Donald Trump. Anthony Weiner. Ralph Northam. Kevin McCarthy. Justin Fairfax. Steve King. Antonin Scalia. Brett Kavanaugh. Roy Moore. Al Franken. James Watt. Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan. Richard Nixon. George H.W. Bush. Bernie Sanders. Spiro Agnew. Eric Schneiderman. Ilhan Omar. Eliot Spitzer. Harry Reid. Mike Huckabee. Joe Biden. George Allen. Ben Carson. Paul Ryan. Jesse Jackson. Cindy Hyde-Smith. Alex Kozinski. Keith Ellison. Ted Cruz. Todd Akin. Rick Santorum. David Vitter. Larry Craig. Mark Foley. Bob Packwood. Harvey Weinstein. Roger Ailes. Les Moonves. Bill O’Reilly. Matt Lauer. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Pat Robertson. Louis C.K. Aziz Ansari. Rush Limbaugh. Michael Douglas. Laura Ingraham. Chris Matthews. Samantha Bee. James Levine. Garrison Keillor. Megan Kelly. Russell Simmons. Bill Cosby. Charlie Rose. Geraldo Rivera. Kevin Spacey. Paula Deen. George Takei. Ben Affleck. Dustin Hoffman. Roseanne Barr. Kathy Griffin.
This is a short, incomplete list in no particular order of public figures – mostly men – who have been accused of doing or saying a wide variety of offensive or illegal things. What should society do about these charges?
This is a hard question to answer for many reasons including, but not limited to, the following. The alleged statements and behaviors differ tremendously in nature and seriousness. The facts in some of these situations are unclear or legitimately disputed. Some of the offenses allegedly occurred only once and without malicious intent whereas others were part of a pre-meditated pattern, sometimes assisted by others. The people accused play very different roles in society. The offenses occurred at different times in their lives and in our history. Norms about what is offensive or inappropriate have evolved over time and differ in various parts of society. Indeed, multiple sets of norms exist in a given time and place, and some of them conflict with each other. Some of these people have sincerely apologized, others have made non-apology apologies, and others have defiantly and dishonestly denied the charges.
In the last few years, we have witnessed especially dramatic shifts of public norms about race, gender, and LGBTQ identity, among other things. For example, the appropriateness of public displays of Confederate flags, statues of Confederate soldiers, and blackface have shifted from accepted features in many parts of our society to artifacts of racial oppression that are widely recognized to be shameful. Actions by men dominating women that were seen as normal, legitimate, or even romantic in the past, as epitomized by the Mad Men era, now are seen as outrageous violations of women’s legal rights and dignity. Not that long ago, most LGBTQ people were relegated to living secret lives “in the closet,” subject to persecution. Now, many live their identities openly, and there are major disputes such as whether merchants and employers can discriminate against them.
As we live through these dramatic changes, we are having a social reckoning about institutionalized injustices in our history.
In this post, I suggest that we need effective ways to promote truth, reconciliation, and justice to deal with historic injustices. I think we need one type of process to promote truth and social reconciliation and another to promote justice in individual cases. This post sketches some ideas about this might be done. This is one of my longer posts and I hope you feel it’s worth your time.
In 2005, I taught a course in Missouri’s fabulous summer program in South Africa. (BTW, I encourage you to pass along information about this program to any students who might be interested, noting that applications are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis.) In the prior decade, South Africa underwent a political and social revolution with the dismantling of the apartheid regime and operation of a truth and reconciliation commission. I attended a lecture in which the speaker said that it would have been impossible to seek truth, reconciliation, and justice all in a single process. If they sought justice by punishing wrongdoers, the accused would deny and resist, undermining the goals of truth and reconciliation. Instead, to promote truth and reconciliation, wrongdoers generally received amnesty if they gave truthful testimony.
The situation now in the US is different. We have many institutions to adjudicate wrongdoing and it is possible to have separate processes for providing justice from those promoting truth and reconciliation. It is important to separate them for the same reason as in South Africa. Adversary justice institutions that protect the rights of the accused generally are not good at promoting social truth and reconciliation – and actually are likely to thwart those goals.
