“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”
1 Corinthians 13:11
\Remember when you were in school and got caught doing something wrong?
Some authority figure would say in a deep, threatening tone, “This is going on your permanent record.” Blemished forever, you thought.
But at some point later in life you realized they were bluffing. There was no permanent record. You could reinvent yourself, put the past behind you, or at least those school years of sometimes questionable behavior.
The fact was, just like a boat doesn’t care about its wake, nobody cared about your youth, except, perhaps, for a few buddies who lived through it with you.
Not any more.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, now 59 years old, is painfully aware of that.
The recent emergence of a photo on Northam’s 1984 yearbook page at Eastern Virginia Medical School— featuring one person in blackface and one person in a Ku Klux Klan-style robe and hood — spurred a cascade of righteous condemnation and demands from both sides of the aisle, including just about all the deeply moral 2020 Democratic hopefuls, that Northam resign,
”The photo of Ralph Northam’s yearbook that surfaced yesterday is both racist and inexcusable,” brayed the Democratic Governors Association in a statement. “It is time for Gov. Northam to step aside and allow Virginia to move forward.”
“We now know what Ralph Northam did when he thought no one was watching,” announced Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “The person in that photo can’t be trusted to lead. Governor Northam must resign immediately.”
In this case, the damning photo surfaced because one or more of Northam’s former classmates, outraged about some pro-abortion comments he made, tipped off Big League Politics, a conservative website. More common, however, is the discovery in the online sewer of some long-ago questionable behavior or contentious remark.
And now the media universe is even more fired up.
On Feb. 7, Virginia’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, who’s third in line for the governorship, revealed that he and some friends “put on wigs and brown makeup” when they dressed as rappers at a University of Virginia party in 1980 when he was 19 years old. The mob is salivating over that transgression.
Feb. 7 also brought news that the State Senate’s top Republican, 72-year-old Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., had been managing editor 51 years ago of a 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook containing racist slurs and photographs, some including blackface.
Ferreting out youthful indiscretions is clearly now the name of the game in political journalism.
It sells papers and drives the curious to online news, stirs up a firestorm of outrage on social media and offers opportunities for political grandstanding.
It’s clear there’s a market for long-ago and forgotten, but potentially salacious or accusatory, stuff dug up by political parties and their partisan and activist allies.
But it raises serious questions about exactly how much culpability should be assigned to the actions of young people decades later, whether some youthful indiscretions have a right to be forgotten.
What’s a person‘s moral responsibility for actions of the past? Should somebody whose adult life has been honorable and well-intentioned be found wanting for youthful errors?
“Before the internet, young people who made mistakes—from embarrassing statements to minor crimes—that ended up in the public record eventually benefitted from ‘privacy-by-obscurity,” John Simpson, privacy project director at Consumer Watchdog, a progressive non-profit, said recently. “Those things slipped out of the general consciousness of the public. Now, a youthful offense can remain at the top of search results indefinitely.”
Some theorists liken moral responsibility to a metaphorical ledger of life. “To be blameworthy is to have a debit on one’s ledger, and to be praiseworthy is to have a credit on one’s ledger…and entries on one’s ledger are made in permanent ink,” Andrew C. Khoury and Benjamin Matheson explained in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association.
But Khoury and Matheson argue that blameworthiness, unlike diamonds, should not be forever.
Whether a person deserves blame for a past action, or not, depends on many things – most of all on “how far and how deeply the individual has changed,” they say. In other words, blameworthiness can diminish through time.
An adult, as research shows, is not necessarily blameworthy for her actions as a child because the adult shares none of distinctive psychological states (e.g. beliefs, desires, or intentions) of the child, and these distinctive psychological features were essential to her committing an inappropriate act, Khoury and Matheson say.
Jonathan Last, an editor of The Weekly Standard, has pointed out that America’s juvenile justice system operates on the same principle, thatyoung people should not be held to the same standards of moral culpability as adults, that they aren’t fully capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.
“Personality is subject to a lifelong series of relatively small changes—particularly in adolescence and early adulthood, but continuing even into older age,” reported a study, Personality Stability From Age 14 to Age 77 Years, “(This) can lead to personality in older age being quite different from personality in childhood.”
Or, as Khoury wrote, “..when confronted with the issue of moral responsibility for actions long since passed, we need to not only consider the nature of the past transgression but also how far and how deeply the individual has changed.”
The mob, particularly social media vigilantes, will likely continue to ignore all this. But they should remember the proverb, ‘Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”