Digital culture ran smack into politics this week when celebrity gossip site TMZ published what it claimed (uncontested by those involved) were screen shots of a Facebook conversation had by Willow Palin, the daughter of the controversial political figure Sarah Palin. I remember the days when a politician was stabbed in the back by a gruff, anonymous source who used a fake name and passed dossiers in a dark parking garage. Reporters would work for days to verify the claims just to make sure they were true. Now, all you have to do is press shift-cmd-4, and you can make a perfect copy that you can distribute to the entire world in an instant. It's still easy to fake information, but it's even easier to pass along the raw data.
[Image credit: The Life of Brian]
It's so easy to make copies of anything these days that we barely have time to think of the legality, let alone the moral responsibility, involved. I can copy a CD in 4 minutes and pass it along to everyone I know in even less time. I can download a movie in a fraction of the time it would take to actually watch the film. Now, politicians have to be careful that the same mindset won't come to haunt them. But here, an American politician has run smack into the vertex of some very important concepts for our digital lifestyles. Foremost, watch what you say on Facebook. Even though you think your network is limited to your friends, sometimes it's just too easy for friends to act without thinking things through.
Let me get this out of the way first. I am not a fan of Sarah Palin. I try to stay apolitical in this column, and I would certainly consider a reasonable candidate from either side of the political spectrum who has solid, proven ideas for making this country a better place. It's not a Republican or Democrat thing. It's an intellectual thing. I think Sarah Palin is intelligent, but she has consistently proven herself anti-intellectual, anti-science, and unwilling to bend or change her views, even when they fly in the face of basic facts. I respect that there are people who like her, and who don't much mind this side of her public personality, or who value other strengths that she brings to the political table much more than her intellectual views. But it's something I just can't get past.
Sarah Palin also puts her children and her family in the spotlight. They show up on campaign stops. They appear in her new reality television show. Her oldest daughter, who got pregnant in High School with a boyfriend she has since dismissed, now promotes abstinence and safe sex in TV commercials. Oh, and she might win Dancing With The Stars, a show that long ago proved its own title to be ironic.
I think that media scrutiny of Sarah Palin is not just fair game, it's a necessary check to the power she's been given by Fox News as a commentator for the far right. I hesitate even to identify her with the right wing, because she runs contrary to all of my views that might be seen as rightist, and nobody I know personally who identifies as a conservative finds themselves in agreement with her.
But I felt sad this week for Willow Palin, Sarah Palin's 16-year old daughter. While her mother's reality show was premiering on TLC, and it was one of TLC's highest rated premieres ever, Willow was being harassed on Facebook by people who were making fun of her show and her family. So, Willow lashed out.
According to TMZ, Willow Palin struck back using foul language and homophobic slurs. I'm not going to link to their story, I'm sure my readers can find it if they so desire. She used homophobic curses, repeatedly, to strike at one of her critics. Of course, the left wing media (and I don't mean all media is left wing, I'm singling out a specific subset, like Slate.com) attacked her and her sister for their diatribe, but I think that was out of line. I definitely think there's a lesson to be learned here, but heaping so much blame and scorn upon a 16-year old is not the right answer.
First of all, this is a great opportunity to talk to our kids about Facebook, the Internet, and the permanence of what we say, especially in digital speech. There was a time when we could make outlandish statements and they would flutter away into the ether. Now they fly through the Ethernet. They are taken down, stored in digital vaults, and they come back to haunt us.
We're living in an age where it is so easy to transcribe, perfectly and accurately, words that might have been spontaneous and emotional. Words that should never be kept are now impossible to delete.
I've been known to spout some foul language in my time, especially when I was that age, and always around my peers. But there's a difference between shockingly foul language and words that are completely hateful and bigoted. I called my friends and enemies numerous foul terms, like many kids in my class, but we never resorted to racism, hate speech or the like.
I might have used language similar to what Willow Palin said. I had close friends in High School who were openly gay, at least open with a small, trusted group. But I admit, with shame, that I probably threw around homophobic taunts at my friends as synonyms for calling them an idiot or a moron. It was not something I'd ever heard from my parents, but it also wasn't something my parents specifically taught me to avoid.
I was taught, rather forcefully, to never use the F-word around civilized people. All of the seven words from George Carlin's famous bit were explained as off-limits, at least while I was young. I was taught why racism was hateful and hurtful, and it has never occurred to me to throw out a racist term in a moment of anger. I was taught those lessons about language, and I valued them.
But those specific homophobic slurs were never considered, because it wasn't something my parents threw around so casually in their time. I had to learn that lesson on my own. That happened in college, when I was seriously questioning myself and my values, and learning about the power of language. It was also when I had a much more diverse group of friends.
I don't think Sarah Palin condones this sort of hateful speech. I don't think she has a great record for standing up for the equal rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual people, but I don't believe she wants to hurt anyone. But has she communicated her feelings to her children? If so, it's clear from what I've read that Willow Palin didn't value this lesson.
But here's the good news. Willow is 16 years old. If she's a part of the homophobic culture that makes it so difficult for young LGBT people to live comfortably, then of course her language should be roundly condemned and she needs to be taught the lesson in a way that she'll value and take to heart. She's been taught by her peer group that this language is acceptable, but that doesn't make her a bad kid.
The reason we hold teenagers and young people accountable for so little is that they have not finished growing, either physically or emotionally. They can still change their behaviors, change their relationships and the way they see the world. There might be fundamental patterns that they follow forever, but hatred and bigotry are definitely traits that can be shaken off. This usually happens with personal experience, and contact with the unfamiliar world that is so hard to imagine from a teenage perspective.
But when that mistake happens, remember that these are just kids. For the most part, there are no bad kids, there are just kids who have learned some very bad behaviors. From that perspective, it's all about how you teach your children to value what's important in interpersonal relationships, and how to help them learn from the mistakes they've made. It's going to be hard to teach children about the permanence of their online actions. Children have little concept of the long road ahead, and by nature are living in the moment. If people are willing to make permanent changes when they are so young, like getting a tattoo, piercings, or a bad hairstyle in a yearbook photo, how can we stop them from having a simple, heated conversation that will haunt them forever? Maybe the answer is that we can't stop them, and we have to change the way we judge people for the online actions that date back to their adolescence.
As a postscript, I have to admit that I'm worried about how people will take this column. Not the political fans of Sarah Palin, they can all jump off a glacier – oh wait, there are no glaciers any more. Plus, they'd probably float away, because gravity is only a theory, and they don't believe in silly, scientific theories. I have friends and colleagues, people I value and admire, who were probably personally offended by the things Willow Palin said. I've approached this topic from my perspective as a student of digital culture, and also as a teacher. I hope these influences are apparent. But I could be wrong. I'm still learning about other people, and still growing. I don't place any value in stagnancy, and if I'm wrong, I hope to learn from others so I can change my own perspective.