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There is Nothing Magical About Forgiveness
Wrongdoing has an afterlife
It has been an agonizing week and a half. There’s so much pain and suffering — for people on the ground in Israel and Gaza, but also for anyone with a connection to that place, that land, that really, really long struggle and all of the pain and suffering that has preceded it. I’m not writing about it because there are so many people writing about it with more skill and perspective, and sometimes the best thing you can do as a writer (or just a person) is read others. (Some writing that’s stuck with me: Judith Butler on “The Compass of Mourning,” Masha Gessen on “The Tangled Grief of Israel’s Anti-Occupation Activists,” an interview with Sari Bashi, the program director at Human Rights Watch, Yair Rosenberg on “What Hamas Wants,” Raz Segal on “A Textbook Case of Genocide,” and Sarah Schulman on “Explanations are Not Excuses.”)
This interview with Myisha Cherry about the failures of forgiveness has been scheduled for this date for awhile now, and it feels appropriate to spend some time with the idea that the media craves simple narratives, that real repair is never simple, and most of all, that we can hold multiple things to be true at once.
Myisha Cherry is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, where she also directs the Emotion and Society Lab. She is also the author of The Case for Rage: Why Anger Is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle and UnMuted: Conversations on Prejudice, Oppression, and Social Justice. You can buy Failures of Forgiveness here.
To give us some grounding, can you tell us about your relationship to forgiveness? Personally, but also how you became interested in it as a concept?
I got interested in the topic of forgiveness like most of my intellectual work: from social and personal experience. It was 2012, after the murder of Trayvon Martin and other victims of state violence. During the press conferences with their family members, I was constantly hearing reporters ask them “if they could find it in their hearts to forgive.” I was bothered by the question. I felt that something wasn’t quite right about the reporters asking it so quickly. I started to think: why are reporters so obsessed with forgiveness, what is it about it that makes us want it so badly, why are only certain people being asked to forgive, in what ways does talk about forgiveness obscure the wrongdoing that just happened?
At the same time, I was wrestling with my own forgiveness. My sister and I both confessed to having forgave our stepfather, but my forgiveness looked different. In my family, I was perceived as not forgiving at all. I felt it was time to rethink forgiveness, figure out what it really is, how we go wrong in our expectations of it, and how we might really get to the repair we so desperately need in our social and personal lives. The accounts I had heard since I was a kid were not satisfying. Even the traditional philosophical accounts were disappointing. But then I became convinced by reading the work of philosophers Alice MacLachlan and Kathryn Norlock that forgiveness is not one thing, nor does it aim at one goal. And that just opened up a whole new moral universe to me. The idea was liberating!
When you describe the ‘narrow’ view of forgiveness, I recognize it immediately. It feel shallow, sure, but it also puts a lot of emotional burden on the person who has already been harmed. Before we get into ways to move beyond the narrow understanding of forgiveness, I’d love to hear your thoughts on why it’s so pervasive — particularly the ‘hurry-and-bury’ public requests for forgiveness that arrive in the aftermath of, say, police brutality.
We have a narrow view of what we take forgiveness to look like. For lots of people, forgiveness is the letting go of “bad” emotions like anger. It only aims at one “true” goal: reconciliation. So if you are still angry or if you don’t want to ride off into the sunset with a wrongdoer, people are quick to suggest you haven’t forgiven. I think its pervasive because we are afraid of anger. We have a hard time understanding anger and being held accountable viait. The anger of others brings us discomfort. But another thing that brings us discomfort is conflict. That’s why we are so quick to want to resolve things in a hurry. We love happy endings. I know I hate when I read a novel and find out that the book doesn’t end the way I wanted. I feel cheated. A lot of us feel like this in real-life situations. We love happy endings and want them despite the gravity of the wrongdoing.
But our lives are not novels or movies. Wrongdoing has an afterlife. Not everything can be repaired or restored. This desire to have things go back to the way things were before the wrongdoing leads us to commit horrible mistakes. And these mishaps get in the way of repair and forgiveness. One such thing is what I call the “hurry and bury ritual.” This is a ritual I witnessed reporters participate in. Because they wanted a happy ending, they quickly asked victims’ families if they could forgive — forgiveness was being introduced before indictments, burials, justice, etc. In the reporters’ stories, more emphasis was placed on victims’ forgiveness than the actual atrocity they were being asked to forgive. That practice not only ignores the gravity of the wrongdoing but prevents us from addressing the root of problems. It also disrespects victims, which can often make them resistant to any kind of forgiveness at all. The public questioning, I witnessed, can also subtly coerce or put pressure on them to forgive. So we have many reasons not to engage in this ritual in our personal and social lives.
The new understanding of forgiveness that you outline in the book is purposefully expansive — but you’re also very clear about the necessity of radical repair within any act of forgiveness. Can you describe what radical repair asks of us — as people asking for, encouraging, or offering forgiveness — and how it counters any understanding of forgiveness as somehow “magical”?
The best way to describe what radical repair is to contrast it with other, more problematic types. Let’s use an example of a car to illustrate.
