Today in America, there are a hardening of positions and a reluctance to forgive that eat away at our political system.
How might we better deal with the stumbles of our public figures, from Gov. Ralph Northam to Justice Brett Kavanagh to Sen. Al Franken and dozens more? Would we have lost the breakthrough service of Abraham Lincoln and Justice Hugo Black if their early views of race became the measure of future promise?
The responses vary. Some officials step down, removing themselves as reminders of larger social injustices or seeking a return to a quieter normalcy. Others stay with defiant denials. Many issue preemptive apologies. A few bully on, doubling down and using their glass pulpits to cast the first stone. Whatever the course, the debate is often full of righteousness and division.
Not all cases are the same, and forgiveness might take different forms, but the rush to judgment negates the ability to expand our understanding, find common ground, and grow. How do we calibrate the seriousness of the charges in these freighted situations?
A series of simple questions might help us to wrestle with these offenses, and differentiate and establish standards that will make these public trials and mass revulsion more productive.
Americans might start with these:
First, what is the person’s current state of mind and record? Is there anything in recent days or decades that suggests the offense represents a current thought or action?
Second, is the apology sincere? Does the person reach out to those harmed and seek their views, or is there defiance or a renewed attack or expedient self-preservation?
Third, is the person capable and willing to make further amends on the issues raised by the actions? Does the person express a desire to expand leadership and advance the dialogue?
Fourth, will the person’s departure from office bring substantial changes or improvements regarding the issue?
These and other questions may help us to grow. While our tendency is to refine and litigate the offending events, that exercise is seldom rewarding. Memories falter and denial is human. Should the court of public opinion graduate much like the criminal justice system and temper with mercy?
As we seek justice and check impunity, there is a need to calibrate, interpret, and fit the punishment to the crime. Successful democracies engage in these debates and forge consensus, through the pain of wrenching exchanges and dynamic reporting.
As citizens in a democracy, we must learn and make choices all the time. Condemnation and summary punishment or indifference and implied assent are not the only two paths — there is the path of engagement and dialogue with ourselves, our neighbors, and as a nation.
It is past time to have difficult conversations with those who disagree with us. What problems do we want to solve? What outcomes do we seek? What do you believe today? What privileges and entitlements do you embrace? What are you doing to change? How might we come together to make a difference?
Breathtaking examples surround us. After multiple murders at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., the members’ forgiveness of Dylann Roof inspired.
Could we start such a journey for lesser offenses? We all suffer imperfections and warring tendencies — often seeking to keep them as personal or family secrets — and do not welcome zero tolerance. Could we extend the same generosity to public officials? Many have risen above early mistakes and past sins — and we should measure that potential.
Forgiveness begins with understanding. Its expanded presence in our society will make us a more complete democracy.
Rick Barton, author of Peace Works, lecturer at Princeton University, and board member of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, is a former ambassador and assistant secretary of state.