Why am I so willing to forgive many of those whose past sexist and racist statements or behaviors are exposed, sometimes to great fanfare? I wince every time I hear about the resignation or ousting of an otherwise apparently worthy individual because of conduct, text message, email, or even a published article, uncovered in that person’s past, 5, 10, or even 20 years ago. Sometimes these past expressions lead to discovery of more recent statements or objectionable activity. But when that is not the case, which decade’s standards should we apply?* And when it is assumed that the actions or words spoken or written in the past define that person’s character today, with little or no consideration given to who they may have become since that time, I object.
These situations trigger for me a wish to learn more, to understand the genesis of the belief system that spawned the objectionable remarks or behaviors, and to explore whether the views and actions of the individual have demonstrably evolved.
I know I run the risk of being seen as undermining the actions of those working to assure the rights of women to be free of sexual harassment and assault in all its forms. And I fully recognize the burden of racism that has been and persists in so many societal systems. So, hear me out.
Perhaps in part it is because I spent the first 10 years of my professional life as a Public Defender that I pause when accusations are made, and take the approach that came so naturally in that role. My initial contact with a client usually took place in a locked facility gathering information for a bail hearing. I listened to their story and often came to recognize the mindlessness with which some fell into antisocial behavior. I found I could relate to and even have compassion for the circumstances of their lives while in no way sanctioning their misdeeds. My task was to look for the redeeming qualities that might sway the harshness of the judgment that awaited when we stood side-by-side before the Judge. It was important, even after only a brief acquaintance, to be able to present the positive aspects of their lives. Then during the time between entering an initial plea and a final disposition, a negotiated plea or perhaps a trial, I learned even more, and over time the human connection grew. Another person looking to me for understanding, usually acknowledging their fall from grace, aroused a genuinely empathic response.
That said, I would comfortably join the impassioned crowd calling for the ousting and shaming of those who under the mantle of their celebrity or their power in political office committed actions that harmed others, often while taking positions or making statements so duplicitous as to suggest a significant character flaw (i.e. establishing policies to address sexual harassment while privately committing egregious acts of harassment within their sphere of power). But even in those circumstances, I applaud efforts to slow down the rush to judgment and allow passions to moderate while an impartial investigation takes place.
Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on thoughtless or even bigoted behaviors or statements? The law provides such a safe harbor for criminal acts. And after some time has passed, we even look at those convicted of crimes and accept that no one should be defined by the worst thing they ever did. We are urged to welcome those formerly incarcerated back into society after they have done their time. This doesn’t seem to be true for those rejected because of past bad statements or actions. Are they to be forever banned from polite society, even if they have lived life righteously since? Have we as a society become so unforgiving to now toss that person away to be defined as permanently flawed? Are positive achievements to be ignored as having no import?
What if the clamor for retribution turned instead to an exploration of the origin of the wrongdoer’s belief system, the societal and family ethos that led to a thoughtless acceptance of those earlier social mores now deemed unacceptable? For those who offer a sincere apology that takes full responsibility for past words and actions, instead of punishing, why not offer understanding for how we all change and grow?
*Monica Hesse, Washington Post columnist:
“Which decade’s standards should we apply when we think about Al Franken? Then or now? I don’t think there’s a necessarily right answer to the question, but I do think it’s one of the right questions. How do we deal with behaviors that millions of Americans very wrongly thought were acceptable 20 years ago?”