Ask Not for Whom the Mob Brays | Opinion

Amid the current season of activism, young people have enthusiastically taken both to the streets and the internet, participating in the national discussion over race relations in America.

The New York Times recently reported about a new front in what feels increasingly like a political war: high schoolers creating social media accounts to call out classmates for alleged "racist" speech. Students post screenshots of comments, videos and posts they deem to be hateful, identify the authors through crowdsourcing, and then mercilessly "cancel" them online—sometimes with assistance from social media personalities with millions of followers. Obviously, no effort is made to examine context, understand the commenter's mindset or offer an alternative point of view; the point, after all, is to ruin someone's life for an indiscretion.

Bear in mind that today's youth have grown up connected to the matrix, recording their thoughts on social media platforms from an early age. Accordingly, the days of youthful indiscretion and the opportunities for personal growth (or even forgiveness) are long gone—because ideas or comments that seemed funny, at the time, take on a very different character years later when judged by the lofty moral standards of today.

There's no room for changing one's mind, and no regard for the shifting goalposts of what "used to" be acceptable. Say the wrong thing once and you're forever tainted, besieged by anonymous online bullies. Despite all the COVID-era talk about self-care and mental health, it seems "wrong thinkers" don't deserve such indulgences.

The effort to "expose" racists, however, has real-world consequences. Colleges and universities have begun to revoke admissions offers from students who have shared or posted controversial material online. Arizona Christian University, Marquette University, the College of Charleston and the University of Denver are among the schools who have acted, in recent weeks, based on the content of students' speech online. It's unlikely that they will be the last.

Indeed, just last summer, Harvard University revoked an admissions offer from Kyle Kashuv, a student survivor of the Parkland High School shooting and a vocal conservative activist. Harvard pointed to controversial online messages he had written prior to the shooting as cause for its decision. Kashuv publicly apologized and disavowed the messages, but it made no difference to Harvard's mandarins.

A 2017 Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions deans asked if colleges should check the social media accounts of applicants; 15 percent of public universities and 14 percent from private universities said "yes." While a minority viewpoint, larger shares of admissions leaders assert that "even if the institutions don't check regularly, if they learn about bigotry on social media from applicants, they should factor that into admissions decisions." At public institutions, 27 percent of admissions directors agreed that such consideration was appropriate, while 54 percent of private admissions directors said so.

Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Massachusetts Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Without a doubt, racism is a stain upon the nation, and the nation continues to struggle with how best to reconcile America's lofty aspirations with what has, in many instances, been a complex and sometimes ugly past. But does excommunicating teenagers actually heal society's wounds, or does it simply exacerbate the problem?

Consider the implications for revoking an admission offer from a recent high school graduate—someone who ostensibly has his or her whole life ahead of them. Perhaps the graduate grew up in an environment where racist views were common. What might provide a better outcome: to keep him or her in that setting in perpetuity, stewing in hate and anger, or to expose that student to new and different ideas that might influence his or her thinking?

The university, more than any other institution in society, has a responsibility to challenge speech― good and bad―through debate and dialogue. Yet by rejecting the very students who most desperately need to be taught these crucial skills, the next generation to enter the workforce is instead learning to shout down opinions with which they don't agree. Fast-forward five years and picture these moral crusaders in an office setting, arguing with human resources about how to properly acknowledge holidays or the need to establish speech codes.

America's students should show each other more grace and forgiveness—because it's likely that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, they might like a little bit of their own. The Golden Rule still applies: treat others as you wish to be treated yourself. In the meantime, it might be wise to update an old phrase: "Ask not for whom the mob brays—it brays for thee."

Nicole Neily is the president and founder of Speech First, a nationwide membership association that defends students' First Amendment rights.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.