Max Fawcett is a freelance writer and the former editor of Alberta Oil magazine and Vancouver magazine. He previously worked in Alberta’s Climate Change Office.
Another day, another social-media martyr. This time it’s Kyle Kashuv, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas student who survived a 2018 mass shooting and, breaking with most of his classmates, is now a gun-rights and second-amendment activist, and a star in the right-wing media universe. But while he was set to attend Harvard this fall, his acceptance was rescinded this week after the Huffington Post revealed racist epithets he’d said in private chats and Google Docs two years ago. “I think that people can grow and people can change,” he told Fox News. “People can make mistakes. I don’t think mistakes make you irredeemable.”
Now, using the kind (and volume) of racial epithets that Mr. Kashuv did is obviously a big mistake. But when it comes to the idea that mistakes shouldn’t make you irredeemable – provided you apologize and account for them – I actually agree with him. I also can’t help but appreciate the irony that Mr. Kashuv didn’t seem to feel this way just more than a year ago, when he tried to ruin me online – amplifying my dumb tweet to make me the far-right’s target-du-jour.
In April, 2018, while grocery shopping in Vancouver, I checked in on the latest Twitter commentary around a growing advertising boycott of Fox personality Laura Ingraham’s show, after she had mocked another Stoneman Douglas student, David Hogg, for failing to get into his school of choice. Mindlessly, I fired a snarky tweet at someone I thought was a generic conservative commentator, complaining about advertisers pulling their support: “Oh, Cuckservatives. So fragile.”
As someone who once defended smoking on national TV, I was already familiar with the landscape of bad ideas. But this – riffing off a word that members of the far-right had been using to describe people on the political left, and in the process inadvertently dismissing a survivor of a school shooting that left 17 people dead – was the worst one I’d had by far.
The tweet was obviously ill-advised, and its unintended consequences felt catastrophic. My phone was deluged with notifications, my tweet made the news, and my government employer even had to respond, publicly condemning me for it. And while I quickly became numb to all the insults and casual cruelty that poured in from strangers I’d never met, their collective weight still left me shaken.
Once I realized what I’d done, I deleted the offending tweet and apologized publicly to Mr. Kashuv. It didn’t matter, of course. When people participate in an online mob, they aren’t interested in nuance or apologies or commitments to personal improvement. They just want to grind their targets into a fine dust before moving onto the next one.
This social-media behaviour is, of course, inherently anti-social. And it has come to characterize the online environment that many of us spend far too much time in – one in which forgiveness is impossible, remorse is weaponized and empathy is a foreign concept. It’s a long way from what most believed to be social media’s initial promise: a place where we could converse with our heroes, reconnect with old friends and share photos depicting the best parts of our lives. We assumed, naively, that it all represented pure benefit, without any attendant cost.
But we were giving away the privacy that once afforded people the cover they needed to learn lessons without paying too heavily for them. On Twitter, the price tag for those lessons can be exorbitant. It’s the intellectual equivalent of trading with leverage: It feels like a brilliant, intoxicating idea as you rack up new followers, increase your number of likes and retweets and engage with people who you’d never talk to in real life. But when a single tweet can damage your reputation or even cost you your job, a few thousand followers suddenly doesn’t look like such a good return on your investment.
I’ve paid the price for my mistake. That tweet will probably follow me around for years, and I may never be able to wade into online discussions without strangers throwing it back in my face.
But maybe it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Social media may be an amplifier for our worst impulses, but it can also be an opportunity to learn about yourself, if you choose to see it that way. For its many flaws, one of Twitter’s redeeming virtues is that it’s very good at holding a mirror up at us, and it’s even better at punishing us for any hypocrisies that reflection reveals. In the few months since I’ve been back on Twitter, I’ve avoided the bad habits that landed me in trouble, and I think I’m a better person for it, and not just online. It’s made me more empathetic, more patient and more willing to forgive. Today, I’m even a bit sad to see what’s happening to the kid who unleashed a deluge of virulent anger against me.
If he’s lucky, Kyle Kashuv will be able one day to say he’s grown in the same way. His sin, to be sure, was a grievous one. But in time, he might learn more from not getting into Harvard than he ever would have by attending. It’s the same lesson we can take away, too: Despite the temptation to pile on, especially when the person doesn’t share your politics or your worldview, remember they’re still human beings on the other side, and be willing to forgive them if they genuinely work to make amends. After all, just because you’re part of the mob one day doesn’t mean the mob won’t eventually come for you.
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