As you probably know, a Japanese Olympic official was fired on the eve of the opening ceremonies because of comments he made in a comedy routine about 20 years earlier. The comments were determined by his superiors to be racist, and so he was relieved of his duties. (I haven’t heard the comments so I can’t comment one way or the other about the accuracy of that interpretation.) This is not the first time that someone has been punished for a comment or action from the distant past that resurfaced as the person took on more responsibility. There was a time when such comments and actions were often overlooked or excused, allowing perpetrators to continue to act in the same way without having any reason to change. While I am glad that society is doing a better job of proclaiming what sort of behavior will or will not be tolerated, I am concerned about how easy it would be to move too far in the other direction. I can easily imagine us getting to a point where any foolish, flippant or immature comment can become a weapon against the person who made it.
For myself, I’ve made many comments throughout my life that I regret and wish I could take back. Some came from immaturity and insecurity, which made me lash out at others whom I perceived as threats. Some were meant to be witty without recognizing that there are certain topics that should not be the subject of flippant comments. At various times in my life, I have been ignorant, insensitive, or so desperate for acceptance that I have said what I thought others wanted to hear rather than what I believed. And sometimes, I have said what I believe, only to have those beliefs evolve over time so that I now disown my previous statements.
I know I am not alone in this. I have never met anyone who thinks, speaks and acts in exactly the same way now as they did ten or twenty years ago. This is why I am so worried about old comments and actions defining individuals now. I have known many people who were jerks in high school but who turned into great members of the community. In those cases, their previous comments should be used as measures of how much esteem they should receive now, not how much judgement.
On the other hand, we all know that society contains its share of dangerous, predatory or sociopathic individuals. They seek their own good and pleasure, and they will exploit anyone around them to attain their goals. Perhaps they showed some of these traits years ago and have become better at exploitation over time. In other cases they may have made a good start to life and then become bitter and self-centered through tragedy or some other experience. Regardless of why they have become dangerous, society is right to prevent these people from gaining the power to harm others.
As I said, I don’t know the context of the Japanese official’s (purportedly) racist comments. I don’t believe it is my place to pass judgment on him. However, it is my responsibility to help those around me grow and mature, as it is to protect those who need protection. This duty rests will each of us. I hope that we are able to strike the right balance in doing it.
by Marti Maltby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong
This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.