“Was he the one in the blackface or the Klan outfit?”
Incredibly, that was a serious question discussed on major news outlets just last week.
An old yearbook picture of Virginia’s Democratic governor Ralph Northam dressed in blackface, standing next to another man in Ku Klux Klan garb, surfaced last week, resulting in condemnations and calls for Northam’s resignation from both sides of the aisle. Americans were once again confronted with the question: What role should a person’s past mistakes play in regard to his current life?
This phenomenon is not new, however. Just a few months ago the country debated the very same thing during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, during which he was accused of sexual assault by a woman he went to high school with. Should the gaffs of young adults hang over them decades later? The short answer is no.
Certainly, there are some things that should discredit a person from public life. But these transgressions are not tantamount to poor decisions attributable to immaturity. If our standard leaves no room for immaturity, there would be no one left to serve in public office. The norm of forgiveness, rather, should and must become common. As a society, we must be willing to give grace to those who deserve it. It is possible and necessary to identify the wrongdoings of the past while accepting the apologies of people in the present.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture of outrage. The primary weapons against political opposition now extend into the land of deep explorations of years-old social media posts and jokes made in poor taste decades prior. We are ready to publicly exile anyone who dared to disrupt the current norms of acceptable behavior. The silver bullet for a politician with whom we disagree is nothing more than an old yearbook photo or a poorly-worded tweet.
Our culture contains an inconsistency when it comes to the treatment of past transgressions. People who have rejected vile ideologies such as white nationalism or neo-Nazism are welcomed back into our liberal fold with open arms, and rightly so. But when records of bad decisions find their way into the spotlight, it is seemingly impossible to keep the pitchfork-wielding blue checkmarks at bay. It should be apparent that the full-fledged acceptance of an evil ideology is much worse than an action done in poor taste, but society’s reaction would suggest the opposite. Why does this discrepancy exist?
The human experience is one of growth. While every human contains a telos or ultimate end, we cannot be expected to have it all figured out by young adulthood. Human nature, or “natura,” is a process of becoming, according to Aristotle, a process of becoming what we were meant to be: complete human beings. Our lives are a continual process aimed towards the cultivation of virtue and moral excellence. An integral part of this process is the making of mistakes and gentle correction by those who know better. Mistakes shouldn’t be celebrated, but they are a natural part of the human experience and should be treated as such.
Without a doubt, a mea culpa should be required from public servants whose pasts are checkered. But more importantly, we should accept their apologies, given they show evidence of growth. For Governor Northam, there is a chasmic difference between wearing blackface today and doing so thirty years ago. Neither are acceptable but one reveals, at the very least, racial insensitivity, and the other reveals the inevitable blunders of youth. In the end, a culture of forgiveness and correction will always be superior to one of outrage and condemnation.
We cannot become relativist in regards to past mistakes, but we mustn’t be merciless either.