He did something abhorrent as a child. What should the consequences be as an adult?
When progressive ideals hit a punitive culture
This is just a cute photo of Pete in his feelings
What I’m Writing
CNN DNC Roundup: A night of hope, tempered with unease
CNN DNC Roundup: The final night was very, very Christian
I’m very very excited that this Wednesday I’m doing a virtual event with Anand Giridharadas at New York’s iconic The Strand bookstore about my book, OK Boomer, Let’sTalk. It’s at 7pm and it’s free! And if you haven’t bought the book yet, consider doing so via an independent bookseller like The Strand.
The View From Here
Last week, a relatively marginal story took over Feminist Twitter and Left Twitter: Aaron Coleman, a 19-year-old progressive who had terrorized girls online via revenge porn and extreme bullying when he and they were children, won his primary for the Kansas house against a long-standing Democratic incumbent. The timeline is still a little fuzzy, but when Coleman was approximately 12 to 14, he harassed one girl so badly she attempted suicide, and then obtained nude photos of another, which he used to extort her — demanding she send him more nudes, or he would release the one he had (child pornography, to be clear) to her friends and family. When she didn’t comply, he made good on his threat. Coleman admits to all of this. He did not get in legal trouble or face any consequences at the time. And he has since told a relative of the girl who tried to kill herself that she should “move on.”
The story of Coleman’s revenge porn and more recent questionable behavior (calling a woman’s home relentlessly, writing that he hopes Republicans die of Covid-19, and saying he would “giggle” if one particular GOP rep died) was covered in a short New York Times article, and was quickly picked up by Glenn Greenwald, who tweeted it out to his 1.5 million followers. Coleman’s opponents, Greenwald said, were using his history of revenge porn to “sabotage” him. Intercept writer Ryan Grim also joined in, tweeting, “Wait, he did this stuff when he was 12? And we’re just done with him forever?” By Friday, Coleman was being interviewed by Greenwald and broadcast on the Intercept; they spent only a few minutes talking about the allegations, and the conversation includes Greenwald giving Coleman many opportunities to talk about why he’s a great candidate and how to support him. It feels more like an extended campaign ad than a journalistic endeavor. The headline emphasized Coleman’s “troubled past and promising present.”
It was frustrating to see lefty men elevating someone who was so tremendously unqualified and who had such a recent abusive past. Aaron Coleman is 19. He ran for governor at 17 as a Rand Paul fan who said he would have voted for Trump over Clinton and didn’t really care about abortion rights. Two years later, he refashioned himself as a pro-choice feminist running against an anti-abortion Democratic incumbent on a Democratic Socialist platform. Given his history, given his continued poor judgment — hoping Republicans die, for example — and given the fact that he has not done a single thing to learn or grow before, again, seeking a position of power, I saw red flags waving all over the place. Coleman offered the right words in his platform, and nothing else — no history of organizing or working on campaigns, not even the ability to actually carry out his promises, many of which were far beyond the ability of a state legislator. But in any case, journalists and advocates all pick and choose which stories we latch onto, and it was stunning to see two of the most left’s most prominent reporters jump to the defense of someone who had nothing to show for himself other than, at 19, finally saying the writing the right things in his platform. They were latching onto his story, it seemed, because of the revenge porn history.
Other feminist writers were perturbed, too. While a handful of lefty men were emphasizing Coleman’s “promise,” they didn’t bother to take into account that women who have nude photos shared without their consent often lose jobs, including, recently, a seat in Congress. The girl whose photo Coleman circulated may never be able run for office — if she did, a photo of her would almost inevitably be circulated, and she would have to relive that humiliation all over again. Coleman was remade as the victim of, as one leftist podcaster put it, a “harassment campaign” by liberals and the media. He was defended with a vigor that would never had existed had Coleman been a young Republican or even a College Democrat, and a lot of the men defending him didn’t seem to really grasp what was so damaging and depraved about his actions. There’s a lot more to read and say about misogyny in progressive movements, and Jessica Valenti has more or less said it all, so you should read her.
On Sunday, Coleman withdrew from the race.
But here is where things get a little dicier. Coleman was a kid when he engaged in his online terror campaign, and by any reasonable measure other than the legal age of majority, he’s a kid now. I would (and did) argue that his unsuitability for office hinged not only or even primarily on what he did at 12, 13, and 14, but on how he has totally failed to grapple with his past beyond “I’m sorry,” and how he shows a pretty unbroken record of exceptionally poor judgment, a troubling empathy deficit, and profound narcissism (who thinks they’re qualified to govern a state at 17?). And honestly, watching Coleman’s interviews and campaign videos, I was struck by the degree to which he just seemed in way over his head — a kid who was not prepared for this, who regurgitated well-worn Bernie Sanders talking points and who plagiarized his own resignation statement, and who was certainly not prepared for elected office. Coleman is, for me, an easy case: A person who wasn’t qualified for the position he ran for, who has not demonstrated that he has evolved or grown, who was a child when he committed bad acts but is still functionally a child — and just should not be elevated to a position of power at this particular time in his life.
But the “at this particular time in his life” is a big sticking point. Because, as much as I saw a whole lot of misogyny from Coleman’s loudest defenders, I also saw a lot of troublingly punitive and dangerous conclusions from some of his critics: That Coleman is a “monster,” that he is a sociopath, that a cruel act is evidence of a permanently cruel character, that he is and will always be a bad person, that he should be barred forever from running for office or being in a position of authority.
