Complex problem requires candor

BY RANDALL RIGSBEE, News + Record Staff
Posted 2/15/19

More power to anyone who can get through high school and college without doing something stupid.

That’s because high school students are young people with additional growth and maturity in their …

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Complex problem requires candor

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More power to anyone who can get through high school and college without doing something stupid.

That’s because high school students are young people with additional growth and maturity in their future. Teenagers — whom we sometimes call “young adults” — don’t always make the most informed, adult decisions.

This is true of college students, too. It’s inevitable they will do something an older, more mature version of themselves wouldn’t do.

I say this from a perspective informed by my own past youthful ignorance/arrogance. The adult me wouldn’t, for instance, circumvent barbed wire fences and other protective measures in order to gain access to, and climb to the topmost point of, a water tower; but the college sophomore me did, once, and it remains, though I did live to tell the story, among the stupidest things I’ve ever done.

Likewise, I don’t think embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, at his present age of 59, would apply shoe polish to his face today, as he now says he did back in the day to portray Michael Jackson.

Northam’s troubles, which find him struggling to keep his post, began when an image from his old college yearbook surfaced, one photo in particular showing a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan-style outfit. Neither, of course, is acceptable.

Northam, of course, eventually denied either offender was him, though he did own up to the Michael Jackson impersonation, saying he once dabbed a small bit of shoe polish on a portion of his face.

Denial, as the old joke goes, isn’t just a river in Egypt. It is also a handy tool for politicians.

Bill Clinton admitted to smoking pot as a young person, though famously added, in the obligatory denial portion of his mea culpa, that he “didn’t inhale.”

We often hear excuses, or hedging. We rarely hear full ownership of past misdeeds.

How refreshing it would be, I think, for a public figure to honestly own something uncomfortable.

In Northam’s case, it might have been enough for him — as soon as the old incriminating photo resurfaced — to say, “Yes, that was me. I was young and stupid in my early 20s and it sickens me to see it today from the perspective of an older, wiser man. I know better now, of course, and I fully apologize for my offensive actions as an immature student.”

He might have avoided the problems he faces today had he been straightforward.

But he wasn’t and his apparent lack of backbone has resulted in a domino effect of past misdeeds coming to light among the top leaders of the state of Virginia.

I say it would be refreshing to hear honest ownership of our own past stupidity, instead of denying or lying about it, but the also fresh example of actor Liam Neeson may explain why Northam and others caught up in embarrassing behaviors from their past being exposed in the present choose to hedge instead of honestly addressing them.

Neeson’s recent remarks about race got him in some hot water, too, even though he seemed, unlike the Virginia governor, to be owning his past and trying to demonstrate how one can grow and change, even atone for past wrongs.

Neeson caught a lot of flack for his remarks.

To address societal problems like racism — symptoms of which include the application of blackface (Northam) and holding one person of color’s crime against all people of color (Neeson) — it would seem that we have to be honest and open-minded and actually talk about it.

But these aren’t easy discussions.

As Neeson’s example has shown us, being candid isn’t painless. And as Northam has shown us, being confusing isn’t helpful.

Deep, complex matters such as racism require candor and open-minded discussion.


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