Dr. Fred Luskin in his book “Learning to Forgive” argued for the importance of forgiveness and for your health. His study conducted on Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland discovered that those who had been taught to forgive forgave a lot easier and felt a lot less emotional stress throughout their lives. We all know this to be true as a matter of common sense, yet even while fighting for higher goods we often fall into patterns of vengefulness and anger in response to wrongs – both perceived and real – which denigrate the very causes for which we strive. Whilst we may tell each other that it is right to forgive and that vengefulness is for the cold and bitter, many among us who fight for that which we perceive to be justice rarely find their way on a path of forgiveness. This is especially true when someone has committed an egregiously awful act, whether that’s sexual harassment, gross violence, or even a capital crime such as murder.
According to the principles of forgiveness, as illustrated by philosophers and religious teachers down the ages we should be able to forgive anyone. But in reality, as with so many moral principles, this is honoured more in the breach than in the observance. If someone commits multiple murders they are likely to spend the rest of their life in prison or even face the electric chair in some countries. If there are tweets from years ago that are found on your social media, you’ll likely be paraded through the court of public opinion and hounded from your job rather than given a fair hearing. Sexual crimes against children are certainly acts that are never forgiven, but is there a chance of redemption? The celebrity sexual harassment scandal certainly illustrates that at the moment there is no room for forgiveness in our society. Do we pass a point of no return, where there is no way to make amends for the lives we have damaged, and the person that we have become? Are some destined to spend their lives in sin, watching the world go by from jail cells, hiding from public view and the chance to reintegrate with wider society.
In the case of the recent sexual harassment allegations made against celebrities and politicians many may wish to avoid forgiveness as it could be seen to make excuses for the accused and encourage further transgressions. Many of those accused have managed to get away with their actions for so long as a result of their position of power and people around them trivialising or silencing the allegations. Accusations such as unwanted touching and sexual harassment have quite often been brushed off as banter that has been interpreted the wrong way which has prevented these individuals from ever coming anywhere close to justice. In this case, a lack of forgiveness may deter others from committing these offenses and give the individuals time to reflect on their actions, rather than having their actions trivialised. Given the severe circumstances and events that the victims have faced over multiple years is it really fair to ask them to forgive? But does that prevent us as a society from forgiving them, and if so should we? To say that one day they may be forgiven is also very different from saying we should forgive them today.
There’s a long path that we must walk in the pursuit of forgiveness but are we preventing anyone from walking down that path at all? Aziz Anzari’s behaviour, for instance, was unacceptable, yet it is less severe than many of the accused and therefore far more forgivable. A lot of men remained quiet when they heard of Aziz Anzari’s actions perhaps that was because they didn’t believe his actions were that bad, perhaps it’s because they know of friends that have committed those acts and are now revaluating or perhaps they’ve done similar things themselves. For a while now there has been a level of sexual harassment that is in no way justifiable but essentially common place. There are few women who have been on a night out that can recall a time where a man hasn’t smacked them on the bottom. These men know what they are doing is wrong in a way that’s arguably a lot worse than Anzari’s actions but amongst their social groups it’s perceived as a bit of banter. I have very little sympathy for men like this but perhaps we need to tackle the culture that has permitted them to believe this behaviour is acceptable and have the men that have committed these acts become the men that speak out against them. For too often social reform preaches to the choir instead of those that don’t want to hear it. So perhaps the sexual harassment scandal has made us less forgiving, perhaps at the moment that’s not a bad thing but eventually we must reform the way many men act.
When we look at the impact of the internet and how it has shaped the way in which we grant forgiveness we can see that the ability of certain groups to band together in lynch mob fashion and the fact that a Buzzfeed journalist can bring up a single tweet from 10 years ago that paints you in a negative light perhaps we are becoming less forgiving. Only saints and liars claim that they’ve never said anything that you later realise could be deemed offensive or bigoted. In the past we’d say something around a group of our friends and then later regret or forget what we said after our values and views have been altered. Social media throws a spanner in the works here as we realise that a lot of people have said very offensive things a long time ago. What would have once gone unnoted gets noticed by one person who rallies the entire liberal world to demonstrate how abhorrent you once were. People are then ridiculed as bigots and have to do everything in their power to apologise to avoid complete isolation from their peers and the world. That’s not to say their actions were right, and that its better when this behaviour goes unchallenged, but it is to say people need to be cut a little bit of slack.
An individual’s history should not weigh them down for the rest of their lives, some people are in a privileged position to be surrounded by good people and have a good upbringing whilst others have upbringings and social circles which cause them to think that what is wrong is right. For example if you grow up surrounded by people who are racist and sexist you will likely be racist and sexist, if you grow up with people who aren’t racist or sexist then you will unlikely become sexist. If you as a ‘good’ person take pleasure in watching ‘bad’ people suffer, then your own morality must fall into question. For the very notion of good people and bad people is fallacious, based in the ideals of religion and perpetuated by Disney. Sometimes people know what they do is wrong but we should look at why they commit these actions and how to prevent further actions from occurring, instead of trying to dehumanise them. For the more we attempt to dehumanise someone, the less human they become. They fall into a perpetual circle of committing sin after sin, it is our role not to cast more stones but offer a chance of redemption.
Whilst the conversation of due process and the benefit of the doubt is slightly different to the issue of forgiveness it ties into the idea that we have become far more judgemental than we once were. Many crimes such as sexual harassment or rape have gone completely unpunished throughout history and to this present day. Which means that people are quite often quick to pass their own judgement on actions such as these, with a lack of due process. Carl Sergeant became a true casualty of this trend as he committed suicide after facing allegations of sexual harassment. Perhaps he did commit those acts and perhaps he didn’t but the Welsh Government did not give him enough time to explain himself before being fired. Although the Welsh Government aren’t entirely to blame, the lack of consideration that we as society now take to consider allegations such as these before branding an individual a sexual deviant played a part, along with having a highly unforgiving world. There have been comments on social media I have seen which almost applaud his death as a victory for a more equal world, which reminds us how movements that fight for a more just world frequently feature individuals who are anything but just. Both the French and Russian Revolution which were fought in the name of morality and justice yet the abuse of these principles was paramount. As those who perceive themselves as righteous seldom believe they are capable of committing an immoral act when it is in the name of justice. That’s not to say that the #metoo campaign, the French and the Russian revolutions should be perceived as unjust movements but it is to say that we must be wary of injustice that paints itself as justice. As Madame Roland once remarked “O Liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!”
We vilify individuals who commit abhorrent acts, we see them as less than human because we don’t see how we could ever commit such damage to an individual, but as much as you may believe you are different from any immoral person, whether it’s a sexual predator, paedophile, murderer its always important to step back every now and then and think “if I experienced life the way they had, would I have committed similar acts”. Perhaps you’ll want to lie to yourself and say that you wouldn’t but I would argue that free will is a myth, we are nothing but products of nature and our surroundings. Perhaps we have to live in a world where we are all celebrities and anyone can scrutinise any aspect of our past but maybe we can move beyond that and offer everyone a helping hand on the path to redemption.