Recently, an article on Jezebel discussed an awful fraternity “prank” that invoked racist and homophobic slurs while creating exponential amounts of work for a postman who was originally believed to be the target of the “prank”. It turns out that he wasn’t, but that doesn’t make it any better. One commenter suggested that the names of those responsible for the prank should be published so that employers knew their past. This was of course instantly followed by a chorus of “Don’t ruin their lives!” I find this mindset troubling for a number reasons.
In the assertion that these young men, who created a great deal of unnecessary work for the postman to taunt their rivals with racial and homophobic slurs and unintentionally lead the postman to believe that he was the target of the attack, should not have their lives ruined by what they have done reminds me of the post-trial reports of the Steubenville rape case in which many lamented the ruined lives of the two convicted rapists. With both of these incidents in mind, I feel more compelled than ever to unpack exactly what bothers me about the general idea of “their lives should not be ruined.”
I should begin by admitting that there are times when I think the expression is apt, particularly instances that are truly youthful stupidity and no one was hurt or situations where the punishment does not fit the crime. However, the construction of “Their lives should not be ruined by this” is troubling, because it is a way of divorcing those responsible for the action from the action. The implication is that the lives being ruined are ruined by those who insist that the guilty party face the consequences of their actions. When the two young men from Steubenville were sentenced, I heard people blame Jane Doe, the judge presiding over the case, and Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine, all for enacting the process which resulted in consequences for the gang rape of Jane Doe. The anger and/or mourning of their fates shifts the focus away from the fact that the two young men did something reprehensible and are facing the consequences of their actions.
When people say “don’t ruin their lives,” in cases like the two I’ve described, there is an implicit acknowledgment that if the actions that caused the discussion were brought to light, it could ruin their lives. The offending party has already acted in a way that could ruin their lives, and what the speaker is really trying to do is shield them from the consequences of their actions. This is often tied to the “boys will be boys” mentality. The trouble is that in an attempt to protect those who have acted in a way that ruins their own lives, we ignore the fact that their actions have harmed others. In the case of Steubenville, it is quite possible that they ruined someone else’s life. In the case of the fraternity prank, while the mailman’s life was not ruined, he did do a lot of pointless work only to be led to believe that he was the target of racial and homophobic slurs. Why are we more concerned with the consequences that people face as the results of their own actions than the harm they have done to others?
I don’t think we should ruin people’s lives for the sake of ruining their lives. I don’t think we should delight in someone else facing the negative consequences of their actions. In fact, I think we need to stop treating holding people accountable for their actions as “ruining lives,” but the natural cause and effect of things. Actions have consequences, and if you wouldn’t want potential employers to think you are the type of person who would use racial or homophobic slurs, don’t use them. If you don’t want to go to prison for rape, don’t rape. And, most importantly, don’t defend the people who do these things or act like the natural consequences of their actions is unfair persecution.