And one might ask: what is harmed by generosity and compassion, by a spirit of leniency and flexibility, a pragmatic willingness to acknowledge the impact of past wrongs and present difficulties on individual and collective behavior? Much is harmed. Although I can think of cases in which it seems reasonable to bend a rule because of personal circumstances, I believe that such cases must be exceptional. The effects of our era’s insistence on elective leniency — leniency determined by a sad story as much as by any weighing of evidence, such evidence being almost impossible to calculate — are manifold and deleterious. It need hardly be said that personal responsibility is weakened in a culture in which exceptions are routinely granted for the unfortunate. Who would hold herself responsible for bad behavior or poor choices when the blame can be laid elsewhere (at the feet of the powerful, for example, or society in general)? Perhaps a kind of envy of disadvantage (or at least of faux-disadvantage) will result from the conclusion that hard luck stories are their own useful currency. Such envy may lead — has already led, in some circles — to overt competition amongst the dispossessed just as there used to be competition amongst high-achievers.
Doesn’t nearly everyone have a sad story, after all? If we search hard enough, we can surely find something — the lecherous uncle who made advances, the acne that would not respond to treatment, the aunt’s horrible cancer death — to bring forward as evidence of hardship and resulting maladjustment. And who wouldn’t thus search when the rewards are so immediate and tangible, such as special consideration and power? Why would anyone decisively overcome and then put aside an experience of disadvantage or maltreatment when the social and monetary advantages of re-living the experience are so great and come with so few drawbacks? It was undoubtedly unjust in a previous era to be made to feel shame about misfortune, especially misfortune beyond one’s control, but it is equally damaging, if less obviously so, to feel a socially sanctioned affirmation in it, a comfortable conviction of absolution and innocence. Those who are not compelled to take responsibility for their failures are ultimately prevented from taking responsibility for their achievements as well. And a society that encourages its members to define themselves according to helplessness in the face of adversity — whether large-scale injustice or personal bad luck — is one that no longer believes in greatness.
The worst of it is not only that people stop believing in themselves and in one another through a massive lowering of expectations. The worst is that they also stop believing in the institutions that underpin our civil society: the school system, the police, the courts, and government. When the rule of law is flouted, when institutional practice is dictated by personal whim, and when truth is replaced by narratives of exculpatory victimization, then the basis of our liberal democracy, with its commitment to individualism and equality, is imperiled. Our very values — the distinction between right and wrong, good and bad — become blurred and imprecise. Although we may all be grateful to have a fine reduced at the discretion of a police officer, the money we save in the moment — in that freeing but demoralizing moment of confession and absolution — will cost us dearly in the end.
Everyone has a story. What we need is equal treatment before the law, and an affirmation of merit and truth.