With a car, I can engage in superficial repair and thirty repair. I engage in the former when instead of fixing my engine, I fix my bumper. I fix the bumper so that my car can look good. And looking good is more of a priority than the car actually running good. We engage in superficial repair in our relationships when we do enough to make the relationship look good from the outside, although we have not really addressed the real problem. But I can also engage in thrifty repair when I decide to fix only the cheapest problem. So I use my money to fix the radio because its cheaper than fixing the window, although the window is more of a priority. We engage in thrifty repair when we only fix that which is less costly or timely for us.
Any problem that will actually require work, time, or emotional resources, we refrain from. There’s a good chance we would prefer for someone else to do all the work (often the least powerful person) if it will save us time and energy.
But radical repair is different from superficial and thrifty repair. Through radical repair we try to address the root of a problem. We don’t just want our relationships to look good on social media. We actual do the work to make sure our problems are fixed. Radical repair can not get done by one person alone (e.g. a victim). It’s collaborative. It requires work from the wrongdoer, community, etc. Radical repair will cost us time, energy, and vulnerability. It’s also creative. It doesn’t just duplicate solutions that worked for other people. It focuses on what works best for the situation. Through it we are willing to do things that have never been done in order to get amazing results.
Radical repair also recognizes when something can’t be fixed. Tires can’t be fixed during a motor race. They have to be replaced. Sometimes we will never be the same after a wrongdoing. But engaging in radical repair is always worth the effort. And forgiveness is not the only route towards radical repair. It’s one of them. There is nothing magical about forgiveness.
Forgiveness as a way to get to radical repair requires actual work and effort, creativity, sacrifice, ingenuity, and community. Thinking that forgiveness is “magical” makes us lazy in the aftermath of wrongdoing, and it often leads us down the road towards superficial and thrifty repair, instead of the more radical kind.
The section of the book where you point out specific counter-scripts to “can you forgive me” was incredibly powerful. Even just first asking: “What do you want to tell us” (before you even think of discussing forgiveness!) feels transformative. What sort of conversation does “What do you want to tell us” prompt?
I think, as humans, we are creating narratives all the time. Storytelling is in our blood. But it can go wrong when we are dishonest and coercive about the stories we tell. Reporters are not the only ones who do this. We all are susceptible to this. Introducing forgiveness (as wrongdoers or third parties) can often serve as a cover for taking over victim narratives, as we obscure wrongdoing, promote our happy-ending stories, and only ask that the victim do all the work at repair (via their forgiveness).
Instead of creating our own narratives, we can give victims their narratives back. Instead of telling them what we want (i.e. forgiveness and happy endings), we should ask them what they want to tell us. This respects their agency, gives them there rightful power back, allows us to hear and learn from them, and gives us some clues about what we need to do as individuals and a community to help in repair.
This is all to say, that we need to shut our mouths, stop asking victims to do all the reparative labor, and be humble as victims tell us their story as well as what they want from us.
The chapter about forgiveness and work and the RUSH TO FORGIVENESS because you can’t get back to productivity until employees have forgiven their organization — just so much going on here. I’m particularly interested in how you’ve seen this play out in more entrenched institutions — like, say, the university, which often has a lot to apologize for.
I’m afraid about what I see as (explicit and implicit) culture of forgiveness happening in organizations and institutions. Since I work as an academic, but have also worked in nonprofit organizations, I’ve seen this manifest in many ways. I think in an attempt to achieve certain institutional goals, organizations are much more likely to engage in superficial and thrifty repair.
So they do things like issue apologies (created by Chat GPT for god’s sake) and hide things under the rug — both far from radical repair. They do unlawful things in order to protect their image. And they expect that others forgive and move on quickly, because for them “the” main goal is to get back to raising money or climbing rankings. Until organizations become truly committed to the people they serve — and not their image and bottom line — they will never reach radical repair, which means those places will be domains where wrongdoing runs rampant and wrongdoers are not held accountable, fall-out fatigue (discomfort from conflict and anxious for things to return to ‘normal’) is common place, and victims are disrespected and feel unsafe. In environments like these, forgiveness will always been seen as magical — while safety, accountability, and repair become more and more unattainable.
I so appreciated how much of this book was willing to say that this, all of this, this whole conception of what forgiveness is and what it requires — it’s always changing. On a societal level, but also on a personal level. And that’s part of why our understanding has to be so expansive, attentive, and responsive — to accommodate for that constant change. What concepts are you personally still grappling with? What feels sticky, off, or incomplete — and what, if anything, feels incredibly true?
I’m still grappling with how to continually convince people that there other ways than forgiveness to get to radical repair, and those other avenues are worth trying. On the face of it, that makes a lot of people dubious and thus lazy. In another book, I want to spend more time laying out those options.
What feels incredibly true? Easy. We need to expect and behave differently when it comes to forgiveness, now!! ●
For our discussion, let’s honor Dr. Cherry’s work and focus on these questions of forgiveness. I’m eager to hear about how your perspective on forgiveness has changed over time, particularly as you’ve had to grapple with questions of forgiveness in your life or the lives of those close to you — or how reading this interview has made you think more deeply about it.
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