The first memory I have of Gov. Ralph Northam is from February 2014 when I was a nervous Virginia Senate Page, and he was the freshly inaugurated lieutenant governor. The day my name was drawn to help out at his office, the Capitol grounds were covered in ice, dangerous territory in the faux-leather loafers all pages had to wear. My fellow page and I barely made it to the office in one piece. Lt. Gov. Northam and I shook hands after being formally introduced, and he commented on how cold my hand was — and promptly offered to make us hot chocolate. He urged us to be careful as we went about our tasks.
It was a small thing, but it stood out to me. None of the state legislators had taken the time to notice that we might be suffering from the extreme temperatures or worry about our safety. His offer of refreshments was a kind offer, a humanizing offer, and for years, that moment popped into my mind when asked about my incredible time as a Senate Page. That interaction, and many others with Northam, reminded me that there were still politicians who cared about their constituents and their country. I may not have always agreed with Northam’s policies, but I was proud that Virginians had chosen one of the most genuine candidates out there when they elected him governor in 2017.
As you can imagine, I was incredibly disappointed by the recent revelation about Northam. . The man who chose a photo depicting blackface and a KKK costume for his yearbook page did not resemble the person I interacted with for two months. That man was not the person who had mentored one of my closest friends for years and set him on his chosen career path. That man was not the person I had encouraged my family and friends to elect. I didn’t recognize that man, and I know countless Virginians didn’t either.
The recent debate around Northam’s behavior and the scandals involving other Virginia leaders have led me to this question: How do we define a “career-ending” mistake? Where do we, as a society, draw the line in the sand? And if we have such concrete beliefs as to what is not acceptable, why have so many crossed that line and not faced the full force of “cancel culture”? I wonder if there will be any southern politicians left when all the yearbooks are examined. I believe that if we look long and closely enough into the backgrounds of most politicians, most leaders in industry and education, most people, we will find at least one episode of inappropriate behavior, a shameful lapse in judgment.
We tout acts of racism as “unforgivable mistakes,” yet that restriction does not seem to apply to everyone. Representative Steve King, R-IA, has promoted his brand of thinly veiled white supremacy since 2002, yet Iowans continue to elect him. The Verge technology writer Sarah Jeong was subjected to heavy backlash after old tweets featuring her insulting white people resurfaced, but The New York Times still hired her as a member of its editorial staff. We as a nation do not have a set standard on what is allowable — situational ethics apply. The New York Times claims to condemn hate speech, but as the incident with Jeong shows, they may not be as quick to do so depending on whether the source of the spiteful prose is from the left or from the right. Let’s just say that any racist comment, cartoon or act is wrong and should not be tolerated — but acknowledge if they’re from a place of genuine ignorance, they can sometimes be forgiven. Sexual offenses and violent crimes, on the other hand, should be career-enders when proven through our judicial process — they are indicators of true evil in a person’s heart.
How do we decide who to forgive? I think we need to consider if the behavior in question is an isolated incident or a true reflection of one’s character. Has the person who did wrong taken responsibility for what he or she has done? Does the person feel real remorse about his or her actions, and is he or she trying to make amends for the harm they have done?
If we can answer yes to all those questions, I think we need to consider giving that person another chance. Humans are meant to evolve and mature along their life journey; when you choose to forgive, you are giving both yourself and the person at fault an opportunity to change and grow.
We have become a nation quick to anger, anxious to fight, and eager to condemn anyone who doesn’t fit within our narrow worldview. I don’t see any way forward for our country unless we remember that absolutely none of us are perfect. We can never begin the true process of healing if every day we tear the scab off anew with angry accusations and revelations. If we choose to focus on nothing but the mistakes we’ve all made, the headlines will never end, and the work to heal our broken country will never begin.
If I had access to your messages, your Snapchat or your Instagram, what would I see? Maybe it’s time to agree that we’ve all sinned and adopt a collective policy of second chances. After all, as the old adage says, “those in glass houses should not throw stones.”