Past Wrongs and Future Thoughts

So, once again, an old white male politician has been tripped up by some racist/sexist/homophobic behavior from his past. And, once again, everyone is making the wrong argument about what it all means.

There is not a person alive who has not made an insensitive remark, an off-color joke, or a completely inappropriate statement. We have all done it. Some of us have made bigger mistakes than others to be sure, and some people have crossed the line from merely inappropriate behavior to criminal that cannot be easily overlooked. But we aren’t talking about criminal acts and statutes of limitations. We’re talking about human stupidity. And we have all suffered from cases of foot-in-mouth disease.

It is unfair to hold a person accountable today for some stupid comment made five, ten, or twenty years ago. This is particularly true with comments made as minors, because, let’s be honest, our adult mentors have some responsibility regarding the lessons the taught us that led to those comments or incidents.

However, that doesn’t mean pointing out these issues is wrong. On the contrary, we need to continue to point them out. First, pointing these horrible statements and images out reminds us of how far we have not come. Ignorance of the racist, sexist, and homophobia of the past allows us to comfortably pretend these things no longer exist. So highlighting these issues reminds us of how much work we still have to do.

Second, when we are confronted by our own stupidity in the here and now, our response reflects who we are in the here and now. When a person confronts their past with humility and acknowledgement of the wrongness of the situation, that shows growth and character. The ability to look at one’s own flaws and own them is a sign of integrity. People with integrity are not flawless individuals. They are simply individuals who recognize their own flaws and try to overcome them.

But what we see too often is denial, deflection, and minimization. When a person confronted by their own past chooses to deny the scope of the issue, or deflect attention to others, or minimize the hurt such incidents caused, it is a reflection of who they are in the here-and-now. And this is what we should condemn. We all make mistakes. And those who genuinely seek forgiveness should be granted it. But when a person instead resorts to “normalization” of the offending behavior and seeks to ignore the long-term impact of such behaviors, it shows you who that person really is.

A single incident of blackface did not create institutional racism in this country. But each individual incident acted like a pebble in a bucket of water; eventually the pebbles fill the bucket and push the water out. A single sexist comment didn’t destroy a woman’s self-esteem but being subjected to hundreds of individual comments over the course of her lifetime did. A single homophobic insult didn’t drive a gay person to suicide. But being subjected to a constant barrage of individual insults did.

Our rage should not be directed at the single image or comment or action. But when the individual refuses to even acknowledge how their single actual contributed to the greater culture around them, then the rage becomes justified. Because it is one thing to make a mistake. It is another to refuse to acknowledge that it was a mistake or pretend that it was inconsequential.

This is particularly true of people in leadership positions, because you set the standard others will follow. Are you a leader that can admit to mistakes and make amends? Or do you simply engage in “whataboutisms,” or accuse people of being “snowflakes” or “just engaging in gotcha moments”? The ability to say, “Yes, I did this. And I didn’t recognize at the time how this negatively impacted others. I am sorry,” is the hardest skill for anyone to develop, but we all must. Because we will all eventually be called out for something we said or did.

The flip side of this, of course, is that society (and more specifically, my liberal cohorts) must extend forgiveness to those that seek it. Condemning a contrite individual over a non-criminal comment, image, or act from a decade ago does nothing to bridge the divides in this country. I have often pointed out that the fundamental problem we have as liberals is that we too quickly eat our own to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy. But we need to sometimes step back and recognize the difference between, “Yes, I did this a decade ago and regret it” and “So what? It was a decade ago and it was just locker room talk.” It is not an act of hypocrisy to extend forgiveness when it is honestly sought. It is an act of compassion.