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

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt