At 9 o’clock eastern time yesterday morning, Kyle Kashuv—a gun-rights activist and survivor of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—announced on Twitter that Harvard University had rescinded its offer of admission to him. One hour and 12 minutes later, Kashuv and his now-uncertain educational future had been officially declared victims of an overzealous progressive agenda that was either unwilling or unable to forgive.
“The progressive black balling of Kyle Kashuv is a reminder that there’s no concept of grace in the secular religion,” the conservative commentator Erick Erickson tweeted.
Erickson’s read on the situation turned out to be a popular one across social media. In the hours since Kashuv tweeted about Harvard’s decision, a number of conservative commentators and publications have weighed in. Many of them have situated Kashuv against the backdrop of what they perceive to be a larger problem on the left: “cancel culture.” When a public figure’s racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive behavior comes to light, widespread condemnation and calls to stop supporting that person tend to follow—especially on social media, where people often say that person is “canceled.” Some conservatives feel this shows an unwillingness to acknowledge a person’s growth and learning from mistakes.
In the 14 months since the shooting at Stoneman Douglas, Kashuv, 18, has become the only prominent Parkland survivor turned activist to come down on the gun-rights side of the debate; schoolmates of his such as David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and Cameron Kasky have become high-profile advocates for stricter gun legislation. As a supporter of stricter background checks but also armed teachers, the elimination of gun-free zones, and heightened school security, Kashuv stands in contrast to the majority of the gun-safety activism that grew out of the shooting at his high school. In doing so, he’s become something of a folk hero for other conservatives and gun-rights advocates.
Last month, a former classmate of Kashuv’s disseminated screenshots of text messages and Google docs in which a 16-year-old Kashuv had allegedly written racist slurs. Kashuv was revealed to have repeatedly written nigger in the screenshots; he tweeted an apology statement at the time. But as he revealed on Twitter yesterday, the admissions team at Harvard, where Kashuv was planning to matriculate next year, contacted him soon afterward. They had received complaints and wanted an explanation.
In a Twitter thread, Kashuv released copies of the letter he sent to Harvard’s dean of admissions. “Let me first state that I apologize unequivocally for my comments, which were made two years ago in private among equally immature high school students,” his multiple-page letter began. He went on to describe how surviving the shooting at Stoneman Douglas had forced him to mature quickly into someone who does “not recognize the person who wrote those things.” He also tweeted the text of an email he sent to the Harvard Office of Diversity and Inclusion, promising to visit its office upon arriving on campus. Still, after reviewing Kashuv’s explanation, Harvard notified him earlier this month that his offer had been revoked.
A number of prominent conservative figures have since argued online that Kashuv deserves forgiveness, not further punishment, from the Harvard admissions office because he took responsibility for his behavior and apologized. Erickson, in a blog post on The Resurgent, wrote that “Kyle apologized and is clearly not the same person he was then.”
“Hopefully this terrible decision by @Harvard will be reversed. We all have a past and we all have done and said things we regret. He has apologized and become an extraordinary young person,” tweeted Dave Rubin, the host of the right-leaning YouTube show The Rubin Report. “Now the mob wants to make forgiveness a sin, too.”
Some have argued that Kashuv’s repeated use of the racist term, because it took place in private and not in public, should be considered a juvenile mistake rather than a hostile act. “So if you say something terrible in a private chat room when you’re 16, then get outed by political opponents, Harvard tosses you?” tweeted Ben Shapiro, the editor in chief of the conservative website The Daily Wire. In a story for The Daily Wire, Shapiro again emphasized the private nature of Kashuv’s use of the racist slur: “He didn’t commit a crime; he didn’t espouse his gross views publicly; his behavior since has not mimicked any of the content or attitude of the comments.”
Other commentators similarly relied heavily on the context in which the comments had been originally made. Guy Benson, the politics editor of Townhall and a Fox News commentator, seemed of two minds about the incident, writing that while Kashuv’s use of racial slurs was inexcusable, the private setting in which it occurred should have been taken into consideration. “This does not feel one bit like ‘progress.’ My advice to Kyle before all of this blew up publicly was to tell the truth & to apologize deeply and sincerely (there is no excuse for using that word—even if the context was teenage boys’ private shock Olympics). He did both things,” Benson tweeted. “The use of a disgusting word, in private, by a 16-year-old, should not be an unforgivable event.”
