With cancel culture rife in today’s society, Grace Graham Taylor argues we should be kinder towards young public figures when they make “fatal” faux-pas.
On 5 September, two 18 and 19-year-old football players broke the rules of quarantine by inviting two young women back to their hotel room. A few weeks later, 172 students contracted coronavirus by socialising amongst themselves in student accommodation. Both events made national news. However, the way that the two incidents were reported was markedly different in tone. The students, who were staying in halls provided by the University of Glasgow, have been given the opportunity to speak out about the difficulties they face, both physically and emotionally, due to coronavirus regulations. Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden, however, have faced both harsh judgement and severe punishment for what is essentially the same mistake. Both were immediately dismissed from the England squad and fined £1,360 by Icelandic authorities. What’s more, certain media outlets seemed determined to further disgrace the pair, drawing attention to Foden’s infidelity and dragging up historical footage of Greenwood taking laughing gas. What began as a simple breach of health regulations quickly escalated into something like a character assassination.
Greenwood and Foden are not unique in their predicament. When young people become public figures, they often find their personal lives as well as their professional abilities becoming the subject of headlines. Unlike the rest of us, who have the privilege of having a “professional” persona, and an “at home” persona, public figures are expected to have a singular dimension of character. In this way, they become symbols of themselves. Our tendency to idolise them is also what allows us to dehumanise them, and to be so brutal in our condemnation when they make mistakes. We conflate their brand image with their individuality, and any conflict between the two is read as hypocrisy or even outright betrayal. A single mistake can be read as a negation of all that has come before.
However, by characterising young public figures by their errors, we run the risk of denying them the opportunity to grow. We also invite the same treatment of our own mistakes. It would be a cruel world if the students of Glasgow University were treated like Greenwood and Foden. I’d much
rather live in a society in which the reverse was true.
The way that we scrutinise the behaviour of public figures, like an overbearing parent with extremely high expectations, is to a certain extent justified. It may even be a form of due diligence; being a public figure is a privileged position, and if we honour somebody with our attention and
praise, we want to be sure that they are deserving of such reverence. After all, who we choose to celebrate reflects our own values as well. If we do not hold famous figures to account for their
transgressions, we risk normalising such behaviours. Similarly, we don’t want to provide a platform for anybody who could be a bad example. Particularly with people in the public eye, we are right to be watchful of hypocrisies or outright offences. A 2009 survey by Barclays Spaces For Sports suggests that one in four teenagers in the UK are more influenced by celebrities than by people they know. Given the disproportionate influence they have over young people, perhaps it is our moral prerogative to demand that those in the public eye be held to a higher moral standard, even if they are young themselves.
However, there is a tendency, particularly on the internet, to conflate a singular error of judgement with a person’s entire character. Overnight, a person can be transformed into the physical manifestation of whatever action they are accused of. When shame is weaponised in this way, it
becomes useless and destructive, more like cyberbullying than a moral corrective. It becomes, in essence, a form of scapegoating, which, like the original Biblical ritual, is sacrificial. We transfer the burden of all of our sins onto the back of a single individual and then force them out into the
wilderness, exonerating the rest of us, whether or not we are guilty of similar misdeeds. Whilst public figures should certainly be held to account for established patterns of disgraceful behaviour (such as those exposed by the #MeToo movement), there is a difference between this and a single
As much as public figures have a responsibility to uphold ethical standards, we have a responsibility to wield our powers of outrage responsibly. We need to be critical of ourselves as well as others when we are passing judgement, or we run the risk of perpetuating the very hypocrisy that we profess to hate. Few of us make it through life without committing some offence, and in the digital age, the spectre of our past selves is always just a click away. This is particularly true for millennials and the succeeding generations, many of whom have a digital footprint that stretches back into childhood. The internet records everything in perpetuity, ensuring that none of us are ever too far away from the mistakes we make in our youth - whether they be egregious or imply embarrassing. We should be careful, then, in judging people solely for their mistakes rather than their achievements, lest we invite the same scrutiny onto ourselves. In unearthing transgressions and pointing to them as evidence of some essential character flaw, we deny people, both famous and not, the opportunity to progress and to change.
Perhaps, now that we have perfected the art of public outrage, we need to learn the art of public forgiveness. We might follow the example of England manager Gareth Southgate, who, despite expressing his anger and disappointment with the errant pair, has also stood by and defended them against overzealous condemnation. He stated: “Young people err more often than older people do”
But that doesn’t mean that you can hold that against them for ever.”