Some charges clearly belong in a justice-oriented process. Obviously, credible allegations of serious violations of the law should be investigated by law enforcement agencies and prosecuted if the evidence warrants it. This includes perjury, conspiracy, campaign finance violations, abuse of power, obstruction of justice, assault, and other illegal acts. Legislatures should extend or repeal statutes of limitations for offenses that victims often delay in reporting, such as sexual assault. Political bodies have ethics committees to investigate and pursue allegations of ethics violations. They also can use procedures to censure or impeach officials.
I think that it is important to have different norms for elected officials and others. Employees are accountable to their employers and public figures are accountable to the public. By contrast, elected officials are selected by the voters, and we should generally respect those decisions. Elections play a critical role in our society and, as imperfect as our electoral system is, they reflect a social contract between the voters that should be treated very carefully. There are legal procedures for handling violations of laws and regulations by elected officials, and voters can reject them at the next election.
Analyzing Offenses and Imposing Appropriate Sanctions
There is a wide range in the nature and seriousness of alleged offenses by elected officials and other public figures, evidence implicating (and exonerating) the accused, and appropriate sanctions. In other words, these are not one-size-fits-all issues nor should the sanctions be all-or-nothing.
We should consider many factors in making our judgments. We should have a good understanding of the facts in context. Too often, people rush to judgment based on media frenzies with limited disclosures that usually are incomplete and sometimes the product of dirty tricks. When there are allegations of serious offenses, there should be appropriate investigations. The evidence of accusers, accused, and relevant witnesses should be considered carefully. Investigations may be conducted by law enforcement agencies, legislative bodies, employers, and the news media. This takes time but getting this right is much more important than getting it fast.
In evaluating allegations about individuals, we should consider factors including but not limited to the seriousness of the actions, whether it was a single occurrence or repeated pattern, the person’s intent at the time, whether the person intimidated people or otherwise attempted to cover up the wrongdoing, the nature and extent of harm caused, whether the person promptly accepted responsibility and is sincerely remorseful, the person’s age at the time, how long ago the offense occurred, the social norms of the time, whether the person’s actions after the wrongdoing are consistent with the offense, and whether the allegations grow out of dirty tricks to gain inappropriate advantage.
Considering the range of relevant factors leading to a wide range of assessments, it is appropriate to consider a wide range of sanctions for offenses. This approach is built into the legal system for deciding what to do about legal violations. Employers choose from a range of sanctions including suspension, loss of compensation, reassignment, demotion, and dismissal. Public figures who violate norms are subject to loss of opportunities, ostracism, and humiliation.
In my view, offensive statements and actions by elected officials relating to historical injustices generally should be handled through principled political processes. In some situations, elected officials might be given a kind of “political probation” where they are subject to increased scrutiny, and are expected to take actions demonstrating that they are acting appropriately and, ideally, redressing problems reflected in their offense. Political sanctions might include loss of committee assignments or chairmanship of committees.
Need for Truth and Reconciliation Processes
I think that our society desperately needs meaningful truth and reconciliation processes to help people better understand our history, provide a context for judging statements and actions that are offensive to significant parts of the population but are not illegal, and hopefully prevent some problems in the future.
Our political and social life in the US has become increasingly polarized in recent decades. Proliferation of social media has facilitated and legitimized trash talking and trolling others as a “normal” form of interaction, especially in politics. This increases hatred and fear, driving us further apart from each other. In our hyper-partisan environment, many people are quick to condemn others based on incomplete and inflammatory information. I think we need to slow down and be more careful.
When controversies erupt because of offensive statements, many people wrongly assume that everyone has (or should have) the same understanding of and attitudes about history that they do. I think that most of us have poor understandings of our history, often reflected in inaccurate popular stories. We often view history with hindsight bias, acting as if people always had (or should have had) the same perspectives that people do today.
In particular, I think that we generally don’t have a good understanding of our racial history, including slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and their continuing legacy. Controversies about the Confederate flag and statues and blackface reflect unfounded assumptions that people have good understandings of history. Part of the problem is that our history is more complex than popular stories of good and evil. For example, many poor whites in the South opposed slavery and prejudice, and many whites in the North have been prejudiced against blacks. While there certainly have been clearly bad people in this history, I assume that most people had complex motivations and tried to adhere to norms of their time and place.
