I got into my first fight in third grade. It was short but decisive: I told Donny I like-liked Emily, knowing he did too. He tried to kick me, but I grabbed his foot and tossed him to the ground. My teacher split us up and exiled me to the wall — nose-to-brick — for the rest of recess. I’ll never forget what she said: “This isn’t like you, Gill.”
My teacher knew I wasn’t a fighter — I was just that nerd who read “The Hobbit” in homeroom. My teacher’s comment showed that fighting was “out of character” for me. People repeat this phrase so often it has almost become bankrupt, but this cliché reveals something true about people, namely, that habits form character. Those who fight become fighters; those who flee become cowards. That’s why mothers force their children to blab “thank you” on all occasions. If they fake it long enough, they may just be polite.
This discussion about character and action suggests a model for judging a politician for past mistakes: Citizens should hold her accountable primarily for her character. She formed this character through decades of habitual action. Not all her actions align with her character; some mistakes reflect nothing more than brief detours on the journey to who she is today. All make mistakes, but the best people recognize these as mistakes, repent, and get better. The politician ought to be judged by who she is, not by mistakes corrected long ago. Her character expresses this.
Forgiveness itself depends on this distinction between character and action. Last year, I was losing an argument with a friend. It got bad. I attacked his character. It was one of those lines that gave rise to the awkward adjective, “cringeworthy,” a line that urges everyone to get out of earshot ASAP. I went to sleep without apologizing but knowing with certainty that I was in the wrong.
But he forgave me the next day, because our friendship depends not on single actions and anomalies but on our habits. In other words, our friendship survived because of its foundation in our characters. Readers can probably think of similar examples in their own lives. Personal examples show that a person is irreducible to her particular actions, which makes forgiveness possible. We don’t apologize for being the way we are; we apologize for particular harmful actions. In seeking forgiveness, we express sorrow and recognize that mistakes do not align with who we are or who we want to be. We seek forgiveness so that these actions do not become part of our character, after which we will cease to feel remorse or seek forgiveness.
Yet the problem with my approach to judging politicians is that people cannot see a state of character; they can see only actions. These actions reveal character — an inward state — to us on the outside. In action, a man shows his moderation or lack thereof. Habitual actions illustrate character, but so do actions committed just once: one murder gives strong evidence of a corrupt character. This doesn’t mean that a murderer can’t find redemption, but he probably isn’t worthy of political trust anymore.
With this in mind, we should use all actions committed by a politician as a means for judging her character. Each and every mistake counts against the strength of her character; every correction of these mistakes counts in its favor. Some mistakes like rape or murder demonstrate corruption that deserves no position of power. But other mistakes shouldn’t result in condemnation. Maybe a politician once drank too much and threw a punch in college. That’s concerning, but it’s not damning unless a pattern emerges.
My third-grade teacher saw a pattern. She saw a kid who wasn’t a fighter; she saw a kid who just made a mistake. Her correction was important because, without it, I might have become a fighter or a bully. I made a mistake, but I hope people won’t judge me only by that mistake made 13 years ago.
In the same way, we ought to judge a politician primarily for her character. Mistakes are essential to determining that character. But they should hardly have the last word.