You know how I almost started this post? With a standard disclaimer – “Although I found some of Paris Brown’s comments offensive…”, “Although I do not condone racism or homophobia…” – something like that. Because, yes, some of what she said was blatantly prejudiced and offensive. Words have power. When she casually uses the word “pikey” to mean cheap, dirty, or criminal, it is another piece of hurtful rubbish being hurled at travellers, an already marginalised community. When she uses the word gay as an insult and calls people “fags”, around peers who might or might not be gay, bi, or trans, she might be contributing to the shockingly high figures for mental health problems, self-harm and suicide in LGBT young people. Not that one teenage girl could ever be held responsible for issues that large; not that any one person, regardless of age or gender, could ever be held responsible for issues that large.
And here’s where I start having problems. Paris’s comments upset me far less than, say, some of David Starkey’s speeches. A respected historian and political commentator, Starkey has written multiple books on the Tudors, appears regularly on BBC programs Question Time and The Moral Maze, and has written articles for the Telegraph. Shortly after the London Riots he claimed on Newsnight that white young people were becoming black, causing them to behave violently and anti-socially. But no one has forced him to give up his job. And it hasn’t occurred to anyone to suggest that no middle aged white men should hold positions of power because of his actions. Similarly, Boris Johnson’s racist comments in the past (his description of the Queen being welcomed in commonwealth countries by “flag waving piccaninnies” or his suggestion when Tony Blair considered a trip to the Congo that “the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief”) have not stopped him from holding political office.
I wonder, if Paris was older, wealthier, a respected politician, whether we would be having these conversations. Because right now, it feels like she lost her job for being a teenage girl, rather than because we do not allow people who make unacceptable comments to have jobs in politics, media, or policing for the rest of their lives. Young people can have a voice, but only at the discretion of the adult authorities, and only as long as they make no mistakes, is the message that I’m hearing at the moment, and I don’t like it.
But didn’t I want her to take responsibility for her actions? Do I really want the writer of those tweets officially representing young people? Yes, I did. I wanted an apology of some kind. I wanted a sign that she really had learnt better since then – that she understands why her language was a problem, and is working on whatever prejudices she still has. We’re all imperfect, we’re all prejudiced, we all make mistakes, learn new things. If she’d written them while holding her position, I might feel differently, but those tweets were written up to three years ago, when she was fourteen. I’m not saying fourteen year olds don’t know better. I’m saying people’s opinions and attitudes change with time, and maybe we should allow for that.
You might have noticed, if this is a story you’ve followed in detail, that I haven’t mentioned her posts about drugs and alcohol. These things are completely different. Racism and homophobia; going out drinking, trying weed or ecstasy a few times. I don’t want racism and homophobia being fed into the police as “what young people believe”. But, a normal teenage experience does include some amount of experimentation with alcohol, and, yes, illegal drugs. Not everyone does it (strangely enough, teenagers are individuals who behave in different ways!). But a large number do. I don’t, genuinely don’t, think that makes her worse at advising the police on young people’s issues. In fact, it might make her better informed on, say, how illegal drug use among young people could be reduced without alienating teenagers from the police. It makes me hugely angry that a large amount of the reporting on this conflates the two, both inflating the importance of her having been drunk, stoned or high, and trivialising the racism and homophobia.
Paris has resigned. I wonder how hard it will be for her, now, to get a job in politics, media, policing, the third sector or public sector. I wonder if she gave up educational opportunities to take on that job, which will make it harder for her to find work for the rest of her life. But as much as one more young person joining the unemployment queue fills me with sympathy, it’s not the only thing that worries me. It is not yet clear whether another teenager will be recruited for the youth police commissioner role, or whether that entire scheme will now be scrapped. I doubt we’ll ever know what impact it has on wider issues; lowering the voting age to sixteen, anyone taking the UK Youth Parliament seriously ever again, opportunities for young people to voice their opinions in charities, schools, and local government over the next few months and years. That’s what this is about, really, as far as I’m concerned. Our voices being threatened, again.