9.2.1 Words Come Back

My friend and Arizona State University colleague Tim McGuire says, “The fact is one stupid mistake when you are 19 today can kill your future.”

That’s true—today, anyway, as we learn that what we do online can often be rediscovered years later.

So when President Obama advised the Virginia student with political aspirations to watch what he posted on Facebook, he was being sensible, given the current climate.But if the president’s advice turns out to have long-term validity, we are in some trouble as a society.

Young people make mistakes and do stupid things. (So do older people, of course. Meanwhile, my generation’s youthful stupidities are mostly lost in the mists of time, unpreserved on a hard disk somewhere in the digital cloud.) But I hope it doesn’t follow, as the president suggested, that posting “weird” things on the Web in blogs, social networks and the like should be an automatic turnoff or disqualification for a responsible job later in life. The notion of punishing someone decades later for what he or she said or did as a teenager or college student isn’t just wrong. It’s dangerous.

We’re going to have to cut each other some slack. There’s no alternative.

A journalism student of mine once asked if it was advisable to have a personal blog and, 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 that person had interesting things to say. I’d take for granted that I might find some things that were risqué 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, a technology investor and seer, has called a “statute of limitations on stupidity.” If our norms don’t bend so that we can all start cutting each other more slack in this increasingly transparent society, we’ll only promote drones—the least imaginative, dullest people—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. George W. Bush acknowledged having been a dissolute drunk until he was 40. And so on.

Making These Judgments Is Neither Clear nor Simple

Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell took hits during his 2009 campaign for the office when a 20-year-old master’s thesis came to light. In that document he denounced programs that encouraged women to work outside the home and said working women were bad for families. He wanted voters to ignore all this and concentrate on what he said were his current positions.

McDonnell deserved some slack, too, but he wrote the thesis when he was in his mid-30s, not his early 20s or adolescence. 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. Still, he won the election.

Sometime in the foreseeable future, we’ll elect a president who had a blog or Facebook wall or MySpace page when she was a teenager or a college student. By the standards of today, such a person would be utterly disqualified for any serious political job. But if we adapt as I believe we’ll have to, we’ll have grown as a society; we’ll have become not just more tolerant of flaws, but more understanding that we all have feet of clay in some respect. We’ll elect her anyway, because we’ll realize that the person she has become—and how that happened—is what counts.

How will her peers know all this? They’ll have figured it out for themselves, but they’ll have had some help, too. They’ll have been taught, from an early age.

In the next chapter, we’ll see who the teachers should be.

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