The firestorm over a letter sent by a Johnstown man to a Penn State football player was as much about generational division as it was about racial insensitivity.
And the moment is a reflection of the differences that have split our country along social and political lines.
A young man receives a letter from an older man who criticizes the younger man’s appearance – his dreadlocks, specifically – and the letter gets posted to social media, quickly going viral in a tumult of emotions.
The young man and his friends rightly wonder why an older man whom they didn’t know would send such a letter, which clearly had racial implications despite the writer’s insistence that this was not his intent –or that someone would have the audacity to express that how a young man looked on the football field was inappropriate, or even any of that letter-writer’s business.
Their university and its leaders rush forward with statements condemning the letter and its author, elevating and accelerating the rage-driven controversy.
The older man wonders how private correspondence could so quickly turn into a very public discourse over cultural insensitivity, with him labeled a bigot by people he doesn’t know across the web and social media.
The world burns and nobody learns.
Do you believe the letter sent to a Penn State football player represented racism?
The letter to that Penn State player lamented “disgusting tattoos, awful hair and immature antics in the end zone. Players should act as though they’ve ‘been there before’ ” – echoing a Pittsburgh Steelers coach’s comments from decades ago.
The letter-writer graduated from Penn State in the late 1960s – a time when many young people were pushing back against conventional attitudes about race, gender and war amidst greater volatility than a current 20-year-old could imagine.
Still, there are many who would gladly turn back the clock to a time when America was more “clean-cut,” more prim and formal. And yes, more white.
I received a call last week from a Maryland man who was angered over what he perceived as a “liberal” media bias against President Donald Trump, as evidence by heavy coverage of the impeachment process by Democrats.
After a lengthy discussion, he disclosed that his true fear was a loss of traditional ideals – the Second Amendment, conservative social policies, his notion of what “Christianity” looks like.
The caller admitted that change was “inevitable” – his word – but he hoped the transition to whatever is next would not occur in his lifetime.
As much as economics or partisanship, it is this sentiment that paved the way for our current political climate – a national leader who is deeply flawed ethically and emotionally but who attracts followers because he promises to make the country “great again,” tapping into the belief that only old-school values can accomplish that greatness.
The Johnstown letter-writer and the Penn State player have never met.
They come from very different places, geographically and ideologically.
But were they to sit down together, away from Twitter and Facebook, away from the news media and knee-jerk emotional reactions – a younger man with long dreadlocks and older man with short gray hair – they might both be moved to say, “You know, he’s really not so bad.”
And maybe, just maybe, this moment of anger and outrage could spark a meaningful dialogue – between two men or across generations – about the dynamic, world-changing potential of embraced diversity.
That’s diversity of race, of gender, of sexual identity, of social position.
And yes, diversity of age.