Tuesday, 29 November 2011

It's the Principal Of The Thing!

By now anyone who's remotely plugged in to US politics on the web will have heard all about the saga of the Kansas student who tweeted about the state Governor and wound up in the principal's office over it.  In short, she claimed that she had been rude to his face in a joke tweet that was not true - she had been present while he gave a talk to the class but never spoke to him.  Then the Governor's media monitors (yes, he has those) were trawling the web for people's personal opinions on him and decided they just had to make her life difficult for displaying 'disrespect'.  So they called the school and demanded that she be punished and forced to write an apology letter to the Governor, losing any chance the guy ever had at actually earning respect by petulantly demanding it.

She refused, her sister went to the press, and twitter exploded with the tag #heblowsalot.  Now Emma Sullivan is a brief household name, and Sam Brownback's name is mud.  Good job, that'll teach that little bitch for having an opinion.

What I find fascinating about this little story is the gulf that it displays.  Much like the income inequality between the 1% and the 99%, it seems to only ever get wider and those with the power and the privilege are digging in their heels, refusing to give up any ground.  For this situation to become what it did required a series of adults to be, in essence, not adults, and to not care.  It required grown men and women in the big bad world of politics to deliberately seek out negative comments on the Internet, care enough about them to find out who said them and when, and care enough still to think that an 18 year old high school student was worth their time harassing and bullying in order to make an example.  And then it required a school district and principal, presumably adults themselves, to bow to this ludicrous demand for an apology and drag the young woman to the office, berate her for an hour about what a terrible person she was for a tweet that took all of ten seconds to write, and waste everybody's time and energy.  And of course, it required all of these adults to act without the foresight to think that perhaps this was unreasonable and bound to look stupid to the rest of the planet.

An update on the story can be found here: http://videocafe.crooksandliars.com/heather/teen-who-tweeted-about-brownback-wont-apol

Anyway, you may remember from earlier I mentioned that part of the reason I left the Catholic church was the attitude of teachers in my Catholic high school, which tended to range from apathetic to despotic.  This is not purely a Catholic or religious issue, though.  I see it in education, policing, politics, and anything with any kind of hierarchy really.  It is a common human failing that seems to come crashing down particularly hard on the young as they are the most vulnerable.  When you are faced with a teacher screaming in your face with literally no justification, what recourse does a student have?  When they punish you for having done nothing wrong, or their punishment is overzealous and outrageous, what can you do or say?  All the power is theirs, the scales are entirely tipped in their favour.  Or so they think.  So they would insist, and in their childishness they fully believe that it should be so.  Yet this little story demonstrates that in essence they have no power but that which they are granted by people bending to their will.  Emma Sullivan refused to be cowed and simply said "No, I will not apologise, I will not accept a punishment".  And the school district backed down, revealing themselves to be complete cowards in the process as they tried to pretend in a statement that they never intended or tried to censor a student's speech.  This is what happens to those with power - they fear losing it, and most of all they fear that when they try to wield it they will discover it is simply not there.  Losing face is such anathema to them that it makes them act irrationally and tip their hand, revealing they hold jack shit.  Governor Brownback himself made a hollow apology, saying he was sorry for the actions of his staff and of course wiping his own hands of the mess.  I imagine he expects us to believe his staff trawl twitter for negative comments about the Governor for a hobby and it was never ordered or endorsed by him.  Regardless, as soon as this girl stood up and said "no", her myriad bullies crumbled and embarrassed themselves in their haste to pretend they had not been trying to bully her at all.

Unfortunately this approach does not work when you have to go it alone, and does not have such immediate results when the bully is licensed to hurt you with impunity.  I had to go it alone at school, and my bullies thus held all the cards.  The world has its bullies to deal with, and tweeting #heblowsalot a half million times is unlikely to stop them coming with their clubs and their chemical sprays.  It's not hopeless, but it is going to require that this time the meek dig their heels in, that this time the downtrodden decide that they shouldn't have to play by the rules either.  When the grown ups don't have to be grown up, when the child is the only one with courage, and when keeping the peace means spraying people in the face with a chemical weapon, maybe the meek shall inherit the Earth.

Now here it is to reflect upon, your moment of zen:


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