By William James

If you have been following the news with any regularity, you may have noticed a trend in recent months. Be it a positive or a worrisome one, this trend has been highlighted in the slew of accusations against Virginia politicians including Democrat Governor Ralph Northam, Republican Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, and Attorney General Mark Herring. It was present in the still-touchy-subject of the confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It was present in the response to Liam Neeson’s shocking confession in a recent interview with The Independent. The trend I am referring to is the attempt, successful or unsuccessful, to latch onto a troubling (or potentially troubling) piece of a public figure’s past in order to effect that figure’s removal or distancing from power and/or prestige. To highlight a past mistake, and condemn it in the present.

Before I continue, two qualifying points. First of all, all of the aforementioned cases vary in seriousness of allegation, amount and credibility of evidence, and even in time passed since the highlighted offense. I do not lump all of these cases together as the same in kind. Second, my purpose here is not to defend one or another of any of the aforementioned accused. Rather, I would like to pick up on a thread common to all of these cases. I want to see where this thread runs, in order that we might better see how to respond when past mistakes of public figures, or even of not-so-famous people we know personally, come to light.

Digging up mud on peoples’ pasts has always been a part of playing politics. In the age of Twitter and social media, however, this battleground of background-digging and latching onto past mistakes has a whole new dimension. Many of us have grown up with social media outlets. For many, the great parts and the not-so-great parts of life are catalogued somewhere on some platform. In other words, never have citizens had such capability to dig up dirt on others, to virtually instantaneously share that dirt with the world, and to pronounce a verdict on the accused person.

On top of this, a poorly worded or even just outright offensive social media post seems a new thing in kind. For instance, it is one thing to commit sexual assault, another to yell insults at your barista, and another to be sexist on, say, Twitter. All of these are actions to be abhorred. But they are different. A social media post is a particular kind of act. This cannot be ignored when many of the mistakes of people’s pasts being highlighted are tweets they made in the distant (or sometimes not-so-distant) past.  

What this trend ultimately points to is a question of redemption. In an episode of the popular podcast Joe Rogan Experience, during a discussion of the current hubbub surrounding actor Liam Neeson, neuroscientist and public intellectual Sam Harris raised the question of what he termed “the criteria for successful apologies”. What is our criteria for redemption? At what point is a politician forgiven for wearing blackface to a party? Should he be? How does the accused’s age at the time of the mistake factor into things? Or the accused’s socio-economic status? How about the accused’s state of mind at the time of the incident (i.e. being drunk or high)? All of these, and many more questions, seem to be relevant to our forgiving a person of their past mistakes. Especially in a country of celebrity-worship and public officials elected by the people, it is vital that we consider our criteria of redemption. It is how we will square ourselves with the past, and be able to move towards a better future.

I do not pretend to have answers to all of these cases involving various famous people. Democratic life is messy; all citizens have a responsibility to reason as to how best to respond. We would do well to think and discuss the criteria for redemption, especially with those who think differently than us.

To hopefully foster the beginnings of such a discussion, I would propose a fundamental distinction between “mistake” and something worse: we’ll call the latter “an act of malice”. A mistake seems to stem from a lack of forethought, or of any thought at all. Lashing out in anger in an argument and insulting your opponent might be an example of this. Taking the wrong turn on a road trip might be a mistake. We wouldn’t say drugging a drink and raping a person is a mistake. That is an act of malice. It is very intentional, pre-meditated, and seems to be worse than a mistake. A mistake seems like a lapse in judgement; an act of malice is very much a judgement, and an evil one at that.

Such a distinction needs more fleshing out. However, this is the sort of starting point for rational discussion that I hope we can start to have about these past incidents being brought to light. We will be continually bombarded by headlines about scandals so long as we have the fodder that platforms like Twitter provide. There is no going back. But perhaps we can resurrect a better means, namely rational discourse, to respond to the messy world we live in.

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