Well last week I wrote about how the controversy over Governor Northam in Virginia was not going to spur this important conversation on race. So far I am right. Sometimes I hate being right. That conversation on race is badly needed, but I fear we are a long ways from being honest enough to have it.
But this week I want to look at a different angle to this Virginia controversy. It has become clear that Northam is not going to resign. And despite the fact that he has no support within his own political party, it appears that he will not be impeached. It seems that Virginia law makes such an impeachment quite difficult given these circumstances. Northam talks about his staying in office as a great opportunity to make progress on race relations. But we all know that that is a bunch of BS. He is just doing his best to save his hide.
But his staying in office does give us a chance to address another issue that plagues public life – our zero tolerance mentality. Northam’s offence was committed decades ago. Clearly one would not expect to see him in blackface today. So we could ask whether there should have been so many calls for him to step down. Those calls came because we have decided that zero tolerance is the right approach for public sins. But is it?
Understand the implications of zero tolerance. It means that our expectation is that public officials are to be perfect. They are to be perfect in their private lives as well as in their public demeanor. We now live in a society where perfection is demanded from a young age until death. Is that the society you want to live in?
I know the push back is that blackface, or wearing a KKK hood, is such a horrible offence that it should be disqualifying no matter when it occurred. I am sympathetic to that concern as I obviously have no love for either blackface or the Klan. But what makes me come up short is my own life. No I have never worn blackface (except my natural black face) or a KKK hood, but I am not proud of every single thing I have done in my life. Do I want my public standing determined by the worst thing I have done in my life? No I do not and if I do not want that for myself, then I dare not apply the same standard to others.
The irony is that this type of no tolerance attitude has developed in large part because we have become a more secular society. Christians understand the universality of sin and that all of us are fallen creatures. As I have argued before it is in a secular society where there is no forgiveness. Naturally, one can be too accommodating of sin, and we must guard against becoming too lax about accepting anything others do. But the type of legalism I see in our society today is more smothering than any legalism I have seen with my more fundamentalist Christian friends.Perhaps this is a time we can rethink our zero tolerance policy towards previous sins. I think we can only do it at a time when there is a Democrat who is accused of one of the isms. If Northam had been a Republican, I fear that Democrats would double down even more with a zero tolerance attitude. Now that it is one of their own, and I have not even touched upon the problems connected to Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring, which admittedly bring different issues into play, perhaps there is a chance we can accept that a person’s life is more than the results of perhaps the biggest mistake that person has made. Are Democrats willing to retain the Virginia governor and keep him in relatively good standing in return for not being able to use zero tolerance tactics against future Republicans?
Zero tolerance has not only been applied to previous actions but to current mistakes individuals make. I am not talking about posing in blackface, which if done today would absolutely be worthy of removal from office. I am talking about individuals who in the heat of the moment make a comment they should not have made, or perhaps even talk about emotions they are ashamed of having had. Our zero tolerance policies not only force us to hide our past, but they also make us walk on eggshells in the present. That is simply how we live today.
In a society that is as politically polarized as our own, it is hard for either political faction to throw away any weapons that can be used to embarrass their political opponents. That is a shame since this type of attitude creates a society of fear. Fear that a humiliating stunt one did in high school or college will eventually catch up to oneself. Fear at not only the loss of a job but also at being branded a racist or bigot. Fear that even the slip of a tongue will have consequences far beyond the offensive remark that may be made. In return for our right to hold our political opponents to a standard of perfection, we have created a society of fear.
Let me be clear that I have no love for Governor Northam. Beyond the racist actions of decades ago is his defense of infanticide just a few weeks ago. (Yes, I am prolife enough that I see those comments as an endorsement of infanticide.) Indeed, given the recent nature of those comments, they trouble me more than his racism in years past. But if his staying in the governorship helps us as a society to move away from the precipice of zero tolerance, then I am willing to accept that trade-off. Moving our society away from fear to one of human flourishing will require that type of willingness to look past previous offences and it is the right thing to do.