Your Youthful Mistakes Can and Will Be Used Against You

Thank goodness I’m old enough to have missed this.

The consolations of aging have always been in the eye of the beholder.

Virginia Woolf, at 50, wrote in her diaries of feeling “poised to shoot forth quite free straight and undeflected my bolts whatever they are.” She did not believe in aging, she said, but rather “forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.”

One needn’t contemplate the angle of the planets to find solace in aging. More prosaically (and perhaps also more poignantly) there are things like grandchildren and retirement and retreat from vanity. There’s the defiance of fatuous social norms now popularly referred to as “not giving a fuck.” (I think Woolf may have been getting at something along those lines.) I am now the age Woolf was when she talked about altering her apsect to the sun. And while I don’t know enough about astrology to connect the dots of my memories to trail markers of the earth’s orbit, I’ve lately become aware of a sort of baseline visceral sensation hovering over my emotional life. Again and again, this sensation conjures the same sentiment: I’m glad I lived when I did. Specifically, I’m glad I was young when I was.

As I talked about with Andrew Sullivan recently on his podcast, life these days often feels to me like I’m backing up slowly from a tense and increasingly untenable situation. If the world today feels in many ways like a bank robbery in progress, I’m the lady who was finishing up with the teller at precisely the moment the robbers entered the building. While the rest of the customers dropped to the ground, I managed to slither away just in time, my transaction completed, the door hitting me firmly but not violently on the way out.

Safely outside, I can peer through the glass as the people younger than I surrender like hostages to the demands and punishments of the digital era. Fledgling journalists churn out multiple articles per day for a fraction of what I was paid twenty years ago (and are often appraised not by the quality of their work but by the quantity of their clicks). Artists forge their own lonely and starving paths, unsupported by institutions and economies that once upon a time, for better or worse, buoyed them enough to at least keeping them paddling along. Scariest of all, teenagers with undeveloped frontal lobes are effectively subject to 24-hour social media surveillance, their every poor choice and dumbass move recorded for potentially cataclysmic posterity.

I’m beginning to think that all human beings, upon reaching some agreed-upon age of moral development, should be read their Miranda Rights. The rest of your life can and will be used against you.

So it went for two young people who, thanks to an especially fiery collision between social media (in this case Snapchat and Instagram) and old media (The New York Times) are presumably having a very unpleasant time of it this week. I’m not going to rehash the story of the two teenagers from Leesburg, Virginia. You can read it here and, god knows, there’s been enough chatter on Twitter these last few days to add several more chapters — at least speculative ones — to the saga. But suffice it to say that three years ago a 15-year-old girl said the n-word in a three-second video. Last summer, a second teenager, peeved at the girl’s Instagram invocations to support Black Lives Matter, decided to dredge up the old video in the service of calling her out for empty virtue signaling.

The online shaming came down like a typhoon. The girl went through the requisite apologies, but her life crumbled nonetheless. This included her college bending to public pressure and rescinding her admission. Then, last Sunday, The New York Times made the puzzling decision to publish a lengthy story about the situation, thereby creating a circular firing squad that now has the second teenager, who is mixed raced and is quoted in such a way that suggests he’d sat on the video unless precisely the moment it could hurt her the most, being pilloried on social media as a psychopath and the true villian in the story.

Everything I have to say about this story I pretty much said in a couple of tweets (see, I’m keeping my promise to retire from opinion writing). But as the winter of this terrible year fuses itself onto every surface, as my own astrological aspect inches me closer to my next birthday, I find myself seeing my advancing age not just a consolation but a mercy. I find myself almost wanting to bow down to the 1970s and 80s (and most of the 90s) in gratitude. How lucky to have been a young person in those decades. How lucky to have been the beneficiary of twentieth century advancements — vaccines, women’s equality, remote control televisions, answering machines, email! — without paying some of the terrible prices of 21st century advancements. How lucky to have learned to talk on the phone before learning to text. How lucky to have had Penthouse before Pornhub. How lucky to have been able to shout into the void, heard by no one, captured by nothing.

There are things I did and said as a teenager that would ruin me today if they had been be captured, immortalized and weaponized per the current protocol. I’d give you some hints as to what these things might be but, honestly, I cannot remember. In some combination or shame or mortification or unconscious self-protection I’ve blocked them out.

I have sense memories of these idiocies, but there’s no precision to them. They remain preserved in an impressionistic muck. In turn, that muck is what preserves my ability to live with myself. How lucky to have lived in a time of such muck. How lucky to have moved through the world with nothing other than my own feet, unhindered by a digital footprint that could turn on me at any time. How lucky to have grown up in private.

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything.

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