Forgiveness and human rights: a response to Charles Griswold

15 Feb

Part One

In which I argue the nature and purpose of forgiveness from a secular perspective, that is, from a horizontal, inter-human position, rather than the vertical, theological position of divine forgiveness and grace. I argue against the appropriation of forgiveness to the service of a philosophical discourse, and for multiple understandings and practices of forgiveness that are not reliant either on philosophy, or religious belief.

Must we not accept that, in heart or in reason, above all when it is a question of ‘forgiveness’, something arrives which exceeds all institution, all power, all juridico-political authority? Jacques Derrida

So let us speak of the mystery of forgiveness. Forgiving is imperative…it is extremely difficult to forgive. I don’t even know if forgiveness exists. Hélène Cixous

In his 2007 philosophical exploration of forgiveness, Charles Griswold, Professor of Philosophy at Boston University, states that forgiveness should be understood as

…a moral relation between two individuals, one of whom has wronged the other, and who (at least in the ideal), are capable of communication with each other. In this ideal context, forgiveness requires reciprocity between injurer and injured. I shall reserve the term forgiveness for this moral relation. All parties to the discussion about forgiveness agree, so far as I can tell, that this is a legitimate context for the use of the term; and most take it as its paradigm sense, as shall I.

A further definition of forgiveness is ‘…first and foremost the foreswearing of revenge…and of the other abuses of resentment.’ This definition will be implicit throughout my argument, but not in the context of its application being restricted to the paradigm of ideal conditions proposed by Griswold.

Griswold also states that his inquiry is secular, however within that stated secularity he has constructed a dogma, a system of principles and tenets authoritatively laid down, as by a church. Failure to attain the requirements of these principles and tenets results, Griswold claims, in exclusion from the possibility of forgiveness: ‘Where none of the conditions is met, the threshold of what will count as forgiveness is not crossed; sadly, and painfully, in such cases we are either unforgiven, or unable to forgive,’ he claims.

I explore the ramifications of this prohibition primarily from the perspective of the injured, and suggest that it is an extremely serious matter to cast either the injured or the injurer as beyond the ameliorating possibilities of forgiving and forgiveness, whether this is done under the umbrella of philosophy or religion.

I’m going to argue that the most appropriate context for discussions of forgiveness is within an embodied discourse of human rights. I’m also intrigued by what Judith Butler describes as the ‘…moral predicament that emerges as a consequence of being injured’ and from that argue that forgiveness is both a practical and an ethical necessity, and that it is the victim’s privilege, task and responsibility.

As well, I argue against Griswold’s belief that the perpetrator’s remorse is necessary for forgiveness. I also claim in opposition to Griswold that the attitude of perpetrators to their victims can and frequently must be irrelevant to the victim’s decisions about forgiveness.  We need a paradigm of forgiveness that is based in the embodied experiences of the injured, rather than defined as an abstract ideal to which the injured must aspire.

I don’t know what forgiveness is, though I’ve spent many hours thinking about it. Some say that it’s a state of grace that comes without announcement. Some say it’s a calm, in which there’s no ill will, and perhaps no thought at all. Some say it’s when you know something has ended and move on, without even really noticing

None of my propositions comply with the requirements of a concept of ideal forgiveness, whether that is theological or philosophical. They are a consequence of my experience of injury, and the subsequent profound moral dilemma I experienced. This dilemma is centred on the quite natural desire for redress and revenge, and the possibility of becoming a perpetrator if I act on this desire.

While Griswold’s definition is a legitimate context for the use of the term forgiveness, to declare this context the ‘paradigm sense’ taken by ‘most’, is to exclude from the experience of forgiveness millions upon millions of the injured who, for various reasons, are denied or legitimately shy away from the possibility of communication with their injurer. I argue instead for a much broader understanding of forgiveness, one in which unilateral forgiveness, that is, forgiveness that does not require the co-operation of the perpetrator, is included in the forgiveness paradigm.

I do this because injuries after which there is a possibility of ‘reciprocity’ are likely to be less common than those in which the perpetrator is unavailable or unrepentant. Such latter injuries can range in nature from the offended householder whose freshly painted wall is vandalised by unknown graffiti artists, to the victim of sexual assault whose rapist cannot be found, to the survivors of genocide whose tormentors are dead or unidentified. That is, circumstances which Griswold casts as ‘non-paradigmatic’, for example ‘…forgiving the dead or unrepentant…’ are likely to be more frequent than instances in which the injured and injurer are capable of communication and resolution.

As well, Griswold situates his argument ‘…in the ideal…’ and circumstances extraneous to this ideal are described as ‘…lacking or imperfect relative to the paradigm.’ If the circumstances do not fit Griswold’s ideal paradigm of dyadic forgiveness due to their failure to comply with the necessary ‘…baseline conditions…’ then, he claims: ‘…you are not engaged in forgiving, but doing something else.’

Below ideal baseline conditions for legitimate entry into Griswold’s country of forgiveness: ‘…may lie excuse, or condonation, or explanation, or any number of psychological strategies from rationalisation to amnesia…’ In other words if I assert that I have forgiven my perpetrator without having entered into communication with him, and without the benefit of his expressed remorse, then I am deluding myself.  Griswold elaborates: ‘…just being in the psychic state of no longer feeling resentment…whether that state is induced by medication, therapy, an astonishing act of will, an ostensibly religious revelation, or what have you,’ is not, he claims, sufficient to qualify as forgiveness.

As any survivor will attest, there is no such thing as ‘just being’ free of resentment: the struggle to overcome that feeling and everything associated with it is enormous, frequently ongoing and often demands more than just one ‘astonishing act of will.’ There is also a considerable difference between being medicated, and exercising one’s will. This argument for what forgiveness is not and why it is not is unconvincing, as is any argument that concludes an extensive list of unrelated generalisations with the phrase ‘what have you’.

The construction of an ‘ideal’ that is exterior to the imperfect human condition, complete with prescriptives and prohibitions for its attainment, is not entirely dissimilar to constructing a theology, not least in that both demand an original act of faith and belief in the existence of a fixed transcendental, from which subsequent thinking ensues. While the secular as proposed by Griswold is firmly disassociated by him from the religious, their prescriptive, exclusionary, and monolithic discourses are remarkably similar. For example: ‘…we count the capacity to forgive – in the right way and under the right circumstances – as part and parcel of a praiseworthy character,’ states Griswold. Who are the ‘we’ represented here, by what authority and process do they determine the ‘right way and circumstances’ for forgiveness, and how and by whom is the praiseworthiness of character determined?

The phrase ‘right way and circumstances’ inevitably makes reference to a metaphysical authority that ultimately determines what is praiseworthy and right, unless Griswold is assuming this authority for himself.

In a paper titled ‘Derrida, Death and Forgiveness,’ Andrew McKenna observes that Derrida

…claims to find in Western Philosophy a crypto-theology. His analyses regularly uncover presuppositions about foundations and primacies, points of origin and authoritative presences that correspond to nothing other than a Supreme Being, however veiled or unapproachable.

It is just such a crypto-theology that Griswold has constructed in his philosophy of forgiveness, in which forgiveness is perceived first and foremost as an ideal concept located in the authority of an unidentified exteriority, and one that the imperfect human being must struggle to attain.

In claiming the necessity for a sovereign ideal that must create notions of lack, imperfection, exclusion and failure, Griswold is describing a vertical concept of forgiveness that can be seen as largely irrelevant to the temporal and inter-human experience of suffering and forgiveness, as viewed through the secular lens, and through the horizontal discourse of human rights. Human beings are most usefully served, I would argue, by considering forgiveness not as an ideal whose conditions one may fail to meet, and perhaps through no fault of one’s own, but rather as a universally accessible, cosmopolitan practice.

To be continued.

10 Responses to “Forgiveness and human rights: a response to Charles Griswold”

  1. Elisabeth February 15, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    “As any survivor will attest, there is no such thing as ‘just being’ free of resentment: the struggle to overcome that feeling and everything associated with it is enormous, frequently ongoing and often demands more than just one ‘astonishing act of will.'”

    This view above resonates for me as distinct from Griswold’s claim that in order to achieve forgiveness one must surpass any desire for revenge.

    Griswold’s claim sits uncomfortably with my sense that a person who has been wronged – and I mean in serious ways such as in being bullied or abused – might well hold mixed feelings towards the perpetrator of said abuse or bullying.

    Such an aggrieved person might develop some empathic understanding of what perhaps drove the behaviour of the one who has hurt them – for instance my father was abusive in my family because he had a lousy childhood himself – but at the same time continue to feel resentful, even vengeful for a lifetime.

    Such a person might well want to forgive her abusive parent, but at the same time feel ongoing rage and resentment, as the quote above suggests. She will not necessarily enact the revenge in destructive ways, but might still suffer under the weight of such ambivalence for a lifetime.

    Forgiveness cannot be prescribed or taken lightly.


    • Helvi February 16, 2012 at 5:53 pm #

      Stephanie Dowrick on forgiveness:

      Forgiveness, as an act of love, is felt, not achieved. I can be given, but it may not always be received. It cannot be bestowed as a triumph over another person, or as the means to secure their humilition or acquiscence.


