COMMENTARY

Should We Forgive the Youthful Bad Conduct of the Virginia Governor--and Everyone Else?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD

Disclosures

February 14, 2019

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan, from the division of medical ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.

Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat who is also a pediatrician and a distinguished, highly regarded neurosurgeon, finds himself in a whole lot of trouble. You may recall that a picture of someone in a Ku Klux Klan outfit and someone in blackface was on the governor's Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page.

In my opinion, that kind of picture is probably grounds for his resignation as governor. He is just not going to be credible. And I understand that other officials who come forward to say that they wore blackface, or engaged in skits and so forth that were racist, may be in trouble and have to resign their positions as well, even though these acts may have taken place 10 or 20 years ago.

I'm also fully aware that everyone can be an idiot when they're young. But if you have photographs and put them in your medical school yearbook, I don't think you're going to get the pass that we might give to someone in junior high school or high school who engaged in bad behavior.

Northam didn't do himself any favors, because originally he said, "I'm sorry those pictures are there and they're horrible, but it's not who I am anymore." Then he said, "I'm not sure that's me in the pictures." Then he said, "I did engage in racist behavior, but it's not those pictures; it was something else I did."

Eventually, his attorney general stepped forward and said, "I've been in blackface skits and pranked around that way as well." As far as damage control goes, this was a lesson in what not to do—inconsistent stories, no remorse. It's just not the way to approach behavior that you may well come to regret.

But what do we say, not just about the governor and a situation he created, but about leaving behind [offensive] photographs, participating in medical school spoof skits—which go on and are often pretty tough on individuals—postings in yearbooks, and the rest of it?

We'd better remember that all of it is discoverable in the age of the Internet. It's pretty easy to hire a firm to chase down everything you might have said, tweeted, put up on Instagram, or had in a graduation yearbook. People will scour the cloud, if you will, and they'll turn up more or less anything you have done and may have come to regret.

The first lesson of this governor's experience is, don't leave that kind of record behind; don't engage in racist conduct and certainly don't do it if you think it's amusing, funny, or you're going to show off to your friends—even if you're just pranking, even if it's Halloween. There are lines that doctors, nurses, and healthcare professionals shouldn't cross, lines that no citizen should cross, but especially those who rely on the trust and support of their patients. Don't [engage in behaviors that will become part] of a record that can be brought forward and used to challenge your goodwill or the way you may be thinking today about matters of race and diversity.

It also needs to be said that if you have done something ridiculously stupid, racist, gross, or misogynistic in your past, the only possible response is to be prepared to apologize and ask for forgiveness. I don't believe that there's any other way to approach it. You can't say, "Well, you know, that wasn't me. That was a long time ago. It's not who I am today," and so on. You have to show remorse. You have to show that you understand the offenses and the offensiveness you have created.

I'm not saying that you're always going to be forgiven, but that's where you start. Just as we've come to understand that apologies are the right thing to do when a medical error takes place, I believe that [asking for] forgiveness is the right attitude to adopt when a social discriminatory error takes place.

I'm Art Caplan from the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU School of Medicine. Thank you for watching.

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