Our history of gender relationships also is more complicated than we might acknowledge. As we consider people’s sexual behavior – and particularly that of more typical men – it’s important to understand our history of sexual relations to help us understand why many people feel and act as we do. Sexual domination by men and objectification of women is glamorized and deeply entrenched in our culture. In popular culture, men have been expected to initiate sexual relations and overcome women’s initial resistance, assuming that they will be swept off their feet and fall in love. Casual sex with strangers often has been portrayed as a ton of fun, both for women and men. Of course, our history of sexual relations doesn’t justify unwelcome sexual behavior and statements, and powerful men who take sexual advantage of women deserve harsh sanctions. Even so, knowing our history is important to understand why people have acted as they did.
We would benefit by understanding and de-escalating other fronts in contemporary culture wars such as conflicts about LGBTQ people, immigration, and religious prejudice.
Of course, we would need to tailor truth and reconciliation efforts to our situation – we can’t simply apply models from South Africa or other countries to the US. I haven’t studied these processes and I am not sure that we could do this successfully. There is a substantial portion of our population that rejects key sources of knowledge such as evidence and science generally. History and truth are themselves highly contested issues in our current political conflicts.
I have a fantasy of a serious, extended history lesson in our society so that open-minded people can have more accurate, nuanced, and shared understandings of the histories of different groups in our society. Ideally, this would reduce the number of inadvertently offensive statements due to ignorance and provide a better context for dealing with problems that do arise.
In this fantasy, people would not immediately cast people as villains or heros. Instead, we would start with an understanding that we all are imperfect and that history is complicated. We would start with a presumption that and that most people try to act with good motivations, consistent with their understandings about what is expected and appropriate. It would be particularly important for people to try to understand and sympathize with people on opposite sides of social divides (e.g., conservative and liberal, college-educated and not). A serious effort would avoid the false equivalence of simplistic claims that “both sides” were equally responsible. Of course, some people’s actions truly are villainous or heroic and would be identified as such if warranted by a fair analysis of evidence.
I think of Michelle Obama’s message of hope: “Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. … [T]here’s grace in being willing to know and hear others.”
I imagine that history lessons might be conducted by schools and universities, media organizations, legislative and other government agencies or commissions, non-profit organizations, and possibly even some businesses. Organizations in our field working to promote reconciliation (some of which are listed in this companion post) might be engaged to help organize these efforts. In addition to writing reports, these efforts might include producing videos and curricular materials for K-12 and higher education courses, holding public events, and doing other things to educate the general public about our history.
I’m not the only one with this hope. Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University published an article, How Virginia’s Politicians Can Make a Real Difference on Issues of Race, in which he wrote:
What Virginia needs is an independent truth and reconciliation commission to address seriously its past on race, and to point toward a better future.
The purpose of such a commission would be to confront, reveal and answer for the magnitude of Virginia’s systematic mistreatment of African Americans. It is a shameful history: slavery; Jim Crow laws; official opposition to desegregation of public schools into the 1960s; criminalizing interracial marriage, also into the 1960s; and textbooks within many of our own lifetimes that taught the blatant lie claiming the Civil War was about states’ rights and not slavery.
And, today, far too many of our citizens of color must confront issues that seem distant to many white Virginians — disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration, appalling prison conditions, chronic underfunding of inner-city schools and deficient social services. …
Admittedly, a commission’s study of Virginia’s racial past and present failures would be painful and difficult, and could itself become a flash point of intense partisan and ideological battles. …
This year is the 400th anniversary of African slaves arriving on the shores of what became the commonwealth of Virginia. It is an opportune time for the state to face its painful history and turn toward a better future.
In the current partisan environment, it may be unrealistic to initiate a lot of truth and reconciliation efforts now, especially on a national level. Given the sensitive situation in Virginia, it may be possible there. Hopefully, there will be the political will to realize these ideas after the 2020 election.
Applying These Ideas to Some Illustrative Cases
Iowa Representative Steve King has made a long series of statements supporting white supremacy. Although some people criticized these statements, people generally ignored the statements and there weren’t serious demands to impose punishment for them. Recently, he said, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” This was more explicit than his prior statements, and the Republican leadership in Congress stripped him of his committee assignments. Mr. King refused to apologize and organized pro-family supporters to demand reinstatement of his committee assignments. People can make legitimate arguments about many controversial subjects but, in my view, justifying white supremacy is not one of them. So I think that stripping his committee assignments was appropriate and that he deserves to be defeated in the next election.
Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar released tweets implying that Congressional support for Israel is due to contributions from a powerful pro-Israel lobby. She was strongly criticized for perpetuating stereotypes that Jews covertly control politics with financial contributions. Although her factual argument is legitimately debatable, the connection to harmful stereotypes was problematic, and she promptly apologized publicly and privately. She wrote, “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.” This is an situation where I think that “political probation” is appropriate so that she can demonstrate that she will not repeat her mistake and will make amends.
I think that the intense pressure on Minnesota Senator Al Franken to resign while a Senate Ethics Committee investigation was pending was very problematic. In 2017, he was accused by at least six women of groping and making improper advances. He supported a respectful hearing of the women’s charges, regretted some things he had done, said he remembered some situations differently than the allegations, and completely denied others. He resigned because of political pressure, especially from his Democratic colleagues who wanted to avoid political damage from accusations of hypocrisy. I think that this pressure was wrong and that we should have waited until the Committee completed its investigation. At that point, people could make informed decisions about what response would be appropriate. Members of Congress regularly are investigated for alleged ethical violations, and they generally continue to serve in office while those investigations are pending – which I think is appropriate. Congressional leaders could impose some “political probation” (such as removal of committee assignments) while investigations are pending. But Mr. Franken’s resignation, forced by premature political pressure, deprived his state of the political representation chosen by its voting population.
Several weeks ago, a huge controversy erupted due to publication of a racist photo on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s page in his medical school’s 1984 yearbook. He added to the controversy by first stating that he was in the photo and then denying it at a news conference the following day, where he acknowledged wearing blackface on another occasion. This prompted a firestorm of criticism and demands for his immediate resignation. He apologized but refused to resign.
Washington Post reporter James Hohmann wrote that “Northam said he’s begun to finally grapple with the meaning of ‘white privilege.’ He’s planning a reconciliation tour that will take him across the state and has ordered all his Cabinet secretaries to prepare policy proposals that would improve the plight of African Americans.” Mr. Northam said that he wanted to read more about racial problems and Mr. Hohmann compiled a list of books from preeminent historians – which would be a good reading list for all of us to better understand our history. The list is reproduced in this companion post.
It is also important to understand the world in which Mr. Northam grew up. The Washington Post looked into this and published an article, On Virginia’s Rural Eastern Shore, Northam’s Views of Race Took Root.
In his small hometown, and at the Virginia schools he attended, racial strife and separation left enduring scars. … In Onancock and at Virginia Military Institute (VMI), where Northam went to college, and at Eastern Virginia Medical School, where he trained to be a pediatrician, some whites in the 1970s and 1980s saw blackface as a way to express a racist worldview. But others viewed it, if they thought about it at all, as a benign comic gesture, akin to wearing a fat suit. … Northam came up in an era of change — the overt, legally imposed change of desegregation in schools and employment, and a more organic change in demographics and attitudes. … In Onancock, a bayside town where the sidewalks were made of oyster shells, the Northams, conservative in manner and moderate in politics, were considered liberals when it came to race, according to longtime residents. … Friends, neighbors and schoolmates — liberal and conservative, black and white — rallied around Northam last week, not simply because he is from their town, but because they believe he is not what his yearbook page implies.
Mr. Northam’s situation is a good illustration of the potential for truth and reconciliation. He apologized, accepted responsibility, and initiated actions to make amends – not only for his actions but, more importantly, for our society’s historical injustices. He is effectively on political probation and everyone can watch what he does and how people respond. If he heeded the hasty calls for his resignation, he would have effectively disenfranchised the majority of the electorate, which I think would be a disproportionate response under the circumstances.
Unfortunately, the predominant responses to all four of these cases has been sensational news reporting and instantaneous political criticism, with little effort to promote more understanding of our history and foster reconciliation. I wish this dynamic would change. Perhaps folks in our field will help move things in that direction.
Click here for a post with further thoughts about these issues.