Archived Story

Celebrities can be forgiven for being human

Published 9:53am Friday, July 5, 2013

Column: Notes From Home, by David Behling

Paula Deen is not a bad person, despite what you’ve read on Facebook. She’s naive, yes, and a bit clueless when it comes to using racial and ethnic slurs when she’s talking to people. But I refuse to believe that this makes her an unredeemable villain.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I do not care for the food that Deen showcased on TV and in her restaurants (except for maybe a crispy platter of fried chicken once in a great while). When we lived in Texas for a time, my parents rented a house on the “wrong side of the racial tracks,” and we ate a lot of soul food (the other kind of real Southern cooking … which also has chicken on the menu). But it’s obvious that Deen is an amazing chef, with real gifts for both storytelling and cooking a wide variety of dishes.

Did Deen use some bad, hurtful words? Absolutely. She did indeed. Without realizing it, she may also have created a workplace that felt hostile for dark-skinned employees. But I refuse to jump on the dog pile that has buried her and her reputation. In fact, if I had the strength to reach into the pile, grab her arm and pull her out to freedom, I would do it.

What has really taken my breath away is the speed at which she has plummeted from her perch amidst the glitterati class. It shouldn’t have, though. It’s an extreme example of schadenfreude — the experience of joy at others’ pain and suffering.

When it comes to public figures, the ones we adore, the quickness of their fall seems inevitable. We put them up so high on such tiny pedestals that when they make the slightest misstep, down they plummet onto the sharpened titanium stakes at the bottom of a pit we’ve dug for them.

On the other hand, the speed at which the Food Network, Walmart, Target and all those other companies dumped Deen could be related to something else. Those companies may be especially sensitive to racial and ethnic divisions right now, after the Supreme Court’s decision about the protection of voting rights. The ugly legacy of 300 years of sanctioned slavery and apartheid in the South is back in the news, and corporate America does not want to get contaminated.

But enough about schadenfreude or the political context (or subtext); the real issue here is forgiveness.

We live in what many Americans loudly insist is a (so-called) Christian nation, governed by (so-called) Christian principles. Now I know that more secular readers are already thinking that’s absolutely not true. And they are right. (Please note the awkward use of parentheses in that sentence).

In reality, we are no more Christ-like in our society or government than any other society on Earth. In fact, when it comes to certain attitudes and decisions — placing bureaucratic burdens on the poor and making it easier for the rich to get richer, for example — we might be less Christ-like.

Forgiveness is one of those key areas where Christ-like behavior is notably missing from American society. Oh, it happens sometimes if it’s politically or economically convenient — think about the powerful male politicians who were “forgiven” after spending time with hookers or other women who weren’t their wives, for example.

Most of the time, however, we appear to embrace the idea that mistakes define people — forever. From this perspective, human beings are capable of learning and changing only until we do something bad. Then somehow we lose the ability to become better persons as a result of our experiences. We’re allowed one chance to be considered a good person, and once we’ve blown it, there’s no redemption.

This is not about a trivial version of forgiveness for minor errors. This is about the big things: extortion, adultery, murder. Forgiving people who have caused harm is difficult; it doesn’t mean forgetting. I suspect that the difficulties posed by true forgiveness are why the concept of forgiveness lies near the heart of so many different forms of spirituality.

Difficult should not mean impossible, however. People do change, often in very fundamental ways. The ability to forgive allows those who have made mistakes, even very big ones, to learn from their mistakes and reenter the human community. And those of us doing the forgiving are given a chance to learn, too, from their mistakes, but also about the importance of mercy and compassion.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.