No, being told you can’t be in a position of power is not the same as going to jail. No, having to withdraw your candidacy is not the same as being imprisoned or having your name on the sex offender registry. But these are still penalties, and we should be asking if they’re fair. Especially when young people are now all growing up in a world in which their communications are largely online and therefore preservable for life, and where technology means we are tracked and surveilled and personal privacy has never been so compromised, do we really want a standard that says bad things you did as a child will follow you forever?
To be clear, this isn’t what happened to Coleman. There’s no “forever” or “in perpetuity” here — there are a few years, during which no amends have been made or personal progress apparent. But as more and more people who grew up in our technological hellscape come of age, these issues are going to come up again and again. And not every case is going to be as straightforward.
I’ve been thinking about this article in the New York Times for months now. It’s about how teenagers are using social media to police each other, exposing each others’ racist comments and trying to extract social and educational penalties. They’re publicizing students using racial slurs, but also “making insensitive remarks” and “engaging in cultural appropriation” (no examples are given in the article, but cultural appropriation can mean anything from wearing a Native American headdress at a music festival to wearing gold hoop earrings). These posts include the wrong-doers’ names and their contact information; some students circulate Google spreadsheets with the personal information of those who make racist comments on social media (“Someone rly started a Google doc of racists and their info for us to ruin their lives. i love Twitter,” one person wrote). A 16-year-old girl who runs one of these call-out accounts said she’s doing it in the hopes that her peers get their college acceptances rescinded, because, she said, “People who go to college end up becoming racist lawyers and doctors. I don’t want people like that to keep getting jobs.” Another, a 22-year-old who created one of the Google sheets, is quoted in the Times and Forbes and saying, “Some people say, ‘You’re ruining their lives.’ I think it’s the only way to prove to them that actions do have consequences.”
Yes, actions have consequences. But consequences should also be proportionate, foreseeable, and meted out fairly. And they should absolutely take into account the age of the offender — which is we have a juvenile justice system, and why progressives typically oppose trying juvenile offenders as adults.
We know that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with long-term planning, impulse control, and moderating social behavior doesn’t fully form until an adult is 25 or so. We know that the United States is one of the most punitive countries in the world, throwing more of its children behind bars than any other nation. We know this system is not rehabilitative, that it fuels reoffending, that it does tremendous physical, mental, and spiritual damage to some of our most vulnerable citizens.
We know that formal systems of punishment are not severable from social ideas and norms of punishment.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything a person did before the age of 18 should be memory-holed. But it does call for a much more complicated conversation about how we treat bad acts committed by children — yes, even when those acts hurt other children. I won’t claim to know the perfect way to do this; legalistic solutions like statutes of limitations are not the right mechanisms here, and I’m not sure broad statements like “anything a person did before 18 is off-limits” make much sense, either — if a 17-year-old shoots up their school, for example, I am not sure we want that to be off-limits should that person then decide to run for office at 18. But if someone did what Aaron Coleman did at 14 — an egregious illegal act for which he was never punished — should that bar him from running for office at 35, assuming he spent the intervening decades doing good work and never reoffending?
There are certainly lots of folks who would say yes, that the choice he made to hurt someone else should bar him from any position of power or influence for the rest of his life (and more troublingly, there are a smaller number of folks who would say that to argue otherwise is in and of itself misogyny, and probably evidence that you, too, should perhaps be shamed and shunned for having such a bad opinion). But I’m not sure that’s the kind of society we want to be building. I’m not sure we can separate that impulse toward punitive social ostracism from our broader impulse toward punitive systems of incarceration. Systems don’t just exist; we build them. We are perpetuate the norms that enable them as much as they influence us.
We are going to see more Aaron Colemans in the future. They may not be men who as boys who circulated revenge porn, but people who, as children or young people, tweeted or posted awful things, or bullied people, or who were trying to be cool and wrote something absolutely deranged — the kind of things that would get an adult fired or blacklisted. Or they may be have circulated revenge porn as children.
My point is not that what happens online is not as much “real life” as stuff that happens offline. My point is that when young people mediate their lives through a screen, there are new opportunities (and frankly incentives) to behave badly, and a new ability to have that bad behavior captured forever. And, more importantly, whether the bad acts occur online or not, young people are more prone to being decent people who nonetheless commit bad acts by virtue of their brain development, and as a society, it would do us a tremendous disservice to ignore this basic fact and refuse to offer children a little grace. Writing all of those folks off as sociopaths and monsters — yes, even if they did something monstrous, as Coleman did — isn’t just “actions have consequences.” It feeds into a system that levies extreme consequences on children, and on black and brown children in particular. It reinforces a vindictive model more concerned with punishment than justice, without a clear path to atonement or clemency.
I am not asking that women and girls look the other way and “forgive.” Women have been asked to bear the brunt of male violence for nearly as long as there have been women and men. Forgiveness has been given, on our behalf, by men to other men — that is more or less the Christian model of sin and redemption. It’s bullshit.
But so is a model that treats children like adults, and treats people who do certain bad things as unforgivable and unsalvageable forever. Within progressive movements, we should think about how we can create the norms we want to see. That does mean refusing to elevate and enable the many men who justify their misogyny with their politics (and oh my god there are so many of them). But it also means that we don’t define people by the worst thing they’ve ever done, especially if that thing was done when they were a kid. It means we allow people to grow — that we understand that often, the people who have come the farthest have the most to share, and that “accountability” is more than call-outs. It means, absolutely, that we don’t say that what someone did as a child is who they are for life.