  2. Sam Jandwich February 15, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    That’s a really nice piece of analysis Jennifer. I haven’t read Griswold, but from the way you describe his position it sounds very much as though he is closely following the Cartesian tradition of constructing a particular set of conditions within which a “perfect” argument can be conducted, which in turn claims to affirm that anything which falls outside that becomes irrelevant – just like it a legal proceedings where only information heard in court can be considered.

    it reminds me of a quote from I think Thomas Mann that I’ve somehow lodged in my world view: every discourse is haunted by that which it seeks methodologically to exclude.

    I’m interested in Derrida’s citing power as something which forgiveness transcends though, as it seems to me that one way of describing forgiveness could be holding a sense of power over the wrong that has been done, or the person you have been wronged by. I certainly think that would gel with a definition of forgiveness as being “the foreswearing of revenge” – and partly I say this in reference to a piece in the SMH today:

    And if that’s the case, you could almost say that not forgiving someone – ie holding them responsible (if absent) or accountable (if present/accessible), by virtue of your power over the effect the experience has had on you – could be considered a form of forgiveness. Alice Miller talks about the deleterious effect of the fourth commandment – honour thy mother and thy father – and shows this up to be something which prevents people from fully engaging with the effects of parental abuse… and instead argues that survivors have an entitement to be angry and contemptuous of their parents/abusers (though not precluding empathy with them), and that forgiveness is unnecessary – and I think this is what Elisabeth’s comment is about as well. But perhaps we can say that this sustained anger and unforgiveness is, in fact, forgiveness.

    Oh well, I expect you might touch on these points in later editions, but thanks for the article and look forward to the next instalment!


    • Sam Jandwich February 15, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

      That’s “entitlement”, Sam Jandwich. Obviously something you have a problem with!!


  3. paul walter February 16, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    Terrible. I cant think of an appropriate response to this thread, the commenters have added intelligent stuff, but talk of resentment and forgiveness etc, cuts closer to the bone to the secret and dark little place within, where all the little griefs, angers, spite and fear reside.
    I’ll wait for the next installment, thank Sam for an intelligent explication and remark on Elisabeth’s comment re her father when growing up, because it is parallel to my own experience.


  4. lola February 16, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    Many moons ago, I spoke with a woman who had been brutally abused. She was a devout Christian, and she said “I forgive myself for not forgiving him. God may forgive him, but I cannot. And, I forgive myself for ever loving him”.
    I asked her if she meant God or the abuser. She laughed and said “Some days, neither of the buggers”.
    Even the etiology of the word is complex and fraught with nuance. For – to support,to believe in give – to grant, to gift.

    We are such complicated beings. I hope I come back as a bonobo, frankly.


    • Jennifer Wilson February 18, 2012 at 5:21 am #

      When the abuser is known and/or a family member it makes it very hard for the victim/survivor. There are so many mixed feelings.


  5. paul walter February 18, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    Re JW;s last, probably because power/dominance issues (not just physical, some times very complex) are involved?
    Has me in mind of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, where the main character begins turning into a human size caterpillar, helpless before his former fellows.
    Nothing worse than disempowerment and the sense that a person becomes an abject laughing stock for the whole world to see and snicker at.
    And no better example than the current antic in the US State of Virgina, where the vile internal ultra sound probes for women seeking termination is being enacted.


  6. Evelyn February 19, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    I am not sure forgiveness exists either in a pure form. It cannot be contrived or forced but has to be genuinely felt otherwise it is only a statement of forgiveness rather than a real belief or release in the offering. I reckon forgiveness comes more easily when you no longer care. Is that forgiveness I wonder if there is a sense of no sacrifice. It is complex, the more I think about it the more complicated my brain finds the concept. I find it is easier to forgive when there is unconditional love such as with your children or a younger person when there is an understanding the complexities and intricacies of adolescence.

    The idea that one cannot move forward without forgiveness is also doubtful. One may harbour the effects of a certain act for many years or a lifetime but manage to navigate their life pretty well despite it’s lingering memory even as time heals or provides a scab at least.

    For me understanding why a situation happens is also important. Sometimes we have to look within at ourselves too – what might we have done differently now wiser in hindsight. I ponder this sometimes in relation to a previous experience in a difficult workplace environment. Perhaps understanding that people are flawed, including oursleves helps in that path to forgiveness (excepting of course in other than the most heinous of crimes eg. child sexual abuse, rape).



  1. Forgiveness and human rights: a response to Charles Griswold « No Place For Sheep « Secularity - February 15, 2012

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