Here is a short, incomplete list of stupid things people used to do as kids and not have to wear it like a scarlet letter for the rest of their lives:

Saying stupid things
Doing stupid things
Being stupid
Hanging around stupid people.

Kids have always said and done things they later regret because A.) Nobody is perfect and B.) anyone who isn’t ashamed of at least a few things they did as young people is probably a dick.

And, for my purposes here, I’m defining “kids” as adolescents AND young adults because, really, having an 18th birthday doesn’t automatically make you mature.
I’m all for calling out somebody if they’ve done something hateful or ignorant. If things we do have consequences it makes us better as a society. But, my problem is that we’ve swung to far in the other direction, never willing to give someone credit for bettering themselves and always willing to use someone else’s mistake as an eternal bludgeon against them.

I think almost anything is forgivable but, of course, some things should always have consequences. If Bill Cosby had admitted all the women he abused and apologized for it (he so far has done neither) that still doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have to pay for his crimes. I’m talking about the difference between actual crimes and boorish or immature behavior.

Another example is Kevin Hart. A few years ago at the tender age of …(checks Wikipedia) …31!!?? Hart used homophobic language in tweets and in his stand-up. He’s said since then that he regrets the language and that he’s evolved since then. Has he? I don’t know. But I’m willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt if they say they have.

The governor of Virginia has spent the better part of the week apologizing for a photo in blackface in his college yearbook. He first acknowledged it was him, then seemed to come back and say he didn’t think it really WAS him and then, finally, admitted that even if it wasn’t him that he had donned blackface around that same time in his life.

The main thing is that he has acknowledged his error and apologized for it. For some people that’s good enough and for others it isn’t. What I’d like to do is suggest that we come up with a few ground rules about holding people responsible for things they’ve done and said but have since disavowed. If we don’t do this we’re going to end up with a scenario where a person is disqualified for holding public office because they called another kid a “Doo Doo head” in Pre K.

1.) Should There be a Minimum Age of Accountability?

The idea of an “age of accountability” is ancient. It’s codified in our religious texts and in U.S. Law. If a child can’t be put away for life for a capital offense, doesn’t it make sense that we shouldn’t condemn people to a life sentence for saying dumb stuff.

But what should that age be? According to the Bible, 13 is the age of accountability. According to The Offspring, “if you’re under 18 you won’t be doing any “ti-i-i-i-ime”. I don’t have an answer. And, I’m not saying youthful ignorance is a blanket excuse. But , surely, we’ve got to realize that something stupid someone may have done as a kid may have been because that’s what kids do. Also, I think it’s useful to bear in mind that neurologists say the adolescent brain doesn’t finish maturing until the age of 26. 26!

2.) Maybe People Should be Judged by the Standards of Their Time and Not by the Standards of This Exact Moment

I’ll use my previous examples for this one. People who grew up around the same time as Kevin Hart (and me!) didn’t necessarily know that mocking gays was bad. If anything, all of the adult authorities of my teenage years RE-INFORCED the idea that homosexuality was to be scorned and ridiculed. It may seem crazy to people born after 1995, but the idea that being gay was a personal decision that was none of my business would’ve seemed like an utterly alien concept to me at the age of 15…or even 20 for that matter. If in my hometown in 1983 if you’d stood up and said that you supported gay people and thought they should be allowed to get married you would have been scorned, ridiculed and the assertion that YOU were gay yourself would surely have been made. And I’m talking about by the ADULTS in my life: teachers, coaches, family as well as your pastor and church youth leader. Do I WISH my view would have been so enlightened and mature when I was 14 years old? Sure, but it wasn’t and, really, neither was anyone else’s. If you don’t believe me, check out two of the great cinematic achievements of the 1980s: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. These were both big box office hits that were made by Hollywood, the one place in 1980s America where gay people were most likely to be accepted and able to live comfortably out of the closet. And even HOLLYWOOD was OK with make the “F word for gays” a running joke in both of these movies.

Let me use the example of the Virginia governor here as well. Is Gov. Ralph Northam a racist because he dressed in blackface in 1984? I have no way of knowing, but he says he isn’t and that he regrets what he did. What more do you want him to do? Wear sack-cloth and dump ashes on his head? Slink away from public live and live as a recluse? Or, will nothing short of ritual hari-kari suicide appease?

Let’s consider the great Mecca of inclusiveness, Hollywood, yet again. So, Ralph Northrup admitted to dressing in blackface in 1984. Well, a major studio movie about a white student who goes to college in blackface was released…in 1986!! Yeah, Soul Man with C. Thomas Howell received criticism at the time but the point is that as un-woke as a 24 year old in Virginia was in 1984, Hollywood was at least as obtuse two years later. Also, Julie Louis Dreyfus and James Earl Jones were also in that movie and I don’t think either of them were permanently drummed out of Hollywood as a result (though maybe C. Thomas Howell was, who knows).

Think about this for a second: At the start of his presidency Abraham Lincoln was NOT in favor of giving the vote to freed black slaves and after the war he was of the opinion that blacks should be sent back to Africa since there was no hope of the races ever being equal. By the standards of today, February 5th, 2019, those ideas are shockingly racist. But Lincoln was an abolitionist who abhorred slavery. He would eventually sign the proclamation freeing slaves in the rebellious southern states and, in some measure, he would be murdered because of it. So, by the standards of his time, Lincoln was not considered racist but is remembered as “the Great Emancipator”.

Perspective. That’s all I’m saying.

3.) I Think Admitting You Were Wrong is the Key

Unless we accept that people can say or do dumb things but then grow and become better, you know what we are dooming ourselves to? A world that favors the people that are the best liars. Nobody has done the right thing in every single situation in their life. But unless we learn to accept sincere apologies and allow for genuine contrition we’re going to end up being ruled over by the kind of people who deny they’ve ever made a mistake and are willing to lie, lie, and lie to maintain that illusion…aka: sociopaths. It’s our choice.

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