We humans are all flawed to a greater or lesser degree. I was reminded of this when the Canadian prime minister got himself into a spot of bother when it was exposed that he dressed up on at least three occasions as a brown man, faking an Indian accent. The younger Justin Trudeau had a predilection for 'blacking up' to get in character for various parties he attended. I'm sure most of us can remember doing things in our youth we would rather forget.
I have a friend in her mid-30s, a former heroin addict, who was imprisoned in her youth for drug-related offences. She is an intelligent, remarkable and wise human being. But the pain and shame she endures as a result of her deeds and incarceration are sometimes overwhelming, despite her being a different person now. Her current employers, friends and colleagues don't know of her past as she's learned that telling the truth makes her unemployable and terrified she'll be shunned. She has difficulty getting insurance and a host of other barriers which she'll face for the rest of her life. Society has punished her but won't forgive her. Until it does, her sense of self is fragmented. It's heartbreaking. 'O wad some Power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us!' is the worst line in Burns' poetry.
How should we think about 'oursels' and our past misdeeds? When historic evidence is splashed across social media, what can we do but apologise, offering excuses like 'I was young and stupid' or 'I was drunk at the time' and so forth. But we usually fall back on Trudeau's response, which is to say: 'I'm sorry. I know it's dreadful; but that's not who I am today'.
Something is obviously right about this reply. Although there's a sense in which we are the same people we were 20 years ago, which is why past misdemeanours return to haunt us, there's also a sense in which we are not, or at least potentially not, the same people we are now. People can change. Yet there are problematic implications that are currently playing out in our identity-riven politics. Should we 'see oursels as others see us', or do we get to characterise ourselves on our own terms?
Historically these basic issues to do with 'the self' arise when we ask: who am I? Am I the same person today as I was 20 years ago, particularly if I indulged in embarrassing, wicked or even illegal behaviour whose motivations, as a mature adult, are now inexplicable to me?
In philosophy, the popular sense of personal identity is a matter of identifying those properties to which you have a special attachment. I have lots of properties, to most of which I am indifferent. But some are particularly important in that they give me the sense of who I am. It might be that I'm a combination of a woman, a mother, a music-lover, and so on.
Interestingly, these important properties are changeable: they are contingent in that I might never have had them all. They can also be false. My identity might involve my believing that I am the messiah. Particularly important in the current context of self-identity politics is that your sense of self might not be fully grounded in reality. And this is the heart of the matter concerning self-identity. I cannot demand that you believe of me what you take to be false. For instance, I have no right to demand that you believe that I am the messiah just because I believe I am
the messiah. But in the current climate, liberal of hyper-individualist liberalism, just this sort of demand (not this particular example, you'll understand), is commonplace.
Fascinating as it is, the question of characterisation is not the heart of the philosophical or moral matter. Because what we really want to know in the context of understanding our past misdeeds is whether we are the same people we were before. And this depends not on what we find interesting about ourselves, but on what it to be a person.
A person is usually defined as a human being with certain properties, or the capacity to have those properties. What are they? The popular answers are the following: Being a biological organism; being a living brain; being an immaterial soul; being a bundle of perceptions or mental states and memories; or the denial that there are such things as persons at all.
So, if you are the same biological organism as you were 20 years ago, say, then you are the same person (DNA samples, fingerprints). If you have the same brain as you did back then, you are the same person (this leaves open that changes to neural activity, brought on by medication, therapy or experience, leave you the same person despite undergoing changes in personality and behaviour). If you have the same immaterial soul as you did, then you are the same person. If your bundle of perceptions and memories overlaps with those of 20 years ago, then you are the same person. And, of course, if you never were
a person, then you can't now be the person you never were. Favoured answers shapes attitudes to past misdeeds. Deciding which of these accounts of personhood make sense: the challenging part is which of them lets us truly say: 'That's not who I am now'.
Philosophy does not offer definitive answers, which is why religion and its cultural residues in secular societies plays an important role in cultural and moral life, with forgiveness at its core. This means we must reject the idea that there is no self, no person. Whatever we are needs to be able to change in important respects while remaining fundamentally the same. Otherwise forgiveness makes no sense. My friend, for example, deserves forgiveness. She has paid the price, she is transformed in significant ways, and she now makes a valuable contribution to society.
As for Trudeau, he may be a super-woke liberal, but there's a smell of latent racism in a country once ranked among the most racially tolerant in the world. Canadians perceive themselves as inclusive and free of racial prejudice. Yet, according to the Canadian legal scholar Constance Backhouse, white supremacy is still prevalent in the country's legal system, with blatant racism created and enforced through law. In an article called The Skin I'm In: I've been interrogated by police more than 50 times – all because I'm black
, Desmond Cole describes a Canadian racism which 'contributes to a self-perpetuating cycle of criminalisation and imprisonment'. Mr Trudeau would be well-advised to reflect on the skin he's in before he can be fully forgiven for his juvenile pranks.