My wife asked me the other day what I thought about the scandal surrounding recently-resigned Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel, wherein photos of him in blackface, mocking Hurricane Katrina victims, surfaced nearly fifteen years after the fact. To be fair, I hadn’t even heard, but it brought up a (short-lived) debate over what is, and what isn’t, justifiable in the long-term.
During the conversation, she brought up the controversy over Brett Cavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and how he was not (successfully) persuaded to resign, despite the surfacing of what was, to many, a far worse crime. Her position was that, in Ertel’s case, despite the offensiveness of his behavior, no one was hurt – something that can’t be said of Cavanaugh. As such, it comes across as painfully ironic that the perpetrator of a lesser crime should suffer more than someone who stands accused of rape.
She pointed out that Ertel’s mockery of terrible suffering was – or at least could have been – nothing more than a poor decision, and not necessarily reflective of his perspective or personality, especially after fifteen years, whereas someone who thinks it’s okay to sexually assault women is, essentially, unredeemable.
It reminded me also of the case against Brock Turner, who was not simply accused of rape, but actually caught in the act itself. A great furore was made in his defense that his own actions were themselves simply a poor decision, and that a single mistake as a youth shouldn’t jeopardize an entire career, life, whatever.
I thought it interesting that my wife was willing to give someone mocking tragedy victims in a racially charged manner a second chance, but not someone who made the decision to rape another human being. She’s right, to an extent – far more individual harm was done by Cavanaugh and Turner than by Ertel – but to hinge the argument on the mental capacity for change – and the assumption that a rapist can’t change, but a racist can – is a potentially dangerous proposition.
I don’t normally take much of a stance on these types of societal problems – I feel too far removed, socially and mentally, to make a valid argument – but in this instance, it’s given me pause for thought. To start with, I want to dismiss the argument of ‘legal’ vs. ‘illegal’; laws are arbitrary, and fluctuate with the whims of what present-day society deems acceptable or not. I’m not going to discuss whether racial mockery is okay because it isn’t explicitly against the law; I’d rather discuss this in the context of what is, simply, right or wrong.
All things are driven by human decision; the decision to get up, the decision to go to bed, the decision to wear this shirt or that sweater, and the decision whether to do what’s right or what’s wrong. Of course, in that sense right and wrong are entirely subjective, and mercy to the whims of what’s socially implanted in our minds; we’re taught (as a whole) that rape is wrong, and yet men do it every day.
Why is that the decision they go with – to have sex with an unconscious girl, or to physically force themselves on someone who is literally fighting back? In the moment before the act, there is a decision – to do, or not to do. Most people, I think, would choose to not do, but there are, quite clearly, some who choose the opposite.
Is there something fundamentally wrong with the mental wiring in those individuals? Is it something that is inherent to their psychology, that no amount of teaching or conditioning can overcome? Is it simply that they were never taught to control their baser urges, and act without thought – and can they be taught to think, instead? Or, simpler still, is that in-the-moment decision to rape, or to wear blackface, the product of poor upbringing and circumstance – a combination that may never replicate itself exactly the same ever again?
This isn’t an easy debate; if Ertel hadn’t had these photos surface, he would still be Secretary of State – and would the fact of his behavior fifteen years ago change his ability to perform his job? Even if he thought such behavior was acceptable in 2005, does that mean he still does? The emergence of evidence doesn’t change the past – only how we view it. Certainly some people who held Ertel in high regard now condemn him – whilst others who never held an opinion one way or the other now feel sympathy.
If Brock Turner hadn’t been caught, would he have a burgeoning career, an academic future, and a happy life? Probably. Again – it doesn’t change the fact of what he did, only how he is perceived. If Turner had raped that girl and left, never to be known, he would have likely gone on to a perfectly normal life – at the expense of hers. Maybe he would have learned that he can get away with rape, and gone on to commit further crimes – or maybe it would have just become a skeleton in his closet.
To add fuel to the fire, the increasing impossibility of remaining private in a world of perpetual social impressions leads to the question of what’s more important: the act, or the act of being caught. Evidence of the past is becoming ever more difficult to erase, but should it be held against us years – sometimes decades – later? Surely, we’ve all done things we regret; does that mean we’re to be judged for life for those things?
I think there a couple of considerations when condemning – or forgiving – a person for their past. The point my wife brought up – of direct harm – is valid, and worth bearing in mind. What level of hurt did a person’s behavior effect upon another human being? Is it fair that a rapist be allowed a normal life, when their victim’s world is utterly shattered?
I also think the influence a person has on society should be taken into consideration when casting judgement on their past. Whilst no one is perfect, people with a wide sphere of influence – celebrities, politicians, lawmakers, etc. – absolutely must be held to a higher standard. It’s utterly deplorable that Brett Cavanaugh was even considered for the Supreme Court after the accusations leveled at him – in some ways, far worse than the lenient sentence levied against Brock Turner. And in equal measure, someone who behaves in a racist manner – be it then or now (for what it’s worth, Ertel was already a supervisor of elections in 2005) – should answer for their transgressions.
With that being said, I don’t believe that anyone – position of influence or not – should be treated differently in light of their crimes, for better or for worse. Cavanaugh and Turner should have been judged equally in the eyes of the law, and if found guilty, punished accordingly. In both cases, I don’t feel that true justice was served. As for Ertel, it’s no argument to say that 2005 was a different time, because racism is racism regardless of era. Context is important, but can’t be everything. Joke in poor taste or not, this is a person who chose a career in which he is in the public eye – and as such, has a duty to society to uphold the values that that same society deems worthy.
If there is a lesson to any of this, I think it might be this: the truth will always come out, and as such, it’s probably best to be true to yourself, and let the chips lie where they fall. I’ve been blogging since 2011, and there are probably things in my 813 posts that, in hindsight, I might’ve rather not written. Yet I can at least say, with some level of integrity, that what I’ve said was my truth, at that time, and as such shouldn’t be hidden or altered. If what I’ve said makes me reprehensible, then at least I know that’s who I am.
At the end of the day, our behaviors are what define us, and our actions over time are where judgement should lie. We all make mistakes, but a person’s true character can be told from two things: the egregiousness and the frequency of their crimes.
Can someone be forgiven for heinousness in their past? Can people truly change? Or does a person, once sinned, lose the right to repentance?
What do you think?