Blinded By the Light

Teens and young adults who receive encouragement and support from important people in their lives, perhaps especially parents, typically emerge on the other end of this developmental dilemma with a "self" intact and ready to move on to adulthood.
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The new year has already served up at least two high-profile incidents of successful people embarrassing themselves. That is if we don't count Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber's resignation in the face of a firestorm of protest over his fiancée's conflict-of-interest scandal, which seems to be more about her than him. Also unlike the Oregonian uproar -- in which the governor remained defiant to the end -- the public sagas of pop superstar Justin Bieber and NBC News icon Brian Williams found both seeking forgiveness and, it seems, redemption.

Atoning on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and later in a video online for a long list of foibles and problematic behavior, the Biebs offered, "Just being young and growing up in this business is hard," and suggested that his well-publicized imbroglios, including alleged alcohol and other drug use, impaired driving and assault, resulted from an effort to cover up his true feelings.

Sounds like an adolescent to me.

Indeed, as young people move toward adulthood, they are developmentally designed to "try out" differing identities, both to conceal inner tumult and, more to the point, to figure out whom they are. Psychologist Erik Erikson described this phase as "identity vs. role confusion," the fifth of eight stages of psychosocial development.

In her book Raise Your Kids Right, psychologist Lonnie Carton (1980) likened this process to Goldilocks' search for porridge of the correct temperature.

Some kids choose it too soon (foreclosure) while others simply put off the search (role confusion). From a psychological perspective, those who successfully arrive at identity formation engage in a comparative analysis of other identities to which they are exposed and then test them out through appearance and behavior to see how others react.

Teens and young adults who receive encouragement and support from important people in their lives, perhaps especially parents, typically emerge on the other end of this developmental dilemma with a "self" intact and ready to move on to adulthood.

Those who don't may flounder and fail.

In his narrative, Brian Williams "conflated" differing combat events during his coverage of the Iraq war into a story he now reports was untrue. That revelation resulted in a well-known apology, self-isolation and, ultimately, a six-month suspension from the nightly newscast he served as anchor and managing editor. Since that time, and while NBC News conducts its own internal review, other stories of possible exaggeration by Williams have come to light, calling into question such things as where he was, what he saw and whom he met.

Some have suggested that Williams was trying to burnish his image or even "glorify" his experiences. But likely, nobody knows for sure. Maybe not even Brian.

For many, the real question is: What comes next? And, does the sword-falling taking place in Los Angeles and New York warrant the granting of do-overs to a musician and a newsman?

David Brooks of The New York Times, in a recent Op-Ed titled "The Act of Rigorous Forgiving," argues that the fabric of our society would be stronger if we repaired rather than severed relationships with those who commit misdeeds.

Similar themes can be found in increasingly popular disciplinary approaches that favor "restorative" rather than "retributive" justice. In theory, this paradigm forges stronger relationships, as Brooks suggests. In practice, restorative justice compels the "perpetrator" to right his or her wrongs by making amends, including to all those who have been offended or affected.

In the end, the lack of analogs between the Bieber and Williams situations, not to mention a 35-year age gap, may very well dictate different responses from a fan base and a news corporation. Nevertheless, both tell a cautionary tale about the potentially blinding light of stardom and an opportunity for introspection about what Brooks calls our "coliseum culture," in which barbarism incites ostracization and, eventually, merciless purging.

It sounds awful. Perhaps we all need a do-over.


Brooks, D. (2015). The act of rigorous forgiving. February 10, 2015. The New York Times. (18 Feb. 2015).

Brown, P. L. (2013). Opening up, students transform a vicious circle. April 3, 2013. The New York Times. (18 Feb. 2015).

Carton, L. (1980). Raise your kids right: candid advice to parents on how to say no. New York: Putnam. 1980.

Eleveld, K. (2015). Brian Williams faces calls for resignation after distorting his involvement in Iraq War incident. February 6, 2015. Daily Kos. (18 Feb. 2015).

Ellen. (2015). Ellen's birthday show with Kanye West, Sam Smith & more. January 29, 2015. The Ellen DeGeneres Show. (18 Feb. 2015).

Engel, P. and N. Bertrand. (2015). 3 events Brian Williams is suspected of lying about. February 13, 2015. Business Insider. (18 Feb. 2015).

Mahler, J., Somaiya, R. and E. Steel. (2015). With an apology, Brian Williams digs himself deeper in copter tale. February 5, 2015. The New York Times. (18 Feb. 2015).

Maresca, R. and J. Molinet. (2015). Justin Bieber apologizes in an emotional video after "Ellen DeGeneres" appearance: I'm not who I was pretending to be. January 29, 2015. New York Daily News. (18 Feb. 2015).

Sebens, S. (2015). Oregon governor resigns amid ethics scandal involving fiancée. February 13, 2015. Reuters. (18 Feb. 2015).

Sokol, J. (2009). Identity development throughout the lifetime: an examination of Eriksonian theory. March 1, 2009. Graduate Journal of Counseling Psychology. Marquette University. (18 Feb. 2015).

Wallace, S. (2014). A circle of support: restorative justice at summer camp. May/June 2014. Camping Magazine. (18 Feb. 2015).

Weinberg, A. (2015). John Kitzhaber resigns: Oregon governor quits over conflict-of-interest scandal. February 13, 2015. ABC News. (18 Feb. 2015).

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