I’ve been teaching for a handful of years now, and I’ve watched in our country as many of the social problems ailing students have turned from the traditional means of bullying to cyberbullying. It has become one of the dominating issues of our time, and it has been a literal killer.
As a teacher, I have watched bullying and cyberbullying create emotional and psychological problems for students, forcing them out of classrooms and even their schools, all because kids at that age realize the power their words can have over others and they have people they want to use that power against. It can cause so many issues for students who are otherwise still completely unprepared emotionally for what the world might throw at them.
In the present era, I am concerned that society’s rush to condemn people for youthful indiscretions will result in some of what we call “cancel culture” turning into glorified cyberbullying, and the results will be extremely tragic for those involved.
The New York Times ran a story last week about high school students who are utilizing social media to call out their “racist” peers. Accounts on Instagram, SnapChat, and others are being used to expose their peers, and these accounts are quickly amassing followers. If a teenager makes a stupid comment or a racially-tinged one, they will have a bright spotlight shone on them, with thousands of followers who will join in the shaming of these teenagers.
From the Times piece:
On June 2, an anonymous Instagram account dedicated to exposing racism at San Marcos High School in San Marcos, Calif., appeared online. Oseas Neptali Garcia, 19, a senior, noticed it almost immediately. The account was shared across group chats and Instagram Stories, and within a few hours had amassed about 900 new followers.
The account began sharing screen shots and videos of students at the school using racial slurs, engaging in cultural appropriation, participating in the “George Floyd challenge” and making insensitive remarks. The names and handles for each student were included in the posts.
Let’s be real honest about what’s happening here: Someone who makes a dumb joke, or perhaps doesn’t realize the impact of what they’re saying, is as equally guilty in the eyes of the mob as a full-blown klansman. The results are evident from the following paragraph of the Times story.
Within 48 hours, the account had grown to nearly 3,000 followers. “Pretty much the whole school was following,” Mr. Garcia said. Some students, angry after being outed, began submitting fake and Photoshopped images to the account in an attempt at retaliation. Virtual fights broke out between friends. Soon after, the page was shut down.
And this is the best-case scenario of all this. The worst case is that some of the students who were exposed in all this will feel increased social pressure and the most vulnerable ones will see only one way out of it. It’s not hard to imagine that a student (or several) will react violently — either against others or against themselves — in response to this social pressure.
What’s worse, though, is the media’s willingness to encourage this. A handful of reporters tweeted about the story in a positive way, completely ignoring the impact it could have on students.
This doesn’t excuse the use of racially-tinged language or offensive statements, mind you. But what we should be teaching our kids to do is talk about and explain why something is racist or hurtful. We should be encouraging them to open dialogue with classmates and to help each other understand.
We should not be giving students the power to destroy each other, whether the offender actually meant harm or not. That is the worst possible way to handle the situation, and it creates a culture of shaming and ostracizing rather than healing.
It will also lead to violent retaliation against the ones “exposing” these students. This will start fights that are destined only to escalate. At a time when so many are worried about violence at schools, we have people actively encouraging behaviors that will lead to more of it.
We are letting mob rule into the schools, and there is an overwhelming aggressive collective ignorance that turns this monster into something that now targets our kids.
This isn’t something we should be cheering on. This has the potential to create more tragedies in our lifetime, and we can’t let that happen.