Not in our family
Back in the 1970s, a progressive TV sitcom poked fun at certain members of an older generation for their prejudices and beliefs, at the same time revealing a glimpse of the humanity that could sometimes shine through the tough, stained exterior of a bigot.
The family portrayed in All in the Family consisted of Archie Bunker, a man full of more bunk than one would have thought possible, his clueless but loveable wife Edith, their flighty daughter Gloria, and their radical son-in-law Michael (aka “Meathead”). It was a cast of stereotypes brought together to crush other stereotypes.
All in the Family was a phenomenon. It ran for nine seasons, and was literally at the top of the Nielsen ratings — the most-watched TV show in America — for five consecutive years.
The opinions expressed by Archie were decidedly backward. He was an uncouth bigot who relentlessly stereotyped women, gays, African Americans, Latinos, Jews, you name it.
Yet, we loved to watch him, even though he couldn’t comprehend the changes in attitudes and behaviors that were occurring in America in the 1960s and ‘70s. He was an embarrassment to his daughter, but he was still her Daddy. She loved him, and he still loved her (and yes, in a way, his son-in-law).
Archie helped us see how senseless and baseless racist, sexist and anti-Semitic views were, but we could laugh at them coming from a poor, uneducated, backward older white man, knowing that the world he represented was quickly changing and he was the one being left behind.
And yet, even as we tuned in each week to laugh with our family and friends at whatever outrageous opinions Archie would spout this time, we all knew that certain members of our own families or workplace shared some of Archie’s beliefs. We might even occasionally have thought to ourselves, “Gee, do I sometimes say or think that?”
In its over-the-top way, the show and its immense popularity generated a subtle pressure on people to change their attitudes, open their minds and see things from another perspective.
And perhaps most importantly, All in the Family helped us see that by laughing at others (and ourselves), we could more easily let go of opinions and attitudes that didn’t withstand scrutiny in today’s world.
My, how times have changed!
We no longer laugh at bigots, or even make allowances for bigoted behavior that may have taken place years ago at a time when standards were very different.
It’s one thing when the behavior rises to the level of abuse of others, or when the behavior has continued into the present day. Here, I’m thinking of the parade of Hollywood execs whose appalling treatment of starlets and others was so recently splashed across the papers almost daily.
But more recently, we have learned of people in high positions whose insensitive acts appear to have occurred long ago. And yet, they may not only be ostracized or criticized for it, but can lose their jobs, their reputations, their fortunes, their past awards and honors, and even their friends.
Certainly, past ill behavior raises a question about a person’s character, which is not some ephemeral thing, but rather should reflect a person’s core values.
Even so, don’t we also believe that people make poor decisions sometimes? And that they can change their attitudes and behavior, sincerely apologize for past insensitivity, learn from their mistakes and, at some point, do sufficient penance, or show evidence of a new heart, so that they deserve some type of forgiveness?
In individual cases we may decide a particular person or behavior does not deserve to be forgiven. But to close off the very possibility of forgiveness — what is called today zero-tolerance, even of past sins — seems too harsh to me.
Is that really a standard we can all live with? Especially when the list of behaviors now seen as irredeemable seems to grow by the day.
We can — and should — raise our standards and boost our expectations of our leaders over time. But as we do so, we need to remember we are all human, and that means we all have failings.
That, to me, was one of the chief takeaways from the All in the Family sitcom. Every character had failings galore, in one area or another. But even so, they all remained family.
Those were the days…