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“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.

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    you tend to get what you give