Jimmy Galligan is an 18-year-old college freshman from Leesburg, Virginia. He may also be cancel culture's Count of Monte Cristo.
Some months ago, Galligan—who is biracial—posted a years' old, three-second video of a white, female classmate using a racial slur. Galligan had sat on the video for a long time, waiting for the moment it would do the most damage. After the girl—a cheerleader named Mimi Groves—was accepted to the University of Tennessee, the time had come.
"I wanted to get her where she would understand the severity of that word," said Galligan.
The video depicted Groves, who was 15 at the time, and had just obtained her learner's permit, saying "I can drive, [slur]." The remark was not directed at anyone in particular. The brief video clip featuring it circulated on Snapchat until it was obtained and saved by Galligan, who had grown furious at how often he heard his white classmates using the N-word.
Galligan shared it publicly in June. In response, Groves lost her spot on UT's cheerleading squad. Then the university pressured her to withdraw from the school entirely. The admissions office had apparently received hundreds of messages from irate alumni demanding blood. Groves is now attending a community college.
This story is a powerful example of several social phenomena: the militant streak in social justice activism, the naivety of today's teens and their not-actually-disappearing Snapchat messages, social media's hunger for mob justice, and even the capacity for elaborate cruelty that has always existed among high schoolers. But the wildest thing about this incident is that most people will learn about it by reading The New York Times.
"A Racial Slur, a Viral Video, and a Reckoning." That's the title of the Times's article on the subject, published the day after Christmas. Reporter Dan Levin tries to add considerable context by detailing a history of alleged unpleasantness at Heritage High School, which Groves and Galligan attended. It sits in a wealthy, predominantly white county where "slave auctions were once held on the courthouse grounds."
"In interviews, current and former students of color described an environment rife with racial insensitivity, including casual uses of slurs," notes Levin. "A report commissioned last year by the school district documented a pattern of school leaders ignoring the widespread use of racial slurs by both students and teachers, fostering a 'growing sense of despair' among students of color, some of whom faced disproportionate disciplinary measures compared with white students."
Levin connects the outcry from aggrieved students to the broader Black Lives Matter movement and protests that occurred this summer following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. But nowhere does his article reckon with a very basic fact: The New York Times has opted to assist a teenager's desperate quest to ruin the life of a young woman who said something stupid when she was 15.
Everyone roughly 25 and older should thank their lucky stars that they completed adolescence before the age of social media and ubiquitous camera phones, because the country's most important newspaper apparently thinks it is appropriate to shame teenagers over their juvenile behavior. This is the very worst aspect of cancel culture—the burning desire to hold people accountable for mistakes they made as kids, even if they have long since learned their lesson and grown past them—and the Times has fully embraced it.
While the piece strives for a veneer of neutrality, it clearly lionizes Galligan, whose portrait—which appears early in the story—calls to mind The Washington Post's excessively flattering photograph of Lexie Gruber and Lyric Prince, who extorted the paper into humoring their Halloween-costume-related grievance. Levin never really challenges Galligan; in fact, the reporter lets Galligan get away with the assertion that his white father suffers from "white privilege." Groves is treated somewhat sympathetically, but Levin really should have explained the difference between using the word as an epithet and using it in the manner Groves did.
Or better yet, he could have simply not written this story, which concerns bad but by no means uncommon teenager behavior. If Groves had cheated on her math test, or planted a kick-me sign on a rival's back, would this constitute national news? No crime was committed; the utterance of the word did not even take place at school. The only thing novel about this situation is that it attracted the national media's attention.
It's for this reason that I do not share the conclusion of Rod Dreher in The American Conservative, who described Galligan as a "moral monster."
"What a horrible person that Galligan kid is," writes Dreher.
Galligan did a monstrous thing, but none of us should pretend to know whether he is a monster. It's unfair to write him off as irredeemably bad, just as it was unfair to brand Groves a racist and derail her future plans because of one mistake. They are both teenagers, and teenagers—even ones who turn out to be perfectly fine and upstanding adults—do really terrible things to each other. (Maybe you don't remember high school? I do!) They should be corrected, forgiven, and allowed to move on.
That's why this new drive to reduce teens to the worst moment of their lives is so pathologically toxic. It's completely at odds with the emotional and social journeys of most young people. Very few of us sailed through high school as saints, but today's kids are practically required to be perfect from the time they turn 12.
The people who really ought to have known better are not the story's teenage subjects, but its editors at The New York Times. Imagine thinking the paper should not run an op-ed by a sitting Republican senator because his policy proposal makes people feel unsafe, but a story about a teenage girl who said something stupid? Unleash the righteous fervor of social media upon her: The 1793 Project continues.