It is worth noting that Harvard has rescinded offers of admission to other accepted students in the past on the basis of online activities the students believed were private at the time. In 2017, according to The Harvard Crimson, the university rescinded the admissions of at least 10 accepted students after they were found to have “traded sexually explicit memes and messages that sometimes targeted minority groups in a private Facebook group chat.”
Other conservative publications and commentators, meanwhile, took the rescission of Kashuv’s admission offer as evidence of selective forgiveness on the part of the progressive establishment (which they seemed to see Harvard as a part of). Liberals, and institutions such as Harvard that these writers consider to be liberal, extend grace and charitableness to the past misdeeds of only those who agree with them politically, some conservatives implied. A few prominent figures, for example, invoked the senator from Massachusetts and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who formerly taught at Harvard Law School. Warren has apologized for identifying as American Indian in the past, in contexts such as her registration for the Texas bar association in 1986, a practice that some conservatives see as taking advantage of affirmative-action policies.
Dana Loesch, a conservative gun-rights advocate and radio host, gestured at Warren in a tweet. “Wait, does them mean Harvard is going to condemn Warren?” she wrote. “Because her sin by comparison is exponentially worse. I know rules derive strength from consistent enforcement and all.”
Matt Walsh, a Daily Wire blogger and podcast host, made a similar comparison, invoking Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, who was found to have dressed in blackface for a medical-school yearbook photo in 1984. “Kyle Kashuv used the n-word when he was 16 and now his Harvard acceptance has been rescinded. Ralph Northam dressed in blackface as an adult and he is still governor,” Walsh tweeted. “That tells you everything you need to know about how the rules are applied in our society.”
Still, the prevailing sentiment among those on the right seems to be that the Kashuv decision embodies everything they see as wrong with cancel culture. “The idea of repentance and forgiveness is dead in our society,” Loesch tweeted. “Redemption and forgiveness are politically disadvantageous. Only those confident in their convictions make room for them.” The Daily Wire, meanwhile, tweeted a textual representation of a bunny holding out a stack of books and then whisking them out of reach. “Welcome to Harvard,” it read. And then, “Never mind, ppl cant grow, change or be forgiven.”
The libertarian outlet Reason drew a direct line between cancel culture and the rescission of Kashuv’s admission, running a story headlined “Harvard University Cancels Kyle Kashuv.” For one thing, the author Robby Soave wrote, it was a victory for the cancel-happy online “mob.” But perhaps more troublingly, in Soave’s view, a teen being held accountable for his online misdeeds as a slightly younger teen sets a dangerous precedent.
“Harvard’s decision here is also an endorsement of the position that people should be shamed and punished for their worst mistakes as kids,” Soave wrote. “But moving forward, as technology gives everyone the ability to record every moment of our lives, this will be an untenable position—all embarrassing moments will be preserved forever, available for re-litigation. This is excessively punitive, and counterproductive to the healthy socialization of young people. Kids are not perfect: They must be given the opportunity to fail, and to learn and grow from their errors.”
Of course, as the discussion of the topic of forgiveness for teenage misdeeds intensified, the question of which teens’ misdeeds deserved forgiveness rather than punishment arose. Allegations of selective empathy could cut both ways, several other commentators pointed out. When some right-leaning voices discussed the deaths of unarmed black children including Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Laquan McDonald, who were gunned down on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing, they focused on perceived misbehavior on the part of the kids. Loesch, for example, asserted after Rice’s death in 2014 that although the police officer who shot him was “in the wrong,” so was the 12-year-old boy, who had been playing with a toy gun at the time.
It’s impossible to know what factors might have influenced Harvard in deciding whether Kashuv’s personal and moral growth since his sophomore year of high school were enough to outweigh his racist comments. But the whole saga leaves open the question of what would have happened if he’d been forthright about his prior misdeeds and later atonement before being prompted—before they might have cost him admission to Harvard—perhaps even as part of his application. That might have meant more, both to the public and to his school of choice.
This article is part of “The Speech Wars,” a project supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and the Fetzer Institute.
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