Northam: In Considering Blackface, Prison and Rehabilitation

Northam: In Considering Blackface, Prison and Rehabilitation February 3, 2019

As all of you, no doubt, are aware, Ralph Northam (the Democratic governor of Virginia) has recently got himself into serious hot water by allegedly appearing in a 1984 yearbook photo in blackface. He has been called upon by everyone to resign. He has now taken to denying it was him in the photo, saying he once darkened his skin to be Michael Jackson in a dance contest…

I will admit something to you: knowing my biases, if this chap had been a Republican, I would undoubtedly have been calling for his blood. It’s how we work, and at least I am aware that I possibly could have operated double standards.

So, I should call for his resignation, too.

Except I was thinking about this very thing only yesterday, and it resonates very closely with another piece I wrote the other day (‘“Morally Benign” Children and Human Sacrifice‘), part of which I will quote here:

The question is, can children even be properly moral?

This comes down to whether they are sufficiently conscious, self-aware, knowledgeable and advanced in their brains and minds to make properly moral decisions. Indeed, we often say that animals ripping other animals apart in order to eat them are not being moral; a crocodile killing a human is not acting immorally. The crocodile doesn’t, people argue, have the mental capacity (whether in terms of personhood and all the characteristics and behaviours there involved) to make moral decisions and carry out moral actions.

Yes, philosophers argue ad infinitum over what personhood is and whether morality requires personhood, and at what point in human development a human properly gains this label and thus the capability of being moral.

I personally think this is a conceptual pursuit up or down a (slippery) slope that has no clearly defined boundaries.

Clearly, when considering some kind of ordinary morality, we would all agree that a foetus has no moral capacity (at that stage – let’s ignore ‘potential’). And we would probably agree (moral skepticism aside) that a neurotypical adult has moral capacity. Already, we will get ourselves in trouble because philosophers still can’t agree on what morality really and definitely is.

For me to say that children are generally more morally benign, what I really meant in that context was that they are morally naive and more likely to have a simplistic and idealistic moral framework. The complexities and difficulties of moral philosophy would be beyond their ken until, at some arguably arbitrary point, they get it. As such, they tend to make decisions that, to us, err on the side of being simplistically morally good.

I was wondering to myself what the most racist thing I have ever done is. Luckily for me, I genuinely think it amounts to telling some immature racist jokes at the age of perhaps ten or eleven or thereabouts. At least, those are the only events my brain allows me to remember…

Now those jokes (which I can remember) shock me in thinking that the me that is me now cannot begin to imagine uttering those jokes. I have talked previously about how I do not believe in the continuous “I”. But I don’t want to confuse the matter at hand with that.

Ralph Northam, here, did something now considered morally abhorrent some 34 years ago. Three questions arise (but let it be known that I am not trying to post hoc rationally excuse him – I am thinking about these things genuinely and philosophically):

  1. Was it more morally acceptable then and does this excuse him, at least to some extent, from the action?
  2. Did Northam have the requisite knowledge at that time to be able to make a moral decision about which we can evaluate him against present moral norms? (This is what I was talking about in the linked and quoted article above – how arguably decent people still sacrified humans.)
  3. Could Northam have changed so that he is significantly different enough now to his former self such that he is, in some sense, rehabilitated?

Let’s leave the first two questions and concentrate on the third. Without being inside his head at the time, it would be almost impossible, arguably, to answer 2. at any rate.

So, question 3.

Prisons. Prisons have several goals, depending on who you talk to. One of the goals is rehabilitation, or changing someone’s desires, impulses and behaviours so that they do not commit the same crime again. After prison time has been served, in most societies, a blank slate is somewhat reassigned to the ex-convict. Of course, in many states in the US, you are denied citizenship by not being allowed to vote after you have been incarcerated and have served your time. But that’s the States for you. The main idea is that you have been punished, served your time and hopefully rehabilitated. You shouldn’t be denied job access (though invariably you are), and access to elements of society that everyone else has (including the ability to vote).

In Northam’s case, though no prison time was served (since this was not a crime in that time or place), if he accepted he did it and then claimed he has changed, and that he now finds this sort of behaviour abhorrent, then who are we to say otherwise? Of course, we could have to use evidence about the sort of policies he advocates, and his behaviour over time since then, but we either accept change and rehabilitation or we don’t. Is it fair that he is automatically stained for his whole life for a previous transgression? Is life not about learning and improving and bettering oneself? We aren’t born perfect, after all.

I personally think it hard to be a modern Democrat and be ensconced in racism. I don’t have a problem with him resigning – and it may be the only pragmatic thing for him to do (it is potentially a point of no return) – but there deserves to be a conversation over whether we can and should be branded for the rest of our lives for sins of the past. And then, perhaps, there is a conversation about certain crimes (rape, serial murder) that are simply part of our biosocial jigsaw that remain impervious to social intervention and change, where something like blackfacing and racism can change in people.

As ever, we need to question everything, and that should start with ourselves.

The next time a Republican is found out to have committed a dubious moral misdemeanour in their distant past, I need to question whether this is in line with their present self, behaviours and policies, or whether this appears to be an action that doesn’t dovetail very well with who they presently are.

Of course, many on the left will argue that racist behaviours, for example, are more commonplace and likely to prevail over time with those on the right. This is perhaps why those on the right are delighting in Northam’s demise, and why it seems such a surprise and such a newsworthy item. It is slightly incongruous with our expectations of the modern left.

I am not excusing his behaviour; no, not at all. It’s what we do with this knowledge that interests me. Do we judge a person now on who they were 34 years ago? What if they have very much changed? How do we judge or know this? If he is very much still this kind of person, then by all means, hang him out to dry. But if not?


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