Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Paradox of Forgiveness

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and one episode that came out of a few days ago has really got my brain churning. Just as I get much more out of books by writing reviews when I'm finished, I think I'll get more out of podcasts if I review them as well. This review is long, so the most important bits I put in red type. Cut to those if you want the highlight reel.

The episode I'm reviewing today is from a podcast called Philosophy Bites, which is an excellent little podcast I highly recommend. The producer interviews various working philosophers on intriguing questions of our day, such as whether killing in war is justifiable, whether it's morally acceptable to put limits on the benefits we give our children, and whether it's ever acceptable to use genetic manipulation to select or deselect desirable traits in children. As the title promises, all the interviews are short, usually around 15 minutes. If you want to listen, you can click on the "listen" link on the site, or you can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or another podcast player like Beyond Pod.

Philosopher Lucy Allais
The most recent Philosophy Bites, an interview with philosopher Lucy Allais, is about forgiveness. What is forgiveness? Whom does it benefit? Is it ever obligatory? If these questions intrigue you and you want more than a Philosophy Bite, see Allais' paper on the topic, titled "Wiping the Slate Clean: The Heart of Forgiveness."

So how is forgiveness a paradox? From the paper: “Forgiving seems to mean ceasing to blame, but if blaming means holding the perpetrator responsible, then forgiveness requires not ceasing to blame, or else there will be nothing to forgive.” The forgiver must somehow cease to hold resentment against the offender, while still believing that the offender did something wrong. If you continue to believe the offender has done something wrong, are you truly forgiving them?

It is important, Allais noted, to distinguish forgiveness from other actions that mimic forgiveness: accepting, minimizing, justifying, and excusing. These actions may help the victim to let go of resentment, but they "involve not thinking of the act as seriously objectionable and not requiring of the wrongdoer that she act differently or account for her action.” If the victim tells herself the offender did nothing wrong and is blameless, then there's nothing to forgive. So it's not "forgiveness" she's doing. "Forgiveness involves seeing it as not justifiable, not excused, not acceptable, and still coming to see it as something not to hold against" the offender, Allais says. "And that's puzzling." Forgiveness and blame must co-exist.

Blame is important. Not just to philosophers and to victims, but to a functional social system. "People often say 'wouldnt it be nice if nobody ever blamed anybody or got angry at anybody?' But firstly that would be failing to take wrongdoing seriously." [This point is especially important to Allais, who became interested in forgiveness because she's South African and was thinking about Apartheid. You can see why she'd want to take wrongdoing seriously.] "And it would be failing to take each other seriously as persons, failing to hold each other accountable." As blame is appropriate, so are the emotions tied to blame appropriate: resentment, anger, even fear.

Disproportionate anger is never appropriate, and people sometimes learn to let go of resentment by realizing that they have, in fact, overreacted to a perceived wrong. This is not the same as forgiving. "Forgiveness starts where resentment is warranted, or appropriate," says Allais.

The interviewer, Nigel Warburton, brought this down to a concrete level by talking about a real-life situation: His father abandoned the family, moving from the UK to South Africa when he, Nigel, was a teenager. "I've come to understand and maybe forgive him for leaving my mother, I understand the complexities of relationships, but I find it very difficult to forgive my father, who is now dead, for going to live in South Africa at that point." I'm not sure whether Warburton means here that he's angry at his father for abandoning him, or for supporting South Africa under Apartheid. Or both?

Allais doesn't worry about the details, but fixes on the salient point: Nigel Warburton is not obliged to forgive anyone. Nobody is. "People sometimes say it's important to forgive so that you're not eaten up with resentment and anger," she said, and we can agree that being eaten up with resentment and anger sounds bad. But is forgiveness the only way out of that? Allais says of course not. You can let go of resentment and anger without forgiving. One way is to simply let go of the person: if the offender is not part of your life anymore, you can stop thinking about him and move on. No forgiveness necessary.

This is an incredibly important counterweight to the terribly damaging notion that forgiveness is obligatory. I've seen dear friends, abused by partners or parents, get saddled with the weight of obligatory forgiveness. "You must learn to let go and forgive," they are told. "Or you will never move on." You may want to forgive someone, and that's great. But you may not want to, and that's totally fine, too. You may also not be able to forgive, even if you do want to. From my own experience and observation, forgiveness is not something most of us actually have a lot of control over. People can recite the words "I forgive you" and think they mean them, only to discover the deep well of resentment is still there, waiting to be tapped. Later in the podcast, both Allais and Warburton echo this: forgiveness, even if you want to undertake it, can be a long process—and it's not entirely subject to the will. (If you want to increase your will over emotions, she mentions almost as an aside, change your focus. In other words, don't keep spinning and spinning on the same thing.)

While we think of forgiveness as a virtue, and agree almost universally across cultures that it's worth striving for, it is not the same as owing someone a money debt, Allais says. When you borrow money from someone, you are obligated to pay it back. When someone hurts you, you are not obligated to "pay" them forgiveness in the same way.

