Most people have a very positive connotation with the word “forgiveness.” The idea that forgiveness is a virtue is one of those cultural beliefs that is so ingrained that it doesn’t seem like a cultural idea, it just seems like a fundamental truth.
Here are some prominent examples to demonstrate the value we place on forgiveness.
- When I was in elementary school, I remember a teacher trying to instruct us on how to give and receive apologies. It’s a necessary skill, and a worthy one to weave into lessons in and out of the classroom for children. We learned to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” or “It’s okay.”
One instance that sticks with me is when one child apologized to the other, but the second child, still obviously hurt, didn’t feel comfortable responding yet. The first child, feeling entitled to being forgiven, brought the teacher over and told on the second child. “I said sorry but she didn’t say she forgave me!”
The second child was made to repeat after the teacher and forgive the first student, learning that this was what one was supposed to do.
- There are literally dozens of cultural platitudes instructing us all to forgive. Some I can find within two minutes on google:
- My granddad was a very selfish man who did a lot of harm to my grandmother and to both his daughters. My mom hated him, rightfully, for most of her life. To this day she prides herself on being able to forgive him before he died. It had been a goal to be able to forgive him, even though he never acknowledged all the harm he brought his family.
- One of my favorite television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer presents themes of forgiveness and redemption constantly.
Angel, a serial murderer and pedophile (and Buffy’s first boyfriend) abuses and stalks her after they have sex the first time, kills someone she’s close to, tortures her father figure, and repeatedly threatens her life. She forgives him, and he goes on to redeem himself, getting his own spin-off series where he is the hero.
Anya, a former vengeance demon, has a series long character-arc where she learns that revenge is not the ethical answer and that she must practice forgiveness and give second chances. The end of her arc included an embrace of self-sacrifice.
Willow abuses her girlfriend, using the metaphorical equivalent of drugs to erase her girlfriend’s memory after fights, and becomes a dangerous addict. Though her girlfriend does leave after realizing what’s happening, she does forgive her and return.
Spike tries to rape Buffy and she forgives him, allowing him a redemption arc which puts him in a position to help save the world in the finale.
- When I was in high school and first reading and researching a lot about veganism, I was particularly fond of John Robbin’s writing. His work explained compassionate action and nonviolent protest in a way that was extremely empowering to me at the time, especially his emphasis on insisting that the actions of individuals mattered. It was a time when I didn’t have much self worth, so the idea that I could do good with my actions was something I clung to.
Robbins wrote (and writes) about a lot more than just veganism. One article I read was on the topic of forgiveness, focusing on a specific tragedy and the reaction of the Amish community: “Can Unforgivable Violence Ever Be Forgiven”
The unforgivable violence in question was that a 35 year old man entered an Amish schoolhouse holding a handgun. He ordered male students to bring items in from the back of his truck, including materials for restraining children and sexual lubricant. He released male students and parents with infants and ordered the female children to line up against the chalkboard where he bound their arms and legs. When the police entered the scene, he shot all ten little girls execution style, killing five and horribly injuring five.
The article commented on the virtue and compassion of the Amish community. The families of these little girls reached out, publicly forgiving the killer and setting up a charity fund for the killer’s family. This was presented as an admirable and virtuous action that we should strive for.
For many years I internalized this idea, as many of us do. It ended up placing me in harm’s way repeatedly, as I imagine, it does for a lot of marginalized people.
I now understand that violence is not an accident. People are violent because they can justify violence, and the structural and cultural systems of oppression provide the biases, beliefs, and entitlements which justify violence. There is a reason that the overwhelming majority of mass-shooters are white men. There is nothing biologically different with white men, but our culture provides constant rationalizations and justifications for committing violent acts against PoC of all genders and women of all races.
But it’s not just the oppression that encourages these acts. It is also the privilege awarded to those who benefit from that oppression. When someone has privilege, they do not face consequences at near the rate of marginalized people. And when someone does not face any consequences for violent beliefs and violent speech, what is to stop them from bringing those ideas into action?
