Sacrificing our kids on the altar of woke

Earlier this week, the Washoe County School District sent out passionate, almost blubbering apology, and no one knew what it was for.

The statement was about an “incident” that while “unintentional,” was “clearly” offensive, and had something to do with Damonte Ranch High School’s homecoming. But in spite of the “clearly” part, no one actually seemed to know about what the district was groveling (that word doesn’t quite begin to describe the floor-licking silliness of the statement).

If one didn’t know any better, one would describe it as a marketing ploy to actually generate interest in whatever they were supposedly embarrassed about. It was so vague that the Reno Gazette-Journal had to file a public records request just to figure out just what in the hell they were apologizing for after direct requests were ignored.

A few days later, we learned via an investigation (that was probably more thorough than many actual criminal cases I handle) that a poorly constructed parade float was the culprit. The kids wanted their cowboy mascot to lasso an inflatable mannequin dressed up as their opponent’s medieval “Lancer” mascot. Quelle horreur! They wanted a gray dummy, because that was one of their opponents’ school colors. But all Amazon had was a black one, so that’s what they used. The lassoing was supposed to all be done on the float, but the inflatable knight didn’t stay put after being lassoed, and was drug along behind the float. I blame the fact that DRHS converted all of its shop classrooms to dance studios a few years back.

No one believed that this was intended to be a racist threat. No one believed there was any malice involved, beyond that which has routinely been leveled by any red-blooded American high school student at a homecoming rival. The complaints by various activists was that they should have been “better educated” so that they would know how naughty they were being. In other words, it wasn’t that the students were racist, but that they were so not racist that it didn’t even occur to them that dragging a mannequin around would offend anyone except the other school’s sports fans.

So why did school officials apologize as if their student body had donned white hoods and burned a cross while chanting racial slurs as a sanctioned official activity? Why were the kids involved punished (as we were assured they would be)?

That, at least, we know the answer to. First, it seems that, once again, the demand for hate crimes has outpaced the supply, so we have to make ‘em up where they don’t exist. But more broadly, we’re creating a culture where no past mistake must ever be forgotten, where taking offense is a commodity to be exploited, and where subjective intent of the speaker is irrelevant because “woke” scolds get to move their offensiveness goalposts around at will in order to ensure maximum control over what everyone else does, says, and (most importantly) thinks. 

This garbage needs to be called out, early and often. And hard. Otherwise, it leads us to some very, very dark places. None of this is about sensitivity – it’s about power, pure and simple.

When I was a kid, the woke scolds were generally religious people who were discovering political power. Many were on the right, but things were less partisan back then, and moralizing busybody church lady types could be found everywhere, looking to save us all from ourselves. Their standard-bearer was, after all, Tipper Gore, who used her husband’s political fame to launch herself into the national consciousness as the censor-in-chief of popular music. And further to the left could be found the identity-politics-wallowing proto-PC crowd, altering language periodically and randomly to purposely blur the lines between actual bigots and those who simply used older phrases.

I had no patience for them then. I have less now. These people do real harm to real people.

I suppose that the students involved with the lassoing should probably have recognized their unintentional symbolism, although the fact that they didn’t is actually a good sign in terms of the laudable goal of a colorblind culture being closer than ever. 

They didn’t, because all teenagers, regardless of IQ or goldenness of heart, have, are, and will always be stupid and/or thoughtless for significant portions of their waking hours. This is why we don’t let most of them vote, rent cars, run for office, buy cigarettes or alcohol, dictate global environmental/economic policy, gamble or sign contracts. Admit it – you said and did some regrettable stuff when you were in high school at one point or another, and if you are beyond a certain age, Dear Reader, you thank God social media wasn’t around during YOUR homecoming weeks, although most of those things were cause for eye rolling, not trembling genuflection in the newspaper by your principal.

But intent matters. Context matters. Where a speaker means no harm, the listener does not – or at least ought not – get to punish the speaker as if he did. Kids (and adults, for that matter) should never have to worry that an overheard conversation could be reported to the authorities, and that they’ll be drug off for reeducation, or publicly humiliated. It’s bad enough if the busybody tattler is honestly offended, but wait until bullies of all descriptions learn they can ruin a classmate’s life just by clutching at some pearls with enough fervor. That’s not a society any freedom loving person is willing to live in. We’re already experiencing these little “terrors” with cancel culture among our entertainers because they tweeted something off-color years ago and their careers are being ruined now on account of it.  Is it any wonder that Donald Trump’s “Oh, go boil your head” attitude resonates so powerfully across middle America?

I want our kids to be taught math and science and social studies and English. But it is equally important to teach them how to be good citizens. We want them to know enough history so as to know, for example, why casually throwing around racial slurs is a bad thing, but also enough history to know why banning even vile and offensive speech is an even worse thing (and always counter-productive in the end). 

I want them to learn, by the example of the adults who mete out consequences in their school, that intent matters, that punishments should fit crimes, and that public statements of outrage and apology should only come after people know with accuracy what they’re supposed to be upset about. They must learn that going around looking for reasons to be upset is a pretty crummy way to go through life. They must be taught that their feelings or opinions don’t give them heckler’s vetoes over the expressions or actions or life-choices of others. Most importantly, they should live in a world where youthful mistakes are not fatal to prosperous adulthood. Blacklists and thoughtcrime witch hunts are a pretty stupid way to model tolerance.

The Washoe County School District’s unctious groveling conveyed exactly the opposite of all of these things. If public education is – as it must be – a way to ensure future generations can keep the prosperous and free society we now enjoy, our public educators owe it to our kids to handle things like this so much better the next time a teenager acts his or her age.

In the meantime, the only apologies owed are to the students who have now been unfairly and publicly maligned as closeted bigots by school officials who themselves lack the perspective or maturity to put the things teenagers do in their proper context.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.