Whatever Kyle Kashuv’s defenders would have you believe, using the n-word 12 times in one sentence is not a youthful indiscretion. It’s not like Senior Skip Day or drinking Natty Boh in someone’s basement; it’s not a word that accidentally falls out of your mouth, and its offensiveness is not under debate.
Kashuv, as you might have read, is a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who became a prominent conservative figure after the Parkland, Florida, shooting left 17 of his teachers and schoolmates dead. He’s been invited to the White House, given speeches and appeared on news shows. This spring, he got accepted to Harvard.
On Monday, Kashuv revealed his admission was rescinded: The university discovered two-year-old Google Docs and texts in which Kashuv, at 16, had repeatedly typed a racial slur. Some commenters, like Ben Shapiro, lambasted Harvard for setting up a “cruel, insane standard”; others argued Kashuv had merely been young and dumb.
Age as a mitigating factor is absurd in this context. College admissions is the one aspect of life that is, in fact, based entirely on the things you do when you are 16. Virtually everyone competing against Kashuv for an undergraduate seat was also a teen, and most never would have thought to casually repeat the most harmful racial slur in America’s history. No, Harvard shouldn’t have to take him.
So, no Harvard. But then, where?
A common response in some social media circles, and to which I’m sympathetic, is that it’s not our problem. That it’s not anyone else’s responsibility to work out an appropriate trajectory for one young man who is now experiencing the repercussions of his own hurtful acts.
But I’m still at a loss about what to do with a situation like Kyle Kashuv’s. And not in some what-is-the-meaning-of-redemption way. But practically speaking: Unless we seal them all in a cave, people who do bad (but not illegal) things are going to continue to be part of our society. What do we think that should look like? What is your personal vision?
University of Florida? I saw someone suggest that as a possible destination for Kashuv. The argument went that Kashuv shouldn’t be rewarded with the prestige of the Ivy League, but maybe could go off to some less illustrious institution, where he could then continue to work on himself.
I actually saw a fair number of suggestions like this: Not Harvard. Somewhere else. Somewhere less good. The solution seemed reasonable, but it had a tinge of classism, an element of passing the buck. If you don’t believe that Harvard students should have to attend classes with someone who has used racist terminology within the past two years, then why would you subject University of Florida students to that? Or students from Beloit or Colorado State? Would those universities even admit him, or would they follow Harvard’s lead?
Is the right answer an online-only course via University of Phoenix? Is the right answer a stockboy job at Walmart? Why would we subject Walmart employees to the guy? Are we back to the cave solution?
If I were listening to myself, now is when I’d tell myself to stop with the hyperbole: Nobody is talking about sealing anyone in a cave; there’s a vast plain between Harvard and a cave.
But the question of what to do with Kyle Kashuv isn’t a philosophical exercise; the man can’t live on an abstract plain. He’s going to live somewhere. At some point – maybe not right now, but eventually – someone is going to have to be the one who decides where that should be.
Last year, investigative journalist Katie Baker wrote an essay about what to do with all the #MeToo men. “If we want the #MeToo movement to be about more than just which celebrity will be the next to fall,” she wrote, “If we want it to lead to real, lasting and widespread cultural change – we need to talk. About what we do with the bad men.”
What does it look like to make amends? How do we decide what’s redeemable, for example, and then how does a person actually become redeemed? What kind of roles does our society allow for them, and when?
When I read Baker’s essay, I didn’t know what to do with the bad men. I didn’t know where they should go, or what the right societal reentry would be. I didn’t want to talk about the bad men at all, but eventually we’ll need to.
I don’t particularly want to talk about Kyle Kashuv, either. The story already feels old. I’m tired, and there’s more stuff happening all the time.
Let’s go ahead and move on. But the Harvard question was the easy part. The next questions are harder, and we can’t move on from them forever.
• Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”