Right now Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and Mark Sanford are trying to become Bill Clinton. Not that they are trying to become president of the United States, at least not at this time, but they are trying to overcome past sexual “indiscretions” and renew their political careers. Who can forget the big hullabaloo over the sexual mores, or lack thereof, of President Clinton? Except that we have largely forgotten about it. Clinton today is seen as a respected elderly statesman instead of a lecherous pursuer of young flesh. While part of the Clinton legacy will always include a mention of Monica Lewinsky and his sex scandals, he has largely marginalized those incidents so that now when we think of him we focus on his presidential accomplishments instead of his shortcomings as a husband.
The three men I mention above would love to be in the position Clinton is in today. They deeply desire to create a new image where their sexual infidelities, while not completely forgotten, pale in comparison to their other accomplishments. You know what? I think they have a chance to achieve this. In our society we seem to have a high level of tolerance for these types of sexual immoralities. If they have a solid political career from this point forward, then they will gain that second chance.
This brings me to Paula Dean. Our society is not so eager to forgive her of her immoralities. The best I can see for Dean is that she will maintain a certain core group of fans who will keep making her money. But generally she is always going to be linked to racist comments and seen as a racist by the general public. I cannot see the scenario by which she can get her reputation back. Can you? Has anyone been guilty of making a racist, sexist, or homophobic statement and been able to shake that statement from their reputation to the degree that President Clinton has been able to shake from his reputation the image of sexual infidelity? We like to think of ourselves as a forgiving society, but we are selective in whom we are willing to forgive, or more specifically what we are willing to forgive.
Dean can still be judged to some degree on her culinary skills. Years ago the pitcher John Rocker made a series of racist, xenophobic comments. He did not automatically lose his job. He could still get batters out and that is what matters to a MLB team. But even as he kept his job, his reputation as a racist never went away. So I am not arguing that if a person makes a racist or sexist statement that he or she will lose his/her job or be thrown in jail. But the taint of being a racist or sexist will never leave that person. If you think I am wrong then please provide the name of a person who made such a statement and recovered to the degree that President Clinton has from his mistakes.
Perhaps we should not forgive Dean or Rocker. That is a moral question I am not attempting to address right now. But as a scholar I am curious as to why certain acts of deviance can be forgiven in our society and others cannot. Note that we are not talking about illegalities as most sexual infidelities and intolerant comments are not illegal. What occurs to me is that there are progressive “sins” and there are conservative “sins.” In general sexual infidelities tend to be conservative sins. This is not to say that political and religious progressives do not care about people who cheat on their spouse or visit prostitutes, but generally political and religious conservatives show more concern about such shortcomings. Exhibitions of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia tend to be progressive sins. Once again I am not arguing that religious and political conservatives do not care about those issues, but my observation is that political and religious progressives care more about these transgressions. If I am correct about who tends to care about certain human failings, then I have some insight into why some actions are forgivable and others are not. It seems to me that conservative sins can be forgiven but progressive sins cannot be.
The question becomes why we, as a society, forgive conservative sins more than progressive sins? One possibility is that the value of forgiveness is more prevalent among conservatives than it is among progressives. Why might this be? Research has shown that political conservatives have higher levels of religiosity than political liberals. (This does not mean that atheist conservatives or highly religious progressives do not exist, it is just that they are not the norm within their respective political group). It is possible that forgiveness is a value they learn through their religious beliefs. Thus, if we perform activities conservatives hate, then we have more of a chance to be forgiven due to their religious beliefs. This explanation has potential, but it is not convincing to me. Quite simply, this explanation assumes that all religions emphasize forgiveness. That is an unwarranted assumption. Furthermore, this seems like a surface explanation for what seems to me to be a fundamental difference in how conservatives and progressives understand social reality.
My speculation begins at the basic worldview of conservatives and progressives. I contend that religion matters, but not because religious individuals are taught how to forgive. Since research has shown that conservatives are more religious than progressives then conservatives are more likely to envision the need for supernatural assistance. They are more likely to see themselves as incomplete without that assistance. They are also more likely to see others as incomplete without supernatural assistance. This is a point of view that expects humans to fail. Forgiveness is an expected response to these failings. This is not to say that forgiveness is always provided. Often conditions placed upon individuals so that they can receive that forgiveness. However, I suspect there is a general expectation to forgive others among religious individuals since they have a religious ideology where those individuals expect to fail themselves and may one day need that forgiveness.
An alternative understanding of human nature is one born out of a more secular, humanist perspective. This perspective is based upon the idea that humans are perfectible. Human reason and ability are the keystones to a healthy society. Progressives seek for our society to “progress” to a state where we can use our human abilities to our fullest extent. This is not only the idea exhibited in documents such as the Humanist Manifesto, but it was an ideology I heard time and again in my interviews with atheists and read in answers to the open ended questions I gave to cultural progressive activists. Our emerging enlightened society is one that will be free of racism, sexism, homophobia etc. So individuals who exhibit these qualities are bridges to a new and better world.
This by itself does not explain the lack of a willingness to forgive progressive sins. Theoretically, we can help those who have engaged in racism, sexism or homophobia to overcome those failings and then forgive them after they have made their transition to a progressive human. But since redemption is not usually given to those who have committed those offenses we should ask why would forgiveness be denied? I speculate that when we have the vision of human perfectibility then we have less sympathy for those who do not obtain that perfectibility. While the religious conservative understands that he/she is also vulnerable to doing wrong, the non-religious progressive may not understand how individuals still have intolerant attitudes. This provides less empathy towards those who participate in progressive sins and thus they are not likely to gain the benefits of forgiveness. The stain of their sins can be linked to their reputation forever. With this theory, forgiveness is tied to whether we think we are likely to engage in future societal sins and thus may need that forgiveness ourselves. If conservatives believe that they are likely to “mess up” while progressives do not have such fears, then it is reasonable that conservatives will be more forgiving of those that violate norms that they hold dear than progressives.
This is speculation as I have no sociological data to back up my assertions beyond the argument of who receives forgiveness in our society. I wish I could say that this is a research direction I would be undertaking in the near future, but alas that is not the case. Nevertheless, it would be fascinating to question individuals in an effort to learn why they are more tolerant of certain shortcomings as opposed to others. Whether there are religious differences in how people forgive is also a question of empirical interest. I am not certain if anyone has looked into that question. Finally, one can argue that society is better off not forgiving those who transgress certain moral boundaries. While forgiveness is an important quality for our mental health on the individual level, providing such forgiveness on the corporate level may encourage more transgressions. Exploring whether forgiveness of shortcomings encourages more problems is another fascinating direction for future research.