So if forgiveness isn't obligatory as a virtue, and "isn't a matter of therapy for the forgiver," Warburton asks, "What is it?"

This is where the interview begins to get a bit academic. Philosophers have spent a lot of time, Allais says, studying the content of emotions. Yes, emotions have content. "Emotions represent the world as having ways of being," she says. What I think she means is that emotions cause us to perceive the world in certain ways—when we experience something and especially when we recall the memory of the event later, we're not just calling to mind a highly accurate newsreel. It's not raw footage we're watching. It's a carefully calibrated, highly processed, thoroughly edited story. Emotions dramatically effect the kind of story we're telling ourselves about an event, and about each person in that event. So if you're feeling resentment toward a person, that's going to change the story you tell yourself about who that person is. Not just what she did to you that day, but who she is.

Forgiveness, then, is the act of telling yourself a different story about the wrongdoer. The act of wrongdoing still happened, you hold the offender responsible for it. But you don't let it become the single most salient thing about the person. You don't let it become entangled with the identity of the person.

"So can I forgive someone and still hold justifiable resentment toward them?" Warburton asks.

"I think forgiveness means letting go of justifiable resentment," Allais responds. Going back to the debt analogy, forgiving someone is more than discharging a debt, which is like balancing the scales. Forgiving someone is actually giving the offender something, which perhaps relates to the etymology of the word. The offender isn't owed anything, and yet you're giving it to them anyway. You're giving them something that is not their due.

Forgiveness, says Allais, "is seeing someone as better than their action warrants them."

Love and trust are tied up in the concept, too. Trusting a person isn't just about calculating risk, it's about "having an optimistic attitude towards the other's will." I suppose she means you believe the person is essentially good and essentially means well, even if his actions don't always support that.

Forgiving someone for a trespass, Warburton points out, puts the forgiver in an incredibly powerful position over the offender. Because the forgiver is handing out something to which the offender, by definition, is not due, she is conferring a boon. (I imagine a queen generously proffering a gold coin to a subject.) Allais agrees and uses the character of Uriah Heep from David Copperfield as an example: David's ultimate forgiveness of offender Uriah Heep makes him look magnanimous. It puts him, David, in a superior position.

But at the same time, by saying "I forgive you," you are also informing the offender that you do consider him to be responsible for a wrong. In the film Philomena, the title character appears not to blame the Catholic institution that took her child. She's very placid and accepting of everything ... until the very end, where she says "I forgive you." Even in the quiet way she says it, she is placing blame. She could not offer forgiveness where there was nothing to forgive.

So we've established that forgiveness isn't about therapy for the forgiver, and it's not a moral obligation for the victim. What, then is the point of forgiveness, asks Warburton. Why bother? Should he forgive his dead father?

The major benefit of forgiveness for the forgiver, says Allais, is that it allows the victim and the offender to continue a relationship. In relationships, "we do hurt each other and wrong each other all the time, and we need to hold each other accountable, but we also need to move on." Relationships that involve love and trust are about people bound together, heading into the future together. And if everyone is keeping a tally of hurts and just deserts, love and trust will erode. The "togetherness" of the future may become impossible.

We assess who people are by watching their behavior: what they do shows us who they are. But loving someone requires seeing them as more than the sum of actions. If you just judge someone by their actions, you'll be keeping a tally and thinking about what they deserve. We don't love people because they've got the right tally or because we think their behavior obliges us to love them. So when forgiveness is tied up with love (which it isn't always), it draws on our habit of loving people whether they "deserve" it or not.

The last couple minutes of the podcast are dedicated to discussing crimes against humanity, and whether groups of people can forgive other groups of people. It's an interesting discussion and I suggest people listen all the way through, but this blog post is already quite long so I'll stick to the personal side of it. And I will wrap up with an open question Allais didn't get to: what is the role of apology in forgiveness? It's more difficult to forgive if the victim is scared the offender will cause the same hurt again. A sincere apology, one that accepts responsibility and reflects an understanding of the hurt caused, can go a long way toward easing that fear: if the offender understands she made a mistake, she's less likely to make it again. If she refuses to acknowledge she did make a mistake, if she thinks her actions were perfectly justified, than the trust that is so inherent to forgiveness is badly damaged.

The most helpful thing I got out of the 15 minutes is this idea: forgiveness does not mean you pretend nothing happened. It does not mean the offender gets away with something. It does mean putting the offense in its place, and refusing to allow it to define the person (and the relationship) entirely. 

"Forgiveness offers something that punishing cannot give," Allais writes in the conclusion to her paper. "In forgiving, we allow the wrongdoer to make a genuinely fresh start; the slate is wiped clean."

Related reading:
Wiping the Slate Clean, by Lucy Allais
How to Give A Meaningful Apology from UMass Amherst's Family Business Center
Must We Forgive Our Abusive Parents? from Slate Magazine
Restorative Justice As A Pathway to Forgiveness, by Jac Armstrong


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