The Unalienable Right to be Stupid

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – United States Declaration of Independence

….and to do stupid shit when young and not pay for it for the rest of their lives. – Me

This is a posting I’ve had kicking in my head for a few weeks. I first thought of it in the wake of the Kristen Stewart furore. Now that there’s a new uproar, over semi-naked pictures of Prince Harry of Britain from Las Vegas, it seems like it’s time to vent my spleen.

In my day job, I do work around publicity and press. And I can say based on my years of experience that it’s a hard, mean, brutal and unforgiving world and has only gotten more so year by year. The combined impact of the Internet, social media, mobile computing has been a profound erosion of privacy and explosion of publicity.

I’m also a man of a certain age, which means I (somehow) managed to survive my teens and early twenties. And that means I remember (at least some) of what it’s like to be that age.

When I take those two points and bring them together, I have conclude that there is something profoundly wrong and damaging in how we’re subjecting teens and twenty-somethings to a 24x7x365 social media-driven gossip culture that rests on schadenfreude, tearing people down, and violates that most important and inalienable right young adults have (or should have): the right to be stupid and not pay for it for the rest of their lives.

Let me pause here and be clear that there ARE some stupid acts that should have life-long consequences. Bringing another human being into the world in an unthinking and irresponsible way, killing someone because you’re driving in a preventable, impaired state: all of these can and should have profound, life-long consequences because they cause profound, life-changing effects and often great pain to others. But, the covert optimist in me still believes that the majority of teens and young adults do mean well and don’t do things like this.

But certainly, these years are hard, confusing years for everyone. I’ve described hitting adolescence as you being given the keys overnight to a fully functional Ferrari without ever really getting driving lessons. Nearly overnight, your body goes from a child’s body to a near-adult’s body, with all the capabilities, hormones, emotions and feelings that entails. You get that all at once with no ease-in time, no training. And anyway there is no training that can prepare you since we’re talking about what you feel. The grown-ups can describe sex all they want but nothing can prepare you for the feeling of that first orgasm (and the near obsessive need to have more once you have it). Talk is cheap and sometimes downright useless.

Add to this it’s a time of increasing independence (by desire and cultural design) and you’ve got a period of life where there’s going to be a lot of swerving, bad turns, inelegant starts and stops. And yes, accidents, both fender benders and serious crack-ups.

It’s a time that is so hard to begin with that putting actions during that time into the public gossip machine is beyond cruel. And as a society, it’s unwise. If we don’t want a society of passive cowards we have to honor the need for experimentation and yes, failure, by giving people space to fail and to recover. Creating a society that harshly enshrines a culture of one wrong move and you’re done is a sure way to make everyone conform, follow the path of least risk and resistance and take no chances.

And anyway, it’s not fair to judge what people do in this time. It’s arguable if it’s ever fair to judge but certainly it’s not at this age. How many times do I remember the rational part of my brain futilely trying to call me back from the edge of a bad decision, only to be muffled and drown in a rising flood of seminal fluid and sex hormones? At that age you can know what the right thing is and still be unable to do it. You are like the person in the back seat screaming while the crazy driver goes barreling down the highway laughing at the death that you’re sure is coming for you soon: helpless, terrified and doomed.

The funny thing is, relative to my peers, I was good, smart, responsible, and considerate. And yet, even I did some stupid, stupid shit. For me, my stupid shit tended to center around sex (not surprisingly) and was key in my figuring out that I was a failure with monogamy. There was the time I cheated on my girlfriend within days of her going home from college and ended up cheating with three different people in two months (and likely would have with more given the opportunity). I actually ended up in Seattle as a direct result of that period but I sure wouldn’t want any part of that story to be plastered on Google news. Hell, I’m not even sure how I feel about mentioning it here, but it’s been over 20 years and maybe that summer of spectacular failure can give me some credibility on this topic.

Maybe I feel strongly about this because both these cases relate to love and sex and I had such challenges myself. Regardless of why, though, I do know that this isn’t the right way to support teens and young adults while they figure out what they’re going to do with that Ferrari they’ve just been given the keys to. We all respond to shame and judgment with avoidance: we cover up, we lie, we do all we can to ensure we don’t bring that opprobrium from others onto ourselves. And if I’ve learned one thing about relationships as I’ve gotten older, and about publicity and PR from my work, it’s that the lying and the cover-up is always worse than the act itself. We should be making it easier not harder for people to be open and honest about love and sex. And yes, that means trying to make it safe to fuck up and do stupid shit, admit it, and move forward.

So, give Kristen Stewart a break. Cut Prince Harry some slack. Let them flail and struggle and figure it all out and exercise their inalienable right to be stupid and not pay for it for the rest of their lives. Because it’s not just about them: it’s about everyone that age. You can be sure teens and twenty-somethings are watching and learning from this all.

In the end, my old rule of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” pertains here. Just because you can read about this, share it, tweet about it, take pictures, text, etc. about something stupid doesn’t mean you should. And besides, do you want to be under this spotlight? I didn’t think so. I sure don’t.