Monday, February 11, 2019
Some thoughts about yearbooks
I don't ordinarily write about public affairs in this blog but last week's hoohah (and who knows? maybe this week's too...) about yearbook photos gave me a lot to think about. I suppose most first reactions to the story that the governor of Virginia posted a blackface photo on his yearbook page include "how could he have been so insensitive and stupid?" From that point, many people moved on to excuses -- "yes, it was insensitive and stupid but he was very young" and/or "yes, it was insensitive and stupid but consider the time and place." And then the thought process swung back to "yes, he was young but not all that young -- for heaven's sake, he was already a college graduate."
My parents lived in Virginia for three decades, including the period during which the future governor was attending college and medical school, and my many months of visiting over the years lead me to give points to the "consider the time and place" excuse. Virginia has traditionally been fanatically proud of its Confederate past and racial attitudes among those white people who consider themselves the spiritual descendants of Robert E. Lee are still what most of the rest of us would call unenlightened.
My personal take on Northam is that we should give him a pass. It takes time and and exposure to other kinds of people for young people to realize that the way they have been brought up is wrong, and maturity and backbone for them to decide to change. I don't think a 25-year-old should necessarily be condemned for not having fully completed that process.
But enough about blackface. I want to talk about yearbooks.
Having spent my entire work life in the field of communication, I am always thinking about the role of communication and the media in public affairs. And I am thinking about the particular role of the yearbook in so many recent occasions of public embarrassment. The Virginia Senate Majority Leader also has a yearbook in his past to be ashamed of -- this guy was the college yearbook editor (at the same Confederacy-worshiping college that the guv attended) and blithely passed along many blackface and Klan photos to be printed on students' individual pages. And have we already forgotten Brett Kavanaugh, now on the Supreme Court, whose high school yearbook page was full of smart-ass references to drinking and sex?
I know a thing or two about yearbooks, having been editor of mine in college, and when I hear about these embarrassing pages from the past I have to wonder why they happened. Obviously they happen because kids are stupid and insensitive and have no thought of how something might survive to mortify them decades in the future. But they also happen because grownups enable and encourage the kids to act stupid.
Each of those yearbooks was funded and sponsored by a school and to some degree supervised by a school employee. Why did the grownups sign off on a format that brings out the worst in kids and has so much potential for future backfire? Print the kids' senior photos, OK, but don't let them write their own copy.
The good news is that old-yearbook-embarrassment-syndrome (OYES -- what a great acronym!) is probably on its way out. Many colleges are simply discontinuing their yearbooks; who needs them when there is so much digital info available on websites. Many others are eliminating the popularity polls that so often constitute bullying (how would you like to be named Fastest Girl or Most Conceited?). And today's teenagers don't have to use the yearbook to publish their stupid and insensitive thoughts and deeds to the world -- they can do it just fine all by themselves via social media and sexting, 24/7, no waiting, no charge.
Parents and onlookers might wish that these opportunities weren't so easy, that some grownup mediator or automatic ten-second delay might help protect young people from themselves, but then again, look what happened in the past when the grownup mediators were asleep at the switch.