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7 September 2021

Does punishing adults for their childhood mistakes really improve society?

The Marc Bola case is the latest example of the dangers of a culture of retrospective shame.

By James Bloodworth

We live in an age where we are expected to be perfect. Aesthetically, this is self-evident – take a look at Instagram, where manipulation, extreme editing and fakery prevail. But it is also true in the realm of ideas. Increasingly, our personal thoughts are supposed to be free from ideological blemishes and imperfections. If they are not, we risk having our reputations raked over the coals on social media.

This throws up a rather stark contradiction. Ours is an era in which perfection is assumed; yet it is also an age in which technology encourages us to pour our inner-most thoughts into the world, to figuratively wear our hearts (and every other organ) on our sleeves. We are urged to be “authentic”, whereas genuine authenticity is impossible because the internet never forgets.  

Inevitably, this is a bigger issue for younger generations who have grown up documenting every look, mood and emotion via apps such as Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. I said and did plenty of stupid things as a teenager. Fortunately, I mostly grew up before the ubiquity of social media, so any record of that stuff has evaporated like steam from a kettle.

The Middlesbrough footballer Marc Bola is less fortunate. Now 23, Bola has been charged with aggravated conduct by the Football Association (FA) for offensive comments he posted on social media back in 2012, when he was just 14. According to the FA, the offensive comments contained “a reference to sexual orientation”.

Football undoubtedly has a problem with homophobia. There are no openly gay footballers among the 514 players in the Premier League, a remarkable statistic considering the number of LGBT people in the wider British population (estimated in 2017 to be 2 per cent). Justin Fashanu, the first professional footballer to come out as gay, took his own life in 1998.

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But the broader question is whether retrospectively punishing adults for things they said as children is synonymous with righting past wrongs. I am sceptical that it is – not least because we live in a climate of rapidly shifting social codes. When I was a schoolboy in rural Somerset in the 1990s, it was routine to hear the word “gay” thrown around in a pejorative way in the playground. I am ashamed to say that, as children, many of my friends and I used the term in that way. I obviously feel regret when I think back, especially for my fellow pupils who must have known that they were themselves gay. Their sexuality was rendered synonymous with things that were bad. “I don’t like that, it’s gay,” we would say, swaddled in schoolboy ignorance.

But we were also children and teenagers who had imbibed ideas from a wider culture that was still marinated in homophobia. Section 28, which forbade “promoting homosexuality” in schools, remained on the statute books until 2003 (in England and Wales; 2000 in Scotland). Moreover, during the 1980s and 1990s the tabloids would regularly publish salacious stories “outing” gay celebrities. A few years later, during my high school days, the American rapper Eminem dominated the music charts with songs that were peppered with the derogatory term “f****t”.

Let us say for a moment that social media did exist back when I was at school. And let us say that offensive posts of mine resurfaced today. Would sanctioning me, perhaps in a fit of social media hysteria, not let wider society off the hook a little? Many politicians who pushed legislation such as Section 28 have since managed to carve out lucrative careers for themselves. Are we righting past wrongs by going after those who were slow or not tech-savvy enough to delete their old social media posts?

[See also: The quiet influence of Simple Politics: the Instagram page changing news]

Bola is only the latest high-profile figure to be reprimanded for historical posts on social media. Alexi McCammond lost a job as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue following the discovery of anti-Asian and homophobic tweets posted when she was still a teenager. More recently, England cricketer Ollie Robinson was handed an eight-game ban following the unearthing of racist and sexist tweets posted in 2012, when Robinson was 18.

Every case is different. All of the posts in question are unpleasant and deeply offensive. Moreover, it is not always wrong to retrospectively strike a moralising note. The political right often accuses the left of seeking to “rewrite history” when it advocates for the removal of statues to slave holders and the like. Yet it is surely correct and just to remove tributes that actively glorify those who, as adults, committed what today would be considered foul crimes. That is markedly different from punishing adults for things they said as children – indeed, things said in a social climate that was often radically different from the one that prevails today.

“My younger self doesn’t reflect who I am today,” tweeted the grime artist Stormzy in 2017 following the unearthing of homophobic social media posts sent between 2011 and 2014. In a frank apology, the rapper said he made the posts at a time “when I was young and proudly ignorant”.

Unlike Bola, Stormzy was not a child when he posted the offensive tweets. It is, therefore, right that he received strong pushback. But he highlights a reasonable distinction: whose younger self does reflect who they are today? Children and teenagers are conduits for ideas that prevail in wider society. No child comes out of the womb a homophobe, racist or misogynist. Rather, children swim amid a wider sea of prejudice and intolerance – and invariably absorb some of that.

Adapting to social change requires an admission (to ourselves if no one else) that we may once have held ideas that are today considered offensive. After all, none of us are flawless. But a culture of retrospective shame and retribution works against such admissions of past cruelty. Social codes change whereas social media demands perfection. Our every utterance remains marooned in another era, yet is held up to the shifting standards of today. Much as in our broken economy, the young are punished for believing what they were told by previous generations of adults.

[See also: Why scientists are leaving social media]

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