Author of Identities and Inequalities, McGraw Hill
Americans love a good second chance story. It’s inspiring when someone treacherous, flawed, and seemingly defeated turns their life around. But are second chances available to all who seek them, as our “everybody deserves a second chance” cultural rhetoric implies?
I have been studying second chances for nearly a decade (Newman, 2020). What I have found is that second chances reflect the paradoxical and parallel existence of two widespread but contradictory cultural narratives about our ability (or inability) to change. On the one hand, there is the optimistic second chance narrative that emphasizes the promise of redemption. On the other hand, we have the less publicized but equally powerful permanent stigma narrative that emphasizes the durability of shame that individuals who somehow “break the rules” must endure. The incongruous coexistence of these two narratives can be seen, for instance, in a literary tradition that simultaneously celebrates books like A Christmas Carol (about redemption and second chances) and The Scarlet Letter (about permanent stigma and disgrace).
Despite the feel-good cultural message that surrounds second chances, and the myriad real-world examples of people who have successfully taken advantage of them, the permanent stigma narrative endures. Punitive zero-tolerance policies, a perpetually vigilant Internet that retains every character blemish and misbehavior, laws that limit the residential and occupational opportunities of ex-felons, and entrenched community stereotypes about certain types of malefactors provide clear examples of how the permanent stigma narrative has become institutionalized.
People surely want second chances—expect them, plead for them, receive them, and try to make the best of the opportunities they provide. But while presented rhetorically in everyday life as a universal right, the second chance experience is actually an earned privilege enjoyed only by those deemed to have the requisite “qualifications” to render them sufficiently deserving. When we begin to think of second chances this way—as a privilege, not a right—they become potentially unjust and troublesome. Judgments of a person’s deservedness are always a function of both individual traits and social identifiers. Hence, second chance opportunities can be influenced by the stratified components of our social selves that regularly affect our everyday experiences: chiefly race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and sexuality. These identifiers—and the pre-judged impressions they create—may be just as influential in the decision to “grant” a second chance as the “unfortunate” behavior itself.
For instance, drug scares that primarily involve poor people of color (such as the “crack epidemic” of the 1980s) have typically been treated with contempt. The media has often framed them as examples of individual misbehavior and moral breakdown. The cultural and legal responses tend to be punitive rather than redemptive. Yet drug scares that are thought to principally affect working-class or middle-class whites (the current opioid epidemic, for example) are frequently described as “diseases of despair” (Case & Deaton, 2015), evoking a considerably more therapeutic and compassionate outlook:
America has never been able to decide whether addicts are victims or criminals, whether addiction is an illness or a crime . . . Some addicts get pitied, others get blamed. . . . White addicts get their suffering witnessed. Addicts of color get punished. Celebrity addicts get posh rehab with equine therapy. Poor addicts get hard time. Someone carrying crack gets five years in prison, while someone driving drunk gets a night in jail, even though drunk driving kills more people every year than cocaine (Jamison, 2018, p. 63).
Gender can likewise influence our desire to forgive and our judgment of deservedness. Consider the divergent arcs of two Silicon Valley executives—one male and one female—who faced legal action in the past few years. Both were extremely wealthy (a trait typically associated with second-chance privilege), yet their experiences were vastly different. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, was charged with massive securities fraud. Later, he faced accusations of sexual misconduct and angry blowback from public health officials for spreading COVID misinformation. But to date, Musk has not suffered. He is still running his companies, is on the cusp of buying Twitter for $44 billion, is considered to be the richest person on Earth, and even hosted Saturday Night Live. It’s not that Musk received a second chance; he hasn’t even needed one.
Then there is Elizabeth Holmes. She was the founder of Theranos, a now-defunct blood-testing company. Forbes magazine once named Holmes the youngest and wealthiest self-made female billionaire in America. Like Musk, she was charged with fraud after revelations that she had lied about the company’s ability to perform hundreds of medical tests with a single drop of blood. In 2022, a jury convicted her of four counts of fraud, and she now faces the possibility of a 20-year prison sentence. Many have called her the most hated woman in America. She’s been vilified for single-handedly setting female entrepreneurs’ progress toward financial parity back 50 years. She continues to cast a shadow of skepticism over every other woman seeking to start a healthcare tech company (Griffith, 2021). Her media presence includes no Saturday Night Live gigs, just an incriminating documentary and a scathing Hulu limited series.
Musk’s and Holmes’s transgressions may not have been equally destructive. However, their stories (as well as those of people from different races or classes) reflect the quintessential cultural paradox of the second chance—a concept that is simple in its rhetoric and knotty in its implementation. It is a concept that represents the kind-hearted pinnacle of our shared hopes for renewal, while at the same time it reminds us of the sometimes unforgiving ways we determine others’ deservedness and our darkest suspicions about the intransigence of human nature.
Questions for Discussion:
Can you think of a time in your life when you gave someone a second chance? What factors led you to conclude that they deserved such an opportunity?
Why do you think the idea of second chances is more appealing than the actual provision of them?
In what ways does the assessment of second chance deservedness work its way into law and public policy?
Case, A., & Deaton, A. (2015). Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112, 15078-83.
Griffith, E. (2021). They still live in the shadows of Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes. The New York Times. November 14. Retrieved June 20, 2022 from www.nytimes.com/2021/08/24/technology/theranos-elizabeth-holmes.html
Jamison, L. (2018). The recovering: Intoxication and its aftermath (Kindle Edition). New York: Little Brown.
Newman, D. M. (2019). A culture of second chances: The promise, practice, and price of starting over in everyday life. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.