Kyle Kashuv case: What does forgiveness mean in modern America?

Why We Wrote This

A Harvard University admissions case is raising a question that echoes widely in the age of social media: Where should the boundaries of forgiveness begin and end?

Charles Krupa/AP/File
Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced June 17 that it would revoke an admission offer to a survivor of the Parkland High School shooting because of racist remarks he made two years ago. The ensuing debate hinges on whether a teenager merits a measure of grace.

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This week, Harvard revoked the admission of conservative teen activist Kyle Kashuv. Two years ago as a minor, Mr. Kashuv made offensive remarks, including racial slurs, in a series of texts and in a Google document shared among friends. He has since apologized. 

The ensuing debate over whether Mr. Kashuv should be admitted to Harvard hinges on whether a teenager merits a measure of grace. Answers tend to reflect partisan lines. Conservatives claim that liberals’ judgment on the matter is clouded by bias against a Parkland School shooting survivor who is opposed to gun control. The left’s riposte is that going to Harvard is not a guaranteed right and that college admissions are based on judging people by what they did when they were 16. Then they bring up instances where the right was similarly unmerciful.

At some point, observers say, the restoration of civility has to start with a willingness to offer grace toward one’s opponents. Brad Cran, a self-described leftist and former poet laureate for Vancouver, says that has to start with empathy, a recognition that all of us make mistakes. “If you don’t believe in forgiveness then you’re living a cynical, glib life,” he says.

When is an apology not enough?

Public figures who’ve expressed remorse for their abhorrent speech haven’t always been spared the consequences – not even when offenses date back many years. Kevin Hart lost out on hosting this year’s Oscars. Disney initially fired “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn. And, this week, Harvard rescinded its admission offer to conservative teen activist Kyle Kashuv.

The ensuing debate over whether Mr. Kashuv should be admitted to the nation’s preeminent ivy league school hinges on whether a teenager merits a measure of grace. Answers to that question tend to reflect partisan lines. Conservatives claim that liberals’ judgment on the matter is clouded by bias against a Parkland School shooting survivor who is opposed to gun control. The left’s riposte is that going to Harvard is not a guaranteed right and that college admissions are based on judging people by what they did when they were 16. Then they bring up instances where the right was similarly unmerciful.

The debate might suggest perpetual gridlock in such matters. But some observers believe it’s possible to find a common framework that both facilitates tangible justice and encourages good faith among political opponents. The way forward, they say, lies in a robust dialogue of what it really means to forgive and to repent.

“Forgiveness involves restorative justice in that it implies some kind of a confession and maybe also reparation. But where that kind of step has been taken, that opens the possibility of leading a different life with a different mindset,” says Donald Shriver, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary and author of “An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics.” “We Christians are sure that everybody has been guilty of some sin and to forget that is to is to retreat into pride and forgetfulness.”

Mr. Kashuv’s transgression dates back nearly two years to when he was a minor. The teen repeatedly wrote a racial slur, used an anti-Semitic phrase (even though he is Jewish), and denigrated a girl in a series of texts and in a Google document shared among friends. (Among Mr. Kashuv’s youthful indiscretions: naively believing that what one writes online will forever remain private.) When the documents came to light last month, Mr. Kashuv offered an unequivocal mea culpa for using “callous and inflammatory” words in an attempt to be as “as shocking as possible.”

‘We are wrestling with what forgiveness looks like’

Harvard has said it won’t publicly comment on its decision to revoke Mr. Kashuv’s place. But plenty of other people have weighed in on the matter.

“We’re all gonna get on Twitter now and talk about this individual human being as if they are here on Earth to be a container for all of our emotions about the current political environment,” says Sarah Stewart Holland, a liberal who hosts the “Pantsuit Politics” podcast with her conservative friend Beth Silvers.

Ms. Holland and Ms. Silvers, both mothers who live in Kentucky, approached their podcast discussion of Mr. Kashuv in ways that they advocate in their recent book, “I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-filled Conversations.”  

Ms. Holland says her conservative friend helped her see that too much symbolism is vested in Harvard – this discussion wouldn’t be happening if, say, Mr. Kashuv had been rejected by the University of Connecticut.

Ms. Silvers says her liberal friend helped her realize this news story is colored by other previous controversies that have obscured what she believes is the core question at the heart of this particular case.

“In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, especially, we are wrestling with what forgiveness looks like,” says Ms. Silvers. “Who is allowed to evolve versus who is allowed to be punished forever…. That is a really different question than, ‘What is an appropriate level of accountability for a teenager, as a teenager, for saying something racist?’”

Teenagers as targets of public shaming

Until recently, it was uncommon for what some have dubbed “cancel culture” to focus on indiscretions committed before someone came of legal age. But, unlike criminal records, comments by teenagers on Twitter aren’t under seal. And increasingly, those cringeworthy posts have been retweeted in a bid to create embarrassing news stories. In December, Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray had just accepted the Heisman trophy when, hours later, anti-gay tweets he’d made a teenager resurfaced. Similarly, someone drew attention to Josh Hader’s inflammatory tweets as a teen at the very moment the Milwaukee Brewers pitcher was on the mound of last year’s All-Star game. Since then, two other baseball stars have had to apologize for rash comments they made during their formative years on social media.

