Young adulthood is often referred to as the period for making mistakes. Stupid decisions regarding our appearances, reckless activities and other general acts of irresponsibility are just part of us “figuring ourselves out” or bumps in the road to being a functioning adult. After all, how can we grow up if we have nothing to learn from?
This belief is especially critical to our lives as college students, where we are caught in the limbo of being considered a kid and an adult. We’re allocated pretty much four years to decide our plans for the rest of our lives, which only builds up the pressure to make the most correct choice possible. It instigates mistakes not just in the classroom, but those outside of it, many of which we will laugh about with those who remember them years later.
Along the way, through these varied mishaps, we will receive a number of second chances to prove ourselves. Through all the embarrassment and confusion, our development isn’t stifled by a few poor grades or minor student code of conduct violations.
This line of thought, however, has evolved dangerously over the past few years. With how the development of social media has influenced reporting, hiding what you considered your private history has become nearly impossible. And as past problematic behavior has become increasingly difficult to hide, the boundaries of what constitutes a second chance have grown for the worst.
For a long time, “digging up dirt” was often considered a political tactic. What’s become common in this age of informational availability are almost weekly revelations that someone important had once committed an illegal or inappropriate act. Often times, these come in form of allegations of sexual assault. Regardless of what the accusations concern, with the number of platforms at anyone’s disposal, these reports can be everywhere in a matter of hours.
Concerns over validity aside, what often becomes the central point of discussion is whether this person deserves, by our estimation, to be forgiven for these actions.
There is often a large contingency that would say no and advocate for the “cancellation” of the person in question, often through boycotts and resignations. But when such reports refer to incidents that occurred during the perpetrator’s teenage or young adult years, there will often be a swift life of defense crying: “they were just a kid and kids make mistakes.”
The accusations against Brett Kavanaugh were a monumental test of not just what we take as evidence, but how we respond to it. As his illicit behavior outside of a sexual assault accusation became more apparent, a contingency of his supporters still wrote much of it off as immaturity. In fact, there were many who felt that a sufficiently substantive allegation of sexual assault still shouldn’t inhibit his appointment.
Two years ago, teams in Major League Baseball were faced with a similar ethical dilemma when news spread that a high-tier draft prospect named Luke Heimlich plead guilty to child molestation when he was 15. Immediately, his stock dropped, and he ended up going undrafted. But there were many who believed that this was unfair and set an unfair precedent. How is it fair to judge him as he is now, for what he did then?
Unfortunately for subscribers to this mindset, illegality doesn’t change with age. The severity of punishment might, but there is a distinct difference between a mistake and something truly unlawful. It’s simply disingenuous to equate a misstep with an act that has life-altering consequences for the victim.
There are non-illegal actions that reflect poorly on your character through time, however. Recently, a photo on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s page in his medical school yearbook showed someone in Ku Klux Klan attire and another individual in blackface. Although he would later confusingly deny it was him in the photo, it begs the question whether this sort of mistake can be career-ending, given it occurred back when Northam was still a student.
This is again where the difference between a mistake and an actual offense matters. Northam was in medical school in a diverse state and certainly should have known the issues with such a costume by that point in his life. It’s unjustifiable to say that he couldn’t and shouldn’t have known better by that point in his life.
As with Kavanagh and Heimlich, there comes a time where you must face consequences for your actions. In their cases, their situations would constitute such a moment.
While Northam hasn’t resigned yet, his prospects of staying in office are not looking great. But if we’re resetting the precedent for when someone deserves a second chance, this is how it should be. We need to make sure that we extend forgiveness to errors in judgment rather than enable unconscionable behavior as a form of youthful miscalculation.