Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of the Parkland school shooting and a pro-gun, school safety advocate, recently had his offer to attend Harvard University in the fall rescinded, in response to hateful, racist, and antisemitic comments he made when he was 16. Harvard has taken similar actions toward students in the past and is well within its right to rescind offers. But their decision is emblematic of a concerning trend of public excommunication with broader implications far beyond Kashuv’s situation.
There are many legitimate perspectives on Kashuv’s case. Maybe you find his apology lacking or insincere. Maybe you don’t think he’s grown enough since his awful statements. Maybe you think Harvard is simply behaving appropriately to withdraw his acceptance.
But these beliefs miss the broader point at play. If you decide, as many have, that something bad and hateful – particularly words spoken by someone too young to drive a car – is so terrible as to be irredeemable, you are guaranteed to choke the roots of introspection and personal growth. This is an enormously dangerous precedent to set.
Organized religion – something, perhaps not coincidentally, that is lacking both from our culture and among many on the Left who would see Kashuv removed from polite society – offers a helpful guide for a better approach.
Religions universally have penitentiary and penitential rites. These are important: they guide what someone must do to ask their community for and be granted forgiveness. While they differ from faith to faith, they require a sincere apology and an effort to better oneself for the future. In doing so, they provide a rite of passage to personal growth, allowing people (especially young people) an opportunity to learn and grow from their mistakes. This process teaches moral lessons and imparts wisdom.
And what does society look like without an opportunity for forgiveness? Well, it’s pretty bleak. Without hope for reconciliation, not only is moral maturation stunted, it creates a two-tiered society consisting exclusively of the righteous and the damned. This is particularly dangerous when that forgiveness is credited more to one’s allies than opponents. Kashuv’s comments are horrible. But are they worse than a 24-year-old still-Governor Northam donning blackface (or a Klan robe, he still can’t recall)?
People are imperfect. This is particularly true for adolescents, who have a long way to go on their moral journey. And, critically, everyone is capable of improvement and change. From St. Paul to John Newton and beyond, history is full of honest, earnest, moral growth, even from those who have inarguably committed grave sins.
If we cut off avenues to forgiveness and reconciliation with public society for all past transgressions, we will create a culture that undermines growth, and everyone will suffer as a result. In an era where more and more private actions – vulgar and otherwise – are coming to public attention, we as a society urgently need to grapple with how to handle these situations.
At their core, these cases are about what sins our society finds entirely unforgivable, particularly among those nearly all of us can agree will one day look back and regret what they did or said. Insofar as that list exists, we would all benefit if we collectively ensure that it is as short as possible.
Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C. and a former Republican congressional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives