Once a Racist, Always a Racist?

With all this talk of whistleblowing and impeachment flowing around, I suppose it was only fitting that a story about questionable journalism ethics and poor social media skills caught my eye. CNN ran a piece yesterday about Aaron Calvin, a Des Moines Register reporter who lost his job after writing a profile on someone with a dodgy social media past – for the exact same thing.

Calvin profiled 24-year-old Carson King, who raised more than $1 million for an Iowa children’s hospital after a poster board request for people to Venmo him money for beer went viral during a televised college football program. Donations poured in beyond his desire for a case of brew, and he decided to donate the rest of the money to a children’s hospital.

In his article, Calvin detailed racist tweets King posted seven years ago, and readers promptly turned the tables on him by revealing tweets he wrote using “derogatory language against black people, gay people, same-sex marriage and women.” Interesting twist, right? I got a minor kick out of it.

Now, this kind of bad behavior on social media is certainly not a new story. High profile people and regular Joe’s alike are routinely outed for past social media misdeeds. If it’s not Twitter or Facebook that bears silent and judgmental witness, some old recording no one knew was being recorded surfaces to reveal someone’s hidden moments when they were absolutely not at their best.

These unguarded glimpses into a person’s unprotected self are often quite revealing. They do not, however, usually reflect the whole story. Don’t get me wrong; they might. But even someone spewing the most disgusting, objectionable vitriol usually has a reason, if not always an excuse, for their behavior.

The cliché is still in regular rotation, but truly, no one’s perfect, and while personal growth is usually not the result of a speedy and viral sentence in the court of public opinion, I do believe that people can change. But I wonder. At what age does forgiveness end and responsibility begin? Is it 16? 18? Do certain good deeds cancel out the bad ones? Or, is that just a convenient excuse we offer so that we can accept the good, and dismiss the bad?

King was a 16-year-old high school student when some of the tweets in question were published. Certainly old enough to know better than to create “posts comparing black mothers to gorillas and … joking about black people who were killed in the Holocaust.” That one doesn’t even make sense, but ok. He even held a press conference to publicly apologize, “calling the postings “an attempt at humor that was offensive and hurtful.”’

I’ll say. But let me play a watered-down devil’s advocate for a moment. The need to belong, social pressures to conform to certain behaviors, even ones that go against one’s upbringing or beliefs, these are very strong when we’re young. They’re strong when we’re not so young, but children are easily led, and 16 is still childlike-ish. Kids also tend to parrot things they hear, ideas they are taught in the home or in their immediate environment that they may not continue once the freedom of adulthood presents different options.

King has raised a ton of money for a children’s hospital. It was definitely a nice thing for him to do, and if I’m following the story correctly, he did it on the spur of the moment, the way the most charming acts of kindness usually happen. So, should we forgive him?

It’s ironic that Aaron Calvin, the reporter who revealed his past, had his own similarly checkered story. But I wonder what he was thinking as he dug up the tweets that mirrored his own situation? Did the comparison even register? Did he see the irony? Did he feel guilt, remorse? I suppose it’s a waste of time to speculate because now that he’s in the hot seat the likelihood that he’ll tell us (the public) the truth – is slim to none.

Still, it’s an interesting question: Can a journalist report objectively on something he has close personal experience with? His former employer didn’t think so: “We took appropriate action because there is nothing more important in journalism than having readers’ trust,” Executive Editor Carol Hunter said in an opinion piece, responding to local outrage to the original story.”

As for King, the beer-swilling charity giver, I don’t know. I think you’d have to be close to him to gauge his sincerity. I’m too far away to offer a reasonable conclusion. But I would like to think that we can forgive the mistakes people make when they’re young. I made quite a few as a young adult that I shake my head over now, things that do not in any way reflect the person I am today.

But it’s a trust issue, isn’t it? You don’t tell people the bad things you’ve done because they’re in the past, and you don’t want folks to judge you. Then someone finds out about a few rogue tweets or whatever and bam, they judge you. It’s suddenly hard for them look at you the same way when only a moment ago, their perception was completely different.

Should we forgive and forget so as not to judge and carry the past into the present? Should we be cautious and remember but move forward with the spirit of forgiveness? Or, does it depend on the situation? Are there certain things that can’t be forgiven or forgotten, thus we must consider each situation on a case by case basis?

It’s an interesting paradox, the modern desire for authenticity and truthfulness riding right alongside the very real need to be circumspect in ones behavior in this age of little to no privacy. But bottom line? Teach your kids that modern media lasts forever. Save yourself the drama, and don’t post anything now that you might regret later.

One Reply to “Once a Racist, Always a Racist?”

  1. Corrie ten Boom was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis. She lived through that experience, yet later preached forgiveness and such. Years later, while giving a speech, she was approached by a man who asked her for that forgiveness ; he had been one of her guards at the camp.

    So, yeah, even Nazis can change. The question is what we are NOW, at any given moment. Like Paul falling off his horse in the middle of the road. One minute here, the next there. The more insidious problem is loving those who do not change.

    As for Corrie and the guard?


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