Encouraging Honesty by Offering Forgiveness

Governor Ralph Northam (Wikimedia Commons)
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of forgiveness. As humans who regularly do plenty of awful things, we’re all in need of a fair amount of it. And our elected leaders are certainly no exception.

Recently the top leadership of the Democratic party in the state of Virginia more or less imploded. In a cascading series of admissions and accusations, the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general were each wrapped up in issues of either racism or sexual assault. And of course, because if all three were to step down the next in line for the governorship is a Republican, the Virginia Dems have found themselves in quite the existential crisis.

Naturally this has set up a very direct opposition of motivations, with Republicans calling for the heads of the leadership, and the Democrats resisting, because, well, what else would possibly happen in this situation? It would be absurd for either side to pretend that they would behave differently were the roles reversed, though the mitigating factor here is that many among the Democrats are indeed calling for the resignation of at least some of these leaders, particularly Governor Ralph Northam.

I’m here to say that Northam should most definitely stay in office, and to explain why I feel that it has nothing to do with his party affiliation, and much more to do with his character and record as a governor.

When accusations of racism or sexual misconduct come about, there tend to be many examples of “what-aboutism” thrown around. While our guy may be bad, he’s nothing compared to the horrors of what your guy has done.

In this case, Gov. Northam made a very serious mistake when he was a young man. And he doubly screwed himself with his ridiculous response to the fiasco, in which he initially admitted to being in the racist photo in question, and then walked that back while simultaneously fessing up to actually having donned blackface at a different moment. During that surreal press conference, he seemed on the verge of actually doing the moonwalk in front of the assembled media.

Northam’s opponents certainly have a case for claiming that his judgment has been pretty terrible throughout this ordeal. I’m less convinced that he should step aside due to his insensitivity and ignorance regarding the issue of race.

It’s not simply an issue of the incidents in question having happened 35 years ago. One must also examine the current state of the man to truly evaluate whether we stand to gain, or lose, from his resignation. As has been pointed out, in observing his record as governor, Northam has been friendly to the interests of those whom his thoughtless behavior impugned.

The fact is, the majority of black voters in Virginia prefer that he stay on as governor, and at this point in time it would be wise to defer to them on this matter. It would be horribly unfair if an accusation of racism were to jettison a leader who has helped Virginia move forward on issues of race. As a legislator, Northam consistently voted down attempts at voter suppression, and voted to increase the minimum wage, moves that disproportionately benefit constituents of color.

As a white person, it really isn’t up to me to decide what sort of forgiveness may be extended to Gov. Northam. That’s for the people his actions have hurt to decide. But I do think it’s important to at least keep the possibility of redemption on the table. And to do so especially for those who have owned up to their past behavior and recognized it for what it was: completely unacceptable.

Early last year, actor and comedian Aziz Ansari was accused, by an anonymous woman, of sexual misconduct. The article was met with a variety of reactions, but it touched off a discussion about the gap in expectations between men and women when it came to sexual encounters.

In the wake of the reaction to this incident, I wrote an open letter to Ansari, describing my evolving understanding of the situation, and my wish that he would handle it differently. I highly doubt the letter ever got to him, but it still reflects my feelings. I believe he should have owned up to his failings, and declared, “I still have work to do.”

On the contrary, Ansari chose to issue a statement saying that the encounter “by all indications was completely consensual,” and accepting no blame at all. As I wrote, I understood the risk he would be taking were he to admit to his failings, and that it could impact his whole career, and that his lawyers probably told him to put his head down and power through. But this sort of approach helps to perpetuate the very injustices that Ansari, in his progressive comedy, ostensibly seeks to root out.

Like the comedian, politicians usually follow the path of denial, given that the only witnesses might be the victim making the accusation, or a college drinking buddy with a hazy memory. Their calculation is shrewd—they reason that they’re much likelier to survive the scandal based on lack of evidence than based on contrition. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

If we accept that politicians, like the rest of us, are human beings, and are guaranteed to make mistakes, particularly in their youth, it opens up the space to offer them forgiveness based on the person they’ve become. And I would much rather be led by a flawed but honest person than by one who maintains their spotless veneer by painting over it with lies.

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2 thoughts on “Encouraging Honesty by Offering Forgiveness”

  1. Thank you Rany Lioz for your clear thinking on this issue. I really love what you have done with your essay, and the title of your piece is striking and powerful “Encouraging Honesty by Offering Forgiveness. I am also struck by these words “I would rather be led by a flawed but honest person than by one who maintains their spotless veneer by painting it over with lies. Great work!

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