So Jeremy Clarkson, apparently, made a “mistake.” I’m kind of interested in the use of the word; even articles and comments that think the BBC made the right decision are using it. And I can see the reasoning; he may have technically committed a crime but he’s not been charged with anything so that word doesn’t quite fit, “sin” just has too many religious overtones, and “misdeed” sounds archaic.
But am I alone in feeling that “mistake,” just doesn’t quite do it? A “mistake” is an error, a lapse in judgement. Mr. Clarkson’s action was definitely that, but doesn’t verbally abusing and punching one of your co-workers in the face deserve a word that’s a little more, I don’t know, judgy?
Then there’s Monica Lewinski. Who also made a “mistake.” Now, please understand that I was very impressed by her TED talk, I do not think she deserved what happened to her in the least, there are a number of things I did at the age of around twenty-two that I am now ashamed of, and if we are going to apportion blame then frankly the power inequality demands that Clinton takes 99.9% of it.
However, if we take the definition of a wrong action as being something that hurts someone, then her affair with Clinton probably qualifies. If I was married to someone who “did not have sexual relations” with another party in so spectacular a fashion I’d be extremely upset with them but I also think I'd feel I'd been wronged by the other party. So am I wrong in feeling that ”mistake” just isn’t quite the right word?
Now, I and my Facebook friends are hugely judgmental about a whole range of different kinds of people all the time, including, but not limited to, homophobes, Republicans, racists, and people with a shaky grasp of science. So clearly, in some circumstances, we feel that being judgmental – laying blame – is just fine. But in other circumstances we feel it isn’t. And while the position of the boundary between the two is a very personal thing, what seems to be intolerable is the possibility of a gray area.
I am anticipating that there might be people that take exception to my claim that Lewinski did something wrong. (There may also be people who take exception to my claim that Clarkson did something wrong, but I shan’t lose sleep over them.) It almost seems that what we have here is an idea that once someone has done something wrong, they’re irrevocably stained. It’s apparently ok to be judgmental about, say, racists because they are so close to irredeemable that there’s no real possibility of them being admitted back into the ranks of decent human beings; but it’s not ok to admit the possibility that someone might have once done something a bit wrong but that it merits understanding and forgiveness. So we use the word “mistake” instead of “wrong,” even about ourselves, because otherwise we are condemning the perpetrator (or ourselves) to something that begins to sound like eternal damnation.
Have we lost the idea of forgiveness? Not necessarily the explicitly Christian idea of repentance washing away sin, but the idea that the legal system allows a way of paying one’s debt to society, or that rehabilitation and restoration are possible, or the idea that some behaviors can be wrong but also understandable?
I hope not. As I say, there’s a few things I did at around the age of twenty-two, not to mention other ages, that I’d prefer to think merit forgiveness.