"Emma Sullivan just became the new Ferris Bueller."
That was the astute observation of a writer for Roll Call, one of countless panegyrics to the 18-year-old Kansan who refused to apologize to Gov. Sam Brownback for sending a not-very-nice tweet about him to her 60-some followers.
The tweet in question, which Sullivan composed on Nov. 21 at a Youth in Government Program in Topeka, went as follows:
"Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot."
Of course, this being the Internet, Sullivan wasn't exactly going for accuracy. In fact, she never even met Brownback. "I just took out my phone [and tweeted]," Sullivan explained later. "I guess it was kind of a heat-of-the-moment thing." Nonetheless, Brownback staffers, who monitor tweets bearing the Republican governor's name, were alarmed and contacted the Youth in Government program, which contacted Sullivan's school principal, who demanded that Sullivan write a letter of apology.
The rest of the story, in a nutshell, went like this. As word got out liberal bloggers began painting Sullivan as a martyr and her Twitter followers swelled from 61 to 15,710 (as of Wednesday). When Sullivan announced that she would not apologize, another media flare-up caused school district officials to revoke the demand, saying, "The issue has resulted in many teachable moments concerning the use of social media." Then Brownback was the one apologizing, saying his staff had overreacted and that "freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms." The Bueller comparison (demanding an apology for a tweet sounds like something Ferris' hapless principal, Mr. Rooney, would do) and all manner of blogospheric righteousness ensued.
Teachable moments indeed abound here. But despite the governor's ameliorations and the media's inclination to spin the story into a David and Goliath parable for the Internet age, not all of the lessons fall into neat categories like "Stand up for free speech" or even "Wow, social media is powerful!" Many of them, in fact, serve as sad reminders of just how crude public discourse has become.
I don't just mean foul language or rudeness. I mean literally crude: as in raw, unfinished, lacking in refinement or subtlety. The Sullivan dust-up revealed how unconsidered, abbreviated, heat-of-the-moment remarks are now given the credence and attention once reserved for more carefully thought-out ones (the kind, for instance, that involve editing or rewriting or that at least exceed 140 characters).
Brownback is being mocked for being thin-skinned, but the partisan bloggers and knee-jerk GOP haters who used Sullivan to further their own agendas deserve a drubbing too. After all, are we really supposed to believe that Sullivan, a student whose tweets before last week concerned themselves with Justin Bieber and the "Twilight" series, meant "#heblowsalot" as a serious political statement? Or did she just do what kids (and many adults) do all the time: write something dumb on the Internet?
Among the ironies here is that on the spectrum of dumb Internet postings, Sullivan's comment was mild. Just about anyone who holds any kind of public platform is the target of far worse invective on a daily basis. A seasoned politician like Brownback surely understands that (even if certain members of his staff did not), as do the reporters and pundits who are happy to fill air time and column inches perpetuating the idea that the story raises Very Big Questions about the influence of social media.
The problem, though, is that many of those questions, like many of the teachable moments, miss a fundamental point, which is that first thoughts should not have equal status with best thoughts. It's also worth noting that social media, in addition to being powerful, is such a fundamentally narcissistic enterprise that a governor's communications director can misinterpret a teenager's goof-off so wildly that a molehill turns into a volcanic mountain that erupts all over the news cycle.
Moreover, alas, it forces us to recognize that Emma Sullivan isn't just a hero of free speech; she's a victim (and a perpetrator) of cheap talk. She's a casualty of a culture so saturated with mindless chatter that it can't separate truth from hyperbole. And, as Ferris Bueller might say, "Pardon my French, but #thatblowsalot."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times