If you were my daughter, you’d be writing that letter apologizing to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for the smartalecky [She actually said “smartalecky.” I didn’t just add that. -Ed.], potty-mouthed tweet you wrote after meeting with him on a school field trip.
Also, that smartphone? The one you posed with, proudly displaying the tweet in which you announced that Brownback “sucked” and added the lovely hashtag #heblowsalot? Turned off until you learn to use it responsibly.
I have to make one note about all of the pearl-clutching over Emma Sullivan’s “#heblowsalot” tweet: She didn’t actually say it to Governor Brownback. That part was a joke. The reactions to her “rudeness” and “potty-mouthedness” are of such a scale you’d think she’d run up to him and yelled, “You blow! A lot!” before running away, cackling gleefully, but she just said it to her friends using the language teenagers use when they talk to each other. Rude? Maybe. I myself will cop to being a little bit rude when I tweet about TV or politics or football, but I’ve never been ordered to write a letter of apology to Robert Kirkman, Robert Bentley*, or Tim Tebow. Crude? Sullivan’s derisive teenage tweetspeak is hardly the crudest thing ever said about the governor, online or off. Knowing Brownback, it probably wasn’t the crudest thing said about him that day.
There seems to be this belief, perhaps promulgated by a generation that passed most of its social media around in folded notes when the teacher’s back was turned, that Twitter is a bullhorn that draws attention and raises one’s voice above the fray. Folks, Twitter is the fray. While it’s true that what you put out on the Internet lives there forever, it’s also true that in a world where Kanye West ALL CAPS TWEETS to an audience of more than five million, an 18-year-old sending out a tweet to her 60 followers is the digital age’s equivalent of joking around in the food court at the mall. By raising a fuss over Sullivan’s tweet, Brownback’s aide was basically standing up on a table and yelling, “Did you hear what she just said about the governor?!” drawing the attention of a mall full of people who wouldn’t have known a thing about it otherwise.
(In this analog, Ruth Marcus is following her own daughters from Sbarro to Dippin’ Dots, listening to their conversations and ready to step in with a wrist-slap for “potty-mouthed”ness.)
I suspect Marcus’s real pearl-clutching objection isn’t to Sullivan’s “suck” and “blow” but to her boldness in making her feelings known where someone might overhear. And I’m sure it can be scary to an old-guard, classically trained phone-confiscator that an 18-year-old woman might have and express an opinion. Marcus deride’s Sullivan’s “foray into political commentary,” contrasting it with other tweets about Twilight and Justin Bieber. She mentions the First Amendment only as prelude to a lengthy “but” in which she criticizes how Sullivan’s tweet “reflected poorly on the school.” And she criticizes Sullivan’s parents for “standing up for [their] little darling no matter how much she mouths off.”
“It’s the speech they use today. It’s more attention-grabbing,” her mother, Julie Sullivan, told the Associated Press. “I raised my kids to be independent, to be strong, to be free thinkers. If she wants to tweet her opinion about Governor Brownback, I say go for it and I stand totally behind her.”
Once upon a time, the unspoken (or even spoken) rule was to give our elected officials deference because of their position, probably on the assumption that someone elevated to such a position must be something special. When officials demonstrate over time, by abusing their position at the expense of the people who elected them, that they really aren’t special, that deference becomes less of a requirement. Brownback is neither a king nor a kindergartener, such that such an offense would require a written apology. And Emma Sullivan isn’t a royal subject, such that she should have to stifle her opinions of His Highness for fear of bringing shame upon her school and family. (I mean, Jesus Christ.**)
Sullivan–whose mother hasn’t taken away her phone–can tweet that Governor Brownback sucks, because he vetoed the state’s entire arts budget and does suck**. She can also tweet “Brownback spends state money harassing kids who make fun of him on Twitter #there’syourartsfunding #seriouslythisguyblows” if she wants to. Her opinions, and the media in which she expresses them, are no less valid because she’s a teenager. And the Ruth Marcuses of the world could probably spend less time bemoaning the crudeness of political 140-character discourse and more time leaning on our elected officials to do things worthy of Emma Sullivan’s respect.
*who also #blowsalot**
**Oh noes! Someone confiscate my laptop!