Why Emma Sullivan Should Apologize

Not sure if you have seen the news story, but the other day an 18-year-old high school student by the name of Emma Sullivan became an overnight celebrity when she tweeted the following regarding her state's governor, Sam Brownback:

"Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot"

Brownback Apologizes To Teen TweeterAs I write this post, Sullivan's following on Twitter has surged to more than 12,000.  Significantly more than mine, of course.  And even quite a bit more than Gov. Brownback (Kansas) himself (about 3,000).  Sullivan uploaded the tweet, it seems, while she was in the audience listening to the Governor deliver a speech.  Sullivan was a part of a program known as "Youth in Government" which is apparently designed to give students interested in government and politics hands-on learning experiences.  

As the story goes, the Governor's staff found the tweet while monitoring the web for mentions, news stories, and discussion about Brownback.  This, of course, is the first point at which critics are firing away at the governor.  Writes Ian Millhiser, "If nothing else, one would think a state governor’s office has better things to do than troll the internet looking for young dissenting voices they can intimidate." But that's just a very silly thing to say.  Trolling the internet is what a lot of us do.  It is simple enough to set Google Alerts for a name or use an app to follow specific topics on Twitter.  I do that myself and that's without a staff.  Of course elected officials engage in this, they must.  Heck, I must and I'm just a lowly missiologist.

Next, the Governor's staff contacted those responsible for organizing the Youth in Government field trip and let them know about what one of their students had posted online.  This is apparently what Governor Brownback has now publicly apologized for.   He has stated, “My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms. I enjoyed speaking to the more than 100 students who  participated in the Youth in Government Program at the Kansas Capitol. They are our future. I also want to thank the thousands of Kansas educators who remind us daily of our liberties, as well as the values of civility and decorum.  Again, I apologize for our over-reaction.”

I suppose that was what Brownback had to do.  However, if I had been organizing such a program as "Youth in Government", I would hope that those students who participated in it would conduct themselves with much more "civility and decorum" than what Sullivan displayed.  I'm sorry, but saying that an elected official "sucks" does not exactly rise to the level of mature and thoughtful criticism.  Since, Sullivan's school principle apparently responded to the news by reprimanding her, people have been rushing to cry foul regarding the student's freedom of speech.  But freedom of speech isn't the issue at all.  Had Sullivan tweeted an actual critique of Brownback's policies, this would have never been a story.  For example, she might have said, "Gov. Brownback's defunding of education sucks." Had she done so, I have a feeling she'd still be hovering around 60 followers.

The point is that Sullivan made a comment that manifested deep ignorance and immaturity along with an inability to articulate her dissent respectfully.  And when adults do that, when we put our feet in our mouths, we apologize for it.  This isn't about freedom of speech or government censorship.  It is about mature and respectful engagement with other members of a civilized society.  We say something stupid.  It gets out.  We apologize and try not to be such an idiot in the future.  Self-censorship is a mark of humility and maturity -- an essential mark of good leadership.  Crassness may suddenly jar an audience and stir a flash-in-the-pan following, but it isn't worthy of long-term attention.  It isn't capable of dealing with the realities of the troubled world in which we live.  

Well, Sullivan apparently isn't aware of this.  When asked during a CNN interview if she would like to apologize to Gov. Brownback or perhaps have a chance to have a direct conversation with him, Sullivan replied, "I wouldn't mind maybe voicing my opinions to him. I'm not a politician myself so I can't sit down and tell him, 'This is what you need to do for this, this, this and  this, you know, different policies or what he needs to do to help our education system'.  But I wouldn't apologize for the tweet itself because, like I said, that was aimed toward my audience. That wasn't aimed towards him.  I wasn't talking directly to him. It was to my high school friends."

Ahh yes, the myth of a personal Twitter feed rehashed.  Perhaps Sullivan should be made aware of the Twitter feature that allows one to lock his/her tweets.  It is a kind of cancer of the new wireless society that we live in that people feel that they can post whatever they want online for all the world to see and if anyone ever calls them on it simply duck behind a line like, "Hey that was between me and my friends."  People, look, it doesn't work that way.  Public posts are open for public critique.  If you can't handle it, don't post it.

Bottom line, Emma Sullivan should apologize because her tweet was disrespectful and actually mocks the complicated reality of the times we live in.  With her tweet, she has effectively become the unofficial representative of Kansas's "Youth in Government" program.  In which, I would guess that there may be at least a few other students, who would rather their political insights and opinions not be reduced crass comments about whether given political figures either suck or blow.

Let me end with a couple questions:

1. What will Emma Sullivan's following on Twitter peak at?  Where will it be by January 1st?

2. Has anyone actually investigated whether or not Sullivan's tweet was true?  She claims that she told Gov. Brownback that he sucked "in person".  Did she?  I haven't found any story addressing that.

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