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To Err is Human, To Forgive is Another Question

by on July 01, 2013 6:50 AM

One of the big news stories of last week was restaurant owner, TV chef and product endorser Paula Deen’s public confession of her use of the “N word.”

Deen, who hails from the south, admits to making derogatory comments in a time frame that was defined as “in the past.” She offered a tearful explanation and apology on TV but was subsequently lambasted by the media, lost her television show and corporate sponsors are lining up to announce that they are dropping her like a hot potato.

It reminds me of the Bill Murray quote from Ghostbusters. “Dogs and cats, living together. Mass hysteria.”

When we start expecting people to be perfect, we are setting ourselves up to be disappointed.

I’m not a fan of either Mrs. Deen or disrespectful language, but could we be overreacting?

Unlike the many other commentators on this subject, I’m not going to point out the bad behavior of others as evidence of how we have double, even triple standards for members of some groups and public behavior.

I’m not going to quote rap stars or others who use the N word in titles of songs or in their everyday conversation in defense of Ms. Deen. I’ve seen people in other groups do the same thing. Women refer to each other as “bitches.” People with disabilities who make jokes using “cripple” or “gimp.” How people attempt to empower themselves is not my call.

I’m not willing to say that words don’t mean anything. Like sticks and stones, words can actually hurt. I’ve seen the damage of derogatory language in reference to people with disabilities. I’m also a woman. I know from personal experience that language and choice of words often reveals not only our biases and stereotypes but our insecurities and our intolerances.

I’m not going to quote Blazing Saddles, All in the Family, Saturday Night Live or any of the other entertainment entities that take liberties with good taste and decorum in the name of “humor” every day.

My question has to do with making mistakes. At what point should people be forgiven when they stumble and fall?

Humans make mistakes.

If you’ve ever been a parent, you know what I mean. Kids, especially, teenagers, say and do really stupid things. They make really bad decisions. Sometimes, they make it very easy for us to be mad at them. We hope to take the lesson, learn from it and move on to the next thing.

We make the lesson painful but not life ending. I can still remember the pit in my stomach when my parents said “you’ve lost our trust” after I made one of those stupid decisions. The road back from mistakes can be long and difficult but knowing that it is possible is what keeps us going.

In the work setting, our employees sometimes make mistakes too. In most cases, the other contributions of the individual or the time and effort we’ve spent in training that person on the job means that we look for the teachable moment.

I don’t know much about Ms. Deen but at 66, I figure she spent her formative years in the days before the civil rights movement. A lot has happened since then in terms of how we look at things, our language and what our culture says is okay.

Even with that, the woman who is suing Deen and others in the case have said that Deen did not use the word regularly, if ever, in her business or personal relationships. Deen fessed up, acknowledged that she what she said was wrong and apologized.

In other words, she learned from her mistakes.

It’s the repeat offenders who should draw our concern. For example, comedian and political commentator Bill Maher has repeatedly referred to Sarah Palin and others with whom he disagrees in horrible terms, including very derogatory slang about women. He has repeatedly referred to her son who has Down’s Syndrome as “retarded.” Not once. Not twice. Even after critics had pointed out his bad behavior.

Ironically, Maher was quoted on his talk show as saying that he didn’t think people should “have to go away” because they make mistakes. There’s a shocker.

Instead of holding people to unrealistic standards for behavior, we should judge them on their ability to learn from their mistakes.

Our tolerance for human error in our public figures has evolved in the past decades. With technology and the internet, we can dig into the pasts of our political candidates, entertainers, corporate executives and the person in the next cubicle.

For a few bucks, we can search court records online and dig up our histories with a keyboard and a high speed connection. We “vet” our political candidates to make sure nothing ugly is going to crawl out from under a rock or that all of the skeletons in our closets are exposed.

I remember many years ago during the confirmation hearings of a supreme court justice or cabinet member, a friend referred to the “sterile background” of the nominee. The man lived with his mother, didn’t use the internet and communicated with pen and paper. From all appearances, his college years had been spent entirely in the university library. “Is this the new standard for our decision makers?” she asked. “Do we want people who have never made a mistake, have no real life experiences or who have never picked themselves up after a stumble making policy decisions for us?’

She had a point. It is often those mistakes and those stumbles that become the turning point for our personal growth.

Show me someone who acknowledges mistakes and the lessons that were learned and I will show you a person who is worth of our forgiveness.

The Food Channel, Walmart, and other companies who pay to have a celebrity’s picture or name on their products have the right to decide what is acceptable for their company standards. They have the right to demand perfection in their celebrity spokesperson.

While the rest of us go about our daily lives and occasionally veer off the path, advertising executives and brand managers can try to find someone who has never made a mistake to represent their product.

Good luck with that.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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