As an alumna of Desert Vista High School, I keep an astute eye out for news about my alma mater. Usually, the news is positive: lauding some sports team or congratulating its award-winning music program. Recently, however, media attention took a sudden and drastic shift.
When a photo surfaced of six senior girls wearing lettered shirts arranged to spell “NI**ER,” the public was immediately, and understandably, outraged. The photo, originally posted to Snapchat, went viral. In the blink of an eye — or the click of a mobile camera — my school was thrown into a national media frenzy.
The digital mob leaped on the case with torches lit and pitchforks sharpened. Thousands condemned the photo as a hate crime, calling its subjects stupid and racist.
In the era of Cecil the lion, it would seem that a social media account is now a law degree and a keyboard is the new gavel.
Some publicized the girls’ personal information: their full names, social media accounts (both real and fake), future colleges, even the names, emails and phone numbers of their athletic coaches. Outraged strangers encouraged the anonymous masses to contact all involved, to speak their minds and, essentially, ruin the girls’ futures. A petition arose on Change.org calling for the students’ expulsions. It now has 49,479 signatures and counting.
The condemnation radiated beyond those immediately involved, shining the spotlight on the school, district, community and state as a whole. The aforementioned petition further demanded that Desert Vista’s principal resign. According to AZCentral, Rev. Jarrett Maupin, a local civil rights activist, said he is "working with civil rights attorney Benjamin Taylor on a letter to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, asking for an investigation into racial discrimination as well as federal oversight for the Tempe Union High School District.”
Once again, Arizona is in the limelight for being a racist state.
I don’t deny that that photo was stupid. It was so stupid, in fact, that I resent the time I spend even discussing it. But if a conversation about the photo in the context of broader issues is inevitable, and it has been, then it’s important to get the facts straight.
First, the photo was not a hate crime. The U.S. Department of Justice defines a hate crime as “the violence of intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or disability.” Yes, the photo suggests some overt racial intolerance, but “intention" implies pre-meditation, and the girls in the picture definitely did not design the shirts or wake up that morning with the plan to capture the word “NI**ER” with a photo.
Second, the six students, who were dressed for the annual senior panoramic photo, were actually part of a larger group spelling the phrase “BEST*YOU’VE*EVER*SEEN*CLASS*OF*2016.” Afterward, an impromptu game of human Scrabble was instigated. The girls involved were standing around, randomly noticed something that was perceived as funny (read: intolerant, inappropriate, stupid) could be spell with their letters and … Click. Eternal infamy.
I don’t know if the spontaneity of the photo mitigates its ludicrousness. But I can say that, without knowing the students personally, I can’t conclude for certain they are racists, bigots, or white supremacists by looking at a single snapshot.
The digital mob seems to think otherwise. With the righteous public quick to condemn, Internet shaming has become the new justice system.
It is too easy to attribute malicious intent to the wrongdoers of the Internet. It’s even easier to shame them by sharing their offenses with 900 friends. In the era of Cecil the lion, it would seem that a social media account is now a law degree and a keyboard is the new gavel.
The problems with this are myriad, as illustrated by Max Fisher of Vox.com. According to Fisher, “a formal justice system … determines the severity of a crime based on … its impact on society and how it compares with other crimes. The internet mob determines the severity of a crime based on subjective factors, such as how unlikable they find the alleged criminal to be … and the degree to which the alleged crime fits into their preconceived beliefs.”
In a perfect world, sinners would get what they deserve. But the Internet is far from perfect and for those shamed by the media, their punishment is often much worse. The social media gods strike randomly, without concern for the proportionality of the crime. The wrath of the Internet mob inevitably undermines our actual justice system, condemning those found at fault to a fate disproportionately worse than their initial lapse of judgment.
It is okay — even good sometimes — to feel outraged by something you see on the Internet. It’s human nature to jump to conclusions, even to feel the urge to shame another for his or her wrongdoing. It shows that you care about what is happening in the world and that you have empathy.
But part of empathy is also acknowledging that all people on the Internet — even the decidedly despicable ones — are human. Your outrage should not undermine any human’s right to justice by spilling into the purview of punishing them directly.
What hits closest to home about the Desert Vista shirt scandal is that it’s likely I personally know someone who, in a fleeting moment of lapsed judgment, would be capable of doing something equally stupid. I’m sure you do too.
The best thing we can do as outraged onlookers is to keep our prejudices in check, facilitate constructive conversation and leave the real justice to the ones involved.
Follow Hailey Dickson on Twitter.