to resign. If Brown’s job is to represent the experiences of genuine teenagers, rather than spotlessly mature mini-adults, then she is clearly well-equipped.

 

Paris Brown during an emotional BBC interview.

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

33RevolutionsPerMinute.wordpress.com

Gerald Wiener
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From the Kindertransport to Dolly the Sheep: a New Statesman subscriber's story

Gerald Wiener's life has now been turned into a biography. 

In 1997, Gerald Wiener, an animal geneticist, gathered with a group of friends in Edinburgh to celebrate the cloning of Dolly the sheep by one of his former colleagues. He was a respected scientist, who had contributed to the developments in research which led to this ground-breaking development – and a New Statesman reader.

It could have been very different. Gerald was born Horst, on 25 April 1926, to a German Jewish family. Raised in Berlin by his mother, Luise, he grew up under the shadow of the Nazi regime. He was forced out of his school, and left increasingly alone as friends and family fled to the United States and Britain. After Kristallnacht, when Nazis looted and vandalised Jewish-owned businesses, his mother was desperate for her son to escape. She managed to get him included in the last-ditch organised rescue of German Jewish children, which became known as the Kindertransport. At twelve, Wiener arrived in the UK, alone.

For many years, Wiener did not talk much about his past in Germany. Instead, he embraced a new life as a British schoolboy, and later travelled the world as a scientist. But when he met his second wife, the teacher and writer Margaret Dunlop, she began noting down some of his stories. Eventually she encouraged him to share so many details it has become a book: Goodbye Berlin: the biography of Gerald Wiener.

“I was moved by some of the stories, like his mother putting him on a train in Berlin,” Dunlop tells me when I call the couple at their home in Inverness. “I thought - what a terrible thing.”

“I rejected Germany totally for a long, long time,” Wiener, now 91, says. His mother, with whom he was reunited after she also managed to escape to Britain, threw herself into a wartime career as a nurse. “I had one friend from my school days in Berlin, and he was more like a sort of brother to me, but they also left Germany way behind.”

It was during this period of his life that Wiener first picked up a New Statesman. He spent the war years in Oxford, mentored by the Spooner cousins Rosemary and Ruth, related to William Spooner, who gave his name to the speech error.

Then, in the 1960s, his work took him to Germany, where he met fellow researchers. “They all detested the Hitler years,” he recalls. “I started feeling they are no different to me. I no longer felt bitter about Germany.” 

Still, the Nazis' atrocities had left Wiener almost completely without family. He lost his grandfather, aunt and uncle in the Holocaust. His paternal family fled to the United States. By the time Wiener found them again when taking up a fellowship to study in the US in 1956, his father, who survived the concentration camps, had died of a heart attack.

The next decades were spent patching his family together, and also reclaiming a connection to Germany. Wiener’s half brothers, who were born in Shanghai continue to visit. His American nephew, who works in the music industry, has a German girlfriend and lives in Berlin.

Wiener, too, went back to Berlin. In the early 1990s, the city invited former refugees to visit the city, all expenses paid. With some reservations, Wiener and Dunlop took up the offer. “It was quite exciting to go and see places that had been in my childhood,” he says. He also found the old people's home his grandfather had sought refuge in, before being taken by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his career was taking him around the world, from India to North Korea. His belief in academic collaboration helped to build the momentum for the Roslin Institute, whose scientists eventually cloned the sheep known as Dolly. 

Wiener, who votes Liberal Democrat, wanted to remain in the EU, and he feels “very angry” that 48 per cent of voters have been ignored.

He adds: “I would be surprised if there was a single university or college who was in favour of Brexit.”

As for another of the great challenges of the present, the refugee crisis, Wiener feels a deep empathy for those living in wartorn regions. “Obviously I feel very, very sympathetic to refugees from more or less wherever,” he says. He sees the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who acted decisively on this matter, as “a bit of a beacon”. At the same time, he believes that in order to fully integrate, refugees must make learning English a priority. “When I go down the street, and I hear people who still don’t speak English, that is the one thing that upsets me,” he says.

If Wiener, a successful scientist, is an example of how Britain can benefit by continuing to offer sanctuary to the world’s desperate, there is, however, a dark undertone to his integration. As a teenager, he knew there was no way back to the Berlin of his childhood. “There was no young generation,” he says of that time. “There was no future.”

Goodbye Berlin is published by Birlinn Books.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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