The problem with New York Mag's story about the teenager who was canceled
And the problem with the response!
Yesterday New York Mag published a new cover story called “Cancelled at 17,” about cancel culture-type things happening in high school. Twitter lit up! People who think cancel culture is a pretend hysteria hated it and people who think cancel culture is a real problem mostly liked it. But I think it’s a little more complicated than that.
The story is about a high schooler named Diego who got drunk at a party and showed some friends nude photos his girlfriend had texted him. Word spreads that he did this. She breaks up with him. He ends up being ostracized in school for a couple of weeks/months. Then he goes off to college and everything seems fine.
Basically, high school drama. At this point, I don’t even think it makes sense to call this a cancel culture phenomenon. Dumbass does dumb shit and has to eat lunch by himself for a few weeks. A story as old as time.
But that isn’t the whole story. Diego’s very bad betrayal of his girlfriend becomes known in the school amid a moment of frenzied “get abusers off campus” panic. The entire school has just returned from Covid-induced virtual learning for two years. Everyone is stressed out and everyone is mad at everyone else. Many people feel unsafe in the school upon their return and this leads to demands that the teachers and administrators do more to protect students from ill-defined “abusers.”
What is an abuser? A classification that covers all manner of sin, from rapists and violent physical assaulters to sexual harassers to emotionally abusive assholes who tease you or generally aren’t nice to you
A list appears on the wall of the girl’s bathroom called “people to look out for.” It includes the names of men alleged by someone somewhere at some time of being guilty of any of the above things. But because the most serious thing someone could be on this wall for is rape, all of the people become known as rapists. A photo of the rape list goes viral online and leads to widespread problems in the community.
In the popular imagination, the evolution of the crimes of the boys on the wall was rapid and steep. “You’re an abuser” quickly morphed into “You’re an assaulter,” which soon turned into “You’re a rapist.” The truth, according to Jenni, was most people didn’t actually care what they’d done. “Someone goes, ‘Oh my God, I heard he’s a bad person — don’t talk to him.’ And then people are scared to be on the wrong side. So they just do it. They don’t think about it. They’re just like, ‘Oh, I don’t know him, so I guess I won’t talk to him.’ ”
The biggest victims so far in this story are students who were raped. The story doesn’t say that any rape allegations were found to be true, but I bet some of the students have suffered sexual violence. The next biggest victim is Diego’s girlfriend! I don’t really know what to call “having nude photos you sent to your boyfriend shared to his friends.” Invasion of privacy doesn’t sound harsh enough. But whatever you call it, it is very very bad!
The third biggest victims are the boys (mostly of color) who were put on the list by total accident or malice. As the story details, there were indeed many boys who did nothing to no one but had a similar name to someone else or whatever and one day had to explain to their parents that they were on a rape list.
Further down the hierarchy of casualties are people who ended up on this list because they had done some lesser-included bad thing. Diego is an example. He still did a quite bad thing so I don’t think he’s the most sympathetic example here, but he definitely didn’t rape anyone. But there are surely people on the list who were “emotionally abusive” which is not a nice thing to be but doesn’t make you a rapist. Being an asshole is bad but it isn’t the same as someone who does Revenge Porn or physically violates you.
But it doesn’t matter because all these boys are now rapists according to the viral Instagram image being shared around the town. Their parents get very upset! But they aren’t the only ones. The parents of the people not on the list get very upset. They are hearing from their children that the school won’t do anything about these bad boys and so naturally they contact the teachers demanding to know why the school is letting their daughters get raped on campus every day.
The conflation of the language makes everyone crazy. The teachers explain to the students that not everything is an “assault.”
“Assault has a very specific meaning in the ed code,” the vice-principal said. “So sometimes difficult conversations arise when we say, ‘I acknowledge you feel uncomfortable and unsafe, and we should attend to that. This wasn’t assault.’ ”
The students then freak out that the teachers aren’t listening to them. The teachers are so stressed out that a bunch of them quit.