The press, too, not only reports on faux pas by public figures during their high-school years, but also those of regular teenagers. Case in point: When a Utah girl posted a picture of herself wearing a traditional Chinese dress, which she found at a thrift store, to prom last year, many articles were written about whether she was guilty of cultural appropriation. And when a video of MAGA hat-wearing high-schoolers from Covington, Kentucky, went viral earlier this year the boy at the center of the controversy was quickly identified and vilified.

“We should not be naming and shaming kids unless this is serious criminal behavior,” says Robby Soave, author of “Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.” “It is now very easy to create a record of your worst behavior and have that come back to haunt you. Which means I think it’s even more important to practice forgiveness of these kinds of things.”  

Michael Conroy/AP
Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., speaks at the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action Leadership Forum in Indianapolis in April 2019.

An advocate for non-gun control safety measures to protect schools, Mr. Kashuv has spoken at conservative conferences and been photographed with the president. As he and others noted, the attacks have been bipartisan – coming from both the left and far-right activists such as Mike Cernovich and Laura Loomer. (Ms. Loomer did not respond to the Monitor’s request for an interview.)

“There is no genuine desire on their parts to make their target a better person, to see the error of their ways,” says Stacey Matthews, a conservative columnist for North State Journal, a statewide newspaper in North Carolina. “If it was, they'd approach the person personally rather than ‘outing’ them. The shaming is done because of petty reasons like personal grudges or political differences.”

Some commentators, including Mr. Soave, say that losing a place at Harvard is a rather harsh punishment for Mr. Kashuv, especially considering how he has comported himself since it became public.

“If someone can go through that process of reflection and come back and actually take responsibility, accountability for it as well as he has done, and still get the hammer, then what is that saying to anyone for the possibility of redemption?” says Brad Cran, a self-described leftist who recently wrote an article for Quillette titled, “Lessons in Forgiveness, from a Bicycle Thief.”

Consequences and character-building

Over at Slate, admissions consultant Hanna Stotland, who specializes in educational crisis management, had a diametrically opposite take.

“Ben Shapiro, David Brooks, and Reason’s Robby Soave have all made the same point in recent days,” she wrote. “But these people have it backward. Kashuv has a shot at redemption because Harvard revoked his acceptance. Consequences and redemption are not in tension. In fact, they go hand in hand.”

Everyday Americans may see valid observations amid the finger-pointing and whataboutism. But, at some point, others say, the restoration of civility has to start with a willingness to offer grace toward one’s opponents. Mr. Cran, who was Vancouver’s poet laureate from 2009 to 2011, says that has to start with empathy, a recognition that all of us make mistakes.

He believes there’s a reason why many people can’t bring themselves to forgive people such as Mr. Kashuv. To do so would mean they’d have to relinquish their narrative that those on the other side are evil.

“If you don’t believe in forgiveness then you’re living a cynical, glib life,” he says.

But should forgiveness be unconditional?

“You forgive someone and it’s done. If they go back on their word at a later point, that’s when the conditions start,” says Ms. Matthews. “As I wrote in a column earlier this year on the [Virginia Gov.] Ralph Northam blackface scandal, people are flawed and they’re going to make mistakes in life. But they can learn from the mistakes, be forgiven, and be better people as they get older. They don’t have to be punished for an eternity. It’s OK to accept someone’s apology and move on if you believe they are being sincere.”

Other disgraced public figures have rebounded following a time-out period of atonement. Mr. Gunn was eventually reinstated as director of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” and Kevin Hart is back on TV with his Comedy Central series “Hart of the City.” Mr. Kashuv’s future may well depend on how others perceive him going forward.

Ms. Silvers, for one, wonders whether his new notoriety may result in a career founded upon the identity politics of playing up a sense of victimhood. She hopes he will leave the apology tour of cable news behind and earn forgiveness through the humility of his actions.

“I’d like to see proof,” concurs Jeanne Safer, the liberal-leaning author of “I Love You, but I Hate Your Politics: How to Protect your Intimate Relationships in a Poisonous Partisan World.” She wishes Harvard had opted for a more Solomonic choice of delaying its decision on Mr Kashuv’s admission. “My thought was, ‘How about giving him an extra year?’ Let’s see what you do.”

No one possesses an emotional X-ray machine to see into Mr. Kashuv’s heart. And very few observers who’ve offered judgment have endured a mass shooting or can attest, firsthand, how that experience might transform a person. Podcast host Ms. Holland, for one, offers a cautionary note about how one might view the Parkland shooting survivors.

“Even though they have become public figures, in a sense they’re still kids,” she says. “And I think it’s important for adults, even those of us who are not actually directly connected to them, to think of them that way.”

Mr. Shriver, the theologian, cautions that character-building isn’t accomplished all at once. Speaking from his personal experience of the civil rights movement, he advises that society needs to allow for a process of growth if repentance is to be achieved through understanding.

“I was born in Virginia and participated in one way or another in the customs around a segregated society. And it took me years to understand the harms that segregation did to my neighbors,” he says. “This is a learning process that we need to give people time and scope and freedom to explore. If we don’t have that freedom to explore, we will cover up the past without confessing its evils. And that’s where a certain amount of patience, what I call forbearance, is important.”

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