by Josh Sternberg
Michael Vick could be the best thing to happen to the American reputation in quite some time. His heinous acts of violence and horrific judgment were undeniably stupid. But the lesson learned is not about dogfighting or about why individuals do stupid things. It’s about the nature of our society.
America can show the world that we are not only a nation of law, but also a society of forgiveness – that someone could commit a crime, spend their time in a rehabilitation facility and come out to be a productive member of society. We all have made mistakes, some larger than others. But in the end, we all subscribe to the belief that if we make amends, the past becomes just that: the past. We hope to learn from our errors so that we don’t repeat the harm we did to others. While there are certain individuals who never reform or show remorse for their actions, a vast majority of the people in our society are able to overcome their indiscretions and become functional members of society. From the highest elected office in the land to the neighbor next door, people have broken laws and rules, but in the end, the American society usually forgives. “Time heals all wounds” is an apt (and oft-used) cliché because it’s true.
We are participating in one of the longest running experiments in human history. When our nation was founded, self-rule was a largely untested concept. Granted, only certain people could vote (white, land-owning males) but that’s not the point (right now). We were the first country to begin with “We, the people” and our experiment in democracy was a long shot to succeed, especially since what our founding fathers knew was based in monarchy or oligarchy and was not a representative republic.
As we’ve progressed as a nation (women’s rights, civil rights, etc…and yes, we still have a long way to go), we’ve also evolved as a species. Maybe not in the Darwinian/genetic case (although there are studies that indicate we, indeed, have) but more from an emotional perspective. What once offended us or was considered taboo is now part of the mainstream. And of course, what offends us now most likely didn’t exist 200+ years ago. Over past 100 years or so, the U.S. has been regarded as a leader – technological, legal, political, and up until the latter part of the 20th century, moral.
We started to lose our moral compass once we became the first nation in the world to use a weapon of mass destruction. While I would never want to have to be the person to make a decision to kill 200,000 to save 200,000,000, the day we dropped The Bomb was the day our moral footing started to give.
We continued down this path through Vietnam and through the ’80s, where we propped up nations because we were afraid that a political ideology would infect us like a deadly disease. In the ’90s, we ignored atrocities around the world and we all know what’s happened since 9/11. But there has always been a glimmer of hope because when all’s said and done, no matter what our elected leaders do, the resiliency of the American people is too strong to quiet.
Maybe because our nation is deeply rooted (whether we believe or not) in the Judeo/Christian philosophy of treating your neighbors like you would want them to treat you, maybe because we spend our days thinking about how to pay the bills and buy food rather than in debating policy, or maybe because humans can be inherently good, we’ve become a society that is eager to forgive.
We live in a constant state of dialectic tension, which communications theorist Leslie Baxter defines as “a result of the conflicting emotional needs felt by the participants of any relationship, who experience tugs and pulls causing relationships to be in a constant state of flux.” For example, after we graduate college, we want to be independent of our parents, but yet we still ask them for money to pay our rent. We communicate to ease this tension. While this theory is rooted in the philosophical dialectic, I believe it can be incorporated for the masses, too.
We love an underdog; whether on film or on the sports field, an audience loves to root for the little guy. Rocky. Rudy. Bill Clinton. It has become the quintessential American story, right? We love getting behind the underdog and propping them up until they are at the top of their game. And then, for some reason, we love tearing them down. We love seeing the fall as much as we love seeing the rise. But once the fall comes, as it inevitably does, the audience is right there to offer support and help the underdog work his/her way back up. Maybe not all the way to the top, but at least off the bottom.
Now, I’m not arguing that we caused Michael Vick to become a dog killer. That’s on him and it’s something he has to deal with. But we helped push him along this path with our insatiable need to see our heroes fall. We didn’t pull the trigger, but we definitely loaded the gun. But that was in the past.
We may not forget, but we do forgive. And when a person does his time for committing a crime we should embrace forgiveness. Because if we don’t, then our society is a sham. We set up prisons for the idealistic goal of reforming disturbing and disruptive behavior. But we also set up prisons for the realistic goal of keeping bad people away from the good people. If we were to reach for the ideal and achieve the goal of rehabilitation, who are we to condemn someone for past sins against humanity (or in this case, caninity?) So we forgive. Because if we don’t, we are mocking our penal system, which in turn mocks our society’s values and norms.
This is why Michael Vick should be allowed to play in the NFL. He lost two years of his life because he was stupid. But he went through the system that we created and hopefully he makes something of his second chance. Because that’s what we need. We need the fallen idol, now underdog, to rise again or our nation falls, too.
Josh Sternberg founded Sternberg Strategic Communications by using traditional and digital approaches to help clients understand who they are and how to get their messages to the right audiences. Josh has honed his professional communications skills at a couple of NYC firms, including Stanton Crenshaw Communications. Prior to entering the real world, Josh taught several communications courses at William Paterson University and Montclair State University, both in New Jersey. On Twitter, Josh is @josh_sternberg