I grew up in a conservative town on the other side of the state — the type of town where you can’t go more than a block or two without being able to see another church. Beginning at the end of elementary school, I was inundated with the use of words like “fag” and “queer” by my friends and teammates. Without fully understanding the implications of these words, I used them myself in making jokes or using them as a casual insult, accepting it simply as part of the world. As I grew older, however, I began to understand the context surrounding these words. The understanding of what the words meant, however, sadly did not stop me from using them at that point in my life. I deeply regret the days I spent using those hateful words, and the underlying assumption behind them — that I did not accept the people those words were used to persecute. While my views and behaviors did change, I will never be able to change those years. Should I be forgiven?
Does change beget forgiveness? If one repudiates ideas, evolves with the times, should that earn your respect (and maybe even your vote)? Because politicians live their lives in the spotlight, should we hold them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves?
Now, these thoughts might seem to be worth more than your penny, and philosophical in nature, but they are very important questions at the present moment. We are not far from the most important political event of the next four years: our nation’s presidential election, which is just under a year away.
In political campaigns (like the ones currently underway), candidates often attack each other by identifying who their opponent used to be in relation to who they currently are, selectively choosing focus points for their own benefit. If one candidate never changes, but stays true to their ideals, the opposition will tout them as resistant to change. If they change their thought as public opinion shifts and new arguments are brought to the table, they will be marked as not sticking to their morals or being inconsistent.
Hillary Clinton is at the center of questions and attacks like this. As she is herself a centrist/moderate Democrat, she opens herself to attacks from both the left and the right. The right attacks her for changing her opinions on issues such as same-sex marriage and criminal justice reform. The left, for not changing her opinions earlier.
“I believe marriage is not just a bond, but a sacred bond between a man and a woman,” she said in 2004 as a senator who initially opposed same-sex marriage. Then abruptly in 2013, as potential candidates were beginning to increase the frequency of their speeches and public appearances, she became a supporter of same-sex marriage. Her timing happened to match up exactly with when those in favor of same-sex marriage became the majority in the nation.
Her views on sentencing laws and criminal justice in general have also changed over the years, and quite radically. Here’s Clinton in 1994 when her husband campaigned for the now infamous three-strikes law: “We need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders. The three strikes and you’re out for violent offenders has to be part of the plan. We need more prisons…” But in 2013, as other candidates for 2016 began to let their positions be known, her views changed as she began to talk about “ending the era of mass incarceration.”
All the evidence I’ve presented so far points to one conclusion: that she is making these points for political purposes — that she does not truly care, but instead is just saying these things to win office. But consider my story of change, or one of your own. The truth is that we all change. Our minds expand as we meet new people and learn new things. Sometimes change is abrupt and sometimes change takes time. Sometimes it’s small and other times it’s monumental. Humans have understood for millennia that the only thing constant in life is change.
And, luckily, even politicians change. While I am unsure of who I will support in the coming election, I can believe that Clinton’s ideas on these subjects have changed and that they might have taken almost two decades to do so. It took me many years to change my views on the use of word like “fag” and “queer,” and I was not raised in her time, nor in her environment. And there is some evidence that her positions on both issues may have begun to change much earlier — for instance, in 2007 (in the middle of another political campaign), when she was commenting on criminal justice reform, she said, “I want to have a thorough review of all of the penalties, of all the kinds of sentencing, and, more importantly, start having more diversion and having more second-chance programs.”
But evidence of earlier change does not erase the fact that her stances contributed to irreparable damage to the lives of millions of Americans, robbing them in turn of time and happiness. Her words and support helped increase the amount of their children’s birthdays parents missed in prison, or decreased the amount of years two mothers could spend together, bound in holy matrimony.
I’ve posed many questions in this column, and answered fewer. Your impression is all that’s left. All I can hope is that my words spur you to investigate further, that they might encourage you to expose yourself to information that challenges your views, and that you might be open to changing your own mind once in awhile.
Connor Kippe can be reached at email@example.com.