One of the toughest experiences we can have is to deal with wrongdoing by someone we love. I’m not talking about wrongdoing toward us (though that, too, can be in the “one of the toughest experiences” class). I’m talking about wrongdoing toward others of which we become aware.
Like discovering your parent, your spouse or one of your children has broken the law, or committed a violation of ethics that will endanger his or her education or career.
Family loyalties are pretty powerful things for a lot of us. The expression “blood is thicker than water” doesn’t cut it for me as an adoptive father. Love, I say, is stronger than steel.
There is an instinctive response to defend the one we love. We do so because we don’t want to believe he or she could do anything seriously wrong, or because, even if we know he or she could do something wrong, there’s a powerful impulse to keep others from knowing what we know in order to protect the one we love.
If we are honest, there also is a more selfish dimension to this championing of our loved one’s innocence. It’s called pride, and not the good kind. We don’t want others to think badly of our family members, lest they come to think badly of us.
For all of these reasons, when confronted with an allegation against a beloved family member, we often react with shock and outrage. How dare anyone say that about our . . . !
I’ve known parents to swear up and down that their Jane or Johnny could not possibly have cheated on that exam, plagiarized that paper or stolen that equipment. Their Dan or Dee couldn’t have been drunk, or stoned, and definitely did not knock that other student senseless or have been a party to that sexual . . . “incident.”
These parents’ testimony was rooted, at best, in their personal experience of their Carl or Carla when under their watchful eye, and their hopes that the accusations weren’t true. And often, they were rooted in pride and denial as well.
Such performances by parents are among my most painful memories of a 30+ year career in higher ed. I hated the confrontations, and I was almost sickened by the extraordinary lengths to which some parents would go to claim what they could not know and deny what all the available evidence demonstrated was true. I couldn’t believe the lengths to which some parents would go to prevent their offspring from being held accountable.
So when my own turn came to be “that parent” (and it did come), I tried to remember what it was like to see the situation from the professor, department chair or program administrator’s perspective.
That meant asking tough questions of the one I loved who was in trouble. It meant insisting on honesty in all particulars . . . and accepting that I couldn’t be sure my insistence was being met with compliance.
The toughest part was striking the right balance between being the advocate for my offspring in a system that was seeking to punish them for an alleged infraction (sometimes perhaps justly, sometimes perhaps not) and embracing the necessity of my offspring being accountable for whatever it was he/she had done . . . whatever accountability might cost.
Watching clips from the memorial service in Dallas yesterday prompted these musings. It seems that no matter what leaders do, they get whipsawed by advocates for causes, even in the midst of mourning. Both former President George W. Bush and current President Barack Obama, who sat together with their wives at the memorial service in Dallas in the presence of five tragically empty chairs, were accused or are being accused of picking sides in the current national tragedy . . . and by both “sides.”
I’ve not had anyone close to me die or even be seriously injured in a confrontation with law enforcement. I have attended the funerals and memorial services of colleagues and of a friend who wore the badge and put themselves in harm’s way for our sake.
I’ve also heard, from other friends and colleagues in blue, of abuses committed by officers and of department cultures that were not what they should have been.
I’ve been personally accused of being prejudiced . . . against blacks, and also against whites.
And I have heard, from people in Tampa’s African-American community, of a very public confrontation between a white member of Congress and an African-American member whose corruption needed to be exposed. The white congressman knew the risk to his reputation, the potential to be branded just one more Southern “old boy.” Those who shared this story with me were there, with the white congressman, because they knew he was right, that the corrupt representative needed to be held accountable, and chose to stand with the white congressman to blunt the charge of racism that was sure to come.
Maturity is, in significant part, about accountability. We all should be willing to be held to account, for our expressions and for our actions. Inevitably, because we are human, some will attempt to hold others accountable for things they didn’t do, out of prejudice, or misunderstanding, or misinformation, or quest for political advantage. And sometimes those who are guilty will not be held accountable, for all of the same reasons.
But the standard is accountability. None of us should shy away from our own responsibilities, and none of us should be willing to protect someone from a just accounting, even if that someone is “one of us” or even dear to us.