This isn’t a post about politics and policing: it’s a post about learning and the legacy of social media. The right to learn and the right to grow up. There’s been a scandal brewing in the UK over the last few days following the appointment of a Youth Police and Crime Commissioner (YPCC) by PCC Ann Barnes. In this case, the YPPC is a seventeen year old girl called Paris Brown, the aim being that Barnes can draw upon the experiences and thinking of her younger colleague.
But after a mere six days in post, Brown has been forced to resign, following a sustained media frenzy about posts she made on Twitter several years ago, which may be deemed homophobic or racist or refer to drugs. Or maybe not. I’ll leave it to you to decide that.
My interest is not primarily in whether she was right or wrong, but rather in where the space remains to be yourself, to make mistakes, to grow up and learn from the experience. Are we right to judge the seventeen year old, who has apologised for the nativity of her younger self, on the basis of Twitter? It should be stressed that she passed the full police screening process as per any other job applicant before taking up the post. For me, this is a conversation about the semi formal spaces that surround the formal, the community spaces that we inhabit and the legacy and impact when it comes to work.
We all know that social media are permanent: go for a job and they’ll have googled you first. That’s the nature of work in the Social Age. Your Facebook, Twitter and blogs, all your social channels, unless specifically deleted or blocked, are on view for all to see. The fact is that i can find out a lot about you in five minutes. But should i judge you on it? Should it be there forever? And should what a fifteen year old girl said be used to judge the seventeen year old women? Do we have the right to make mistakes and learn from them?
If i look around me at my friend groups, the truth is that i wouldn’t have liked some of them when they were younger. They’re a fairly typical crowd, with the odd reprobate, but the thing we all have in common is that none of us are perfect: we’re just fortunate that most of our imperfections happened a while ago. The legacy may live on in our shared memories and best man speeches, but it’s not pasted across the internet. We retain our privacy and i judge them, if at all, on how they act now. I believe people change.
But today, there is no secret history: the legacy of what’s said, what’s done, what’s photographed, is persistent. So where is our right to make mistakes? Do people say stupid things when they’re fifteen and do we really want to hold them to it when they’re twenty, or thirty? Is anyone perfect?
We learn through our mistakes, our views evolve over time: it doesn’t mean we were wrong before, it just means that as we learn, we change, and as we change and mature, we learn. My views on a range of subjects have evolved over my lifetime. Some issues i am passionate about: race and gender equality being one. But i wasn’t always. I probably never even thought about it until i was twenty, and i certainly didn’t do anything about it till i was gone thirty. Now I work and write in this field, but my views are current, based upon all the learning and experience i’ve had up until now.
Whilst we may want to hold onto the notion that our politicians are perfect, that we should demonise them for every mistake, however small, however long ago, if we want to start engaging younger people in political roles, if we feel that there is value in ventures like this, to involve younger people in decision making and the processes of democracy, then we have to take them, warts and all. In no way does this view condone any anti social views: racism or homophobia are wrong, and we should stand up for what’s right, but people getting drunk, breaking windows, making dreadfully inappropriate relationship decisions and writing about things they know nothing about with great passion and misguided direction: that’s called growing up. It’s always easy to judge in retrospect.
The technology may allow us to build and view the legacy of these things, but we need to take them in perspective. Just because things can last forever doesn’t mean they should be used forever. I do not know what Paris Brown said when she was fifteen. I am not particularly interested in what she said or did then: she was a fifteen year old girl and i’m not particularly interested in any of the things that teenagers do. I certainly don’t ask people when i interview them for a job. I am interested in who she is now and why we, as a society, decided to judge her on what she did rather than what she is doing. Why we failed to recognise that people change, that they grow up, that they learn.
The legacy and persistence of social media will continue to haunt us: the only thing we know for sure is that people are adaptable, people do change. Even people who hold abhorrent views can come to see the light, can change and learn. If we don’t give people space to grow, what kind of society will we live in? If we can’t make mistakes and learn from them, how will we grow?