It’s well documented that abusers do not change unless they face consequences and are forcibly held accountable for every act of control, manipulation, and violence. And it’s not because they’re unable to change, it’s that they’re unwilling to give up the benefits and privileges they receive through exploiting others.
And so it’s important to recognize that abusers and oppressors rely on forgiveness. Those in abusive relationships are made to forgive over and over and over, only to experience the same cycle of violence after the abuser believes the forgiveness is genuine and the victim won’t leave. Those in marginalized communities are made to forgive over and over and over, only to experience the same cycle of violence after the oppressors believe the forgiveness is genuine and the marginalized population will cease protest or political action.
A quote from Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery explains this succinctly (emphasis mine):
“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.”
You will see this pattern unfold on every level of oppression from the interpersonal to the international. And keeping this reality in mind, it is essential to recognize the insistence of our cultural reliance of forgiveness as inherently biased in favor of oppressors.
Forgiveness Culture denies the oppressed, marginalized, and traumatized their needed recognition and healing, and it enables further violence towards them through excusing oppressors and “moving on” from the violence without enforcing accountability and consequence.
Forgiveness Culture is oppressive propaganda.
Of course, most of us who have repeated the platitudes and encouraged each other to forgive are not intentionally perpetuating this idea. It’s not something most of us consciously recognize.
But it is important when you are discussing oppression (especially rape, racial violence, domestic abuse, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism) to allow survivors and marginalized communities to openly experience and express their anger. Do not insist that survivors forgive. They have no responsibilities to their aggressors. Instead, place pressure on the oppressive or abusive actor in the situation to be accountable. If you cannot enact legal or political consequences, make sure you promote social consequences. They will never change otherwise.
As Lundy Bancroft, an expert on domestic violence, explains
If you are aware of chronic or severe mistreatment and do not speak out against it, your silence communicates implicitly that you see nothing unacceptable taking place. Abusers interpret silence as approval, or at least as forgiveness. To abused women, meanwhile, the silence means that no one will help – just what her partner wants her to believe. Anyone who chooses to quietly look the other way therefore unwittingly becomes the abuser’s ally.
To ally yourself with marginalized communities and survivors of violence, you cannot support abusers through Forgiveness Culture.
I’m not suggesting that all acts of forgiveness are part of Forgiveness Culture.
The act of forgiveness, in and of itself, is distinct from Forgiveness Culture. Forgiveness is a choice made by an individual and has no moral value one way or the other unless applied to specific circumstance. Forgiveness Culture is the cultural belief system that pressures people to forgive and presents forgiveness as inherently virtuous and good, rather than recognizing it as just a behavior that can be harmful or healthy depending on the context.
One way to distinguish whether or not a specific act of forgiveness is healthy is to look at the perpetrator. If the perpetrator has been accountable and acknowledged the pain they caused, taken action to right the wrong that was committed, accepted consequences, and ceased all oppressive behavior, they have earned forgiveness, and it is healthy if you decide to forgive them at that point. Relationships can be mended and true equality can be reached, but only if the oppressors change their values and behavior.
What I am suggesting is a radical embrace of what Andrea Gibson, a spoken word poet, calls the non-violent fist. I take this phrase from a poem called “Etiquette Leash”
I stopped calling myself a pacifist
when I heard Gandhi told women
they should not physically fight off their rapists.
I believe there is such a thing as a non-violent fist.
I believe that the earth is a woman muzzled, beaten,
tied to the coal slinging tracks.
I believe the muzzled have every right
to rip off the bible belt
and take it to the patriarchy’s ass.
I know these words are gonna get me in trouble.
It is never polite to throw back the tear gas.
Forgiveness Culture turns us all into abusers’ allies. The antithesis of Forgiveness Culture is refusing to forgive abusers and oppressors until they earn it.
Forgiveness Culture adds to the trauma of the marginalized. The antithesis of Forgiveness Culture is accepting survivors’ anger and accepting their right to self defense.