In a Q&A on Tuesday at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, President Obama cautioned a group of 9th graders to be careful of what they post online. He was too cautious by half.
The question was from a student who wanted to be president some day and asked for advice on career paths. According to the White House transcript, he said, in the first of what he called “practical tips” for ambitious young people:
I want everybody here to be careful about what you post on Facebook — because in the YouTube age, whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life. And when you’re young, you make mistakes and you do some stupid stuff. And I’ve been hearing a lot about young people who — you know, they’re posting stuff on Facebook, and then suddenly they go apply for a job and somebody has done a search and — so that’s some practical political advice for you right there.
The president may have been right about this in today’s world. I hope he’s wrong in tomorrow’s. Let’s unpack what he said to see why.
It’s absolutely true that young people make mistakes and do stupid things. Anyone who doesn’t commit youthful stupidities is either inhuman or stunningly boring and inconsequential. Who wants someone like that to be in charge of anything as an adult? Not me.
But it doesn’t follow, as the president suggested, that posting weird (to older people) things on the Web — in blogs, social networks and the like — should be an automatic turnoff or disqualification for a responsible job later on. The notion of punishing someone decades later for what he or she said or did as a teenager or college student just feels wrong to me.
A journalism student where I teach recently asked if it was advisable to have a personal blog or, if so, to be outspoken on it. He’d apparently been warned that it could put a crimp in his future journalism career plans.
I can’t say how others would react. I do know that if I were hiring someone today I’d want to know what (not if) he or she posted online, not to find disqualifying factors but to see if this is an interesting person. I’d take for granted that I might find some things that were risque or inappropriate for my current world. I’d expect to find things that would be “unjournalistic” in some ways, such as outspoken or foolish (or both) views on important people and issues. But I’d also remember my own ability, if not tendency, to be an idiot when I was that age. And I’d discount appropriately.
This is all about giving people what my friend Esther Dyson has called a “statute of limitations on stupidity.” If we don’t all start cutting each other more slack in this increasingly transparent (often by our own choice) society, we’ll only allow drones into positions of authority. Now that’s really scary.
We’re making progress, probably more than Obama gives us credit for. Recall that it was impossible for a Catholic to be president, until John F. Kennedy was elected. It was impossible for a divorced person to be elected until Ronald Reagan won. It was impossible for a former pot smoker to be president until Bill Clinton (who bizarrely claimed not to have inhaled) got elected. And so on.
How we make these judgements is neither clear nor simple. Robert McDonnell, a candidate for governor in Virginia, is taking hits for a 20-year-old master’s thesis in which he denounced programs that encouraged women to work outside the home and said working women were bad for families. He wants voters to ignore all this and concentrate on what he says are his positions now.
McDonnell deserves some slack, too, but he wrote the thesis when he was in his mid-30s, not his early 20s or younger. His record as a legislator since then has been extremely conservative, as well. What he said two decades ago is obviously more relevant, given the circumstances, than what a student posts on a high-school Facebook page today.
In the foreseeable future, we’ll elect a president who had blog or Facebook wall or MySpace page when she was a teenager and college student. By the standards of today she’ll be utterly disqualified for any serious political job. But because we’ll have grown as a society, not just more tolerant of flaws but understanding that we all have feet of clay in some respect, we’ll elect her anyway, because we’ll realize that the person she became — and how that happened — is what counts.