This is an extract from my doctoral thesis The Practice of Goodness, which can be found here.
How, then, are we to live?
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.
In this section I discuss 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 that is ‘…devoted to the building of concepts…’ (Hand, 1988, p.ix) and for ‘…the abandonment of categories and the move to an acategorical thought’ (ibid, p.ix) that allows for multiple understandings and practices of forgiveness. This multiplicity is, I contend, silenced by prescribed concepts, and the ‘…inaccessible Idea…’ (ibid, p.ix). I suggest that the more appropriate context for discussions of forgiveness is within an embodied discourse of human rights. I also discuss the ‘…moral predicament that emerges as a consequence of being injured’ (Butler, 2003, p. 59), and 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 that the perpetrator’s remorse is not necessary for forgiveness, and that the attitude of perpetrators to their victims can be, and frequently must be, irrelevant to the victim’s decisions about forgiveness. I further discuss the need for 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. While drawing on the literature to substantiate my arguments, as a survivor of prolonged childhood rape and intra-familial abuse, I claim the authority of profound personal experience of the journey from victimisation to survival and forgiveness, experience that I contend authenticates my observations.
In The Practice of Goodness, the narrator concludes:
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 (Wilson, 2007, p.232).
None of these propositions comply with the requirements of a concept of ideal forgiveness, whether that is theological or secular. They are, however, a consequence of the embodied experience of injury, and the subsequent profound moral dilemma of the injured party. Simply put, this dilemma is centred on the quite natural desire for rebuttal and redress, and the possibility of the injured party becoming the perpetrator if this desire is acted upon.
In his current (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 (Griswold, 2007, p.xvi).
A further definition of forgiveness states that it is ‘…first and foremost the foreswearing of revenge…and of the other abuses of resentment’ (ibid, p.33). This definition will be implicit throughout my argument, but not, however, in the context of the validity of its application being restricted to the closed paradigm of ideal conditions proposed by Griswold, a proposition more fully explored throughout this section.
Griswold also states that his inquiry is secular, however within that stated secularity he has, I contend, constructed a dogma, that is, ‘a system of principles and tenets authoritatively laid down, as by a church’ (Macquarie, 1981, p.538). 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’ (2007, p.212). I discuss the ramifications of this prohibition primarily from the perspective of the injured, and suggest as well 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 secularism or religion.
While Griswold’s definition is a legitimate context for the use of the term forgiveness, I argue that 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. 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…’ (p.xvi), 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…’ (2007, p.xvi), and circumstances extraneous to this ideal are described as ‘…lacking or imperfect relative to the paradigm’ (2007, p.xvi). That is, if the circumstances do not fit the ideal paradigm of dyadic forgiveness due to their failure to comply with the necessary ‘…baseline conditions…’ (2007, p.115), then, he claims: ‘…you are not engaged in forgiving, but doing something else’ (2007, p.114). The construction of an ‘ideal’ that is necessarily exterior to the embodied and 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 all subsequent thinking ensues.
That is, 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’ (Griswold, 2007, p.xiv) [my emphasis]. Who are the ‘we’ represented by this text, and by what authority and process do they determine the ‘right way and circumstances’ for forgiveness, and how is the ‘praiseworthy character’ to be determined? The phrase ‘right way and circumstances’ inevitably makes reference to a metaphysical authority that ultimately determines what is ‘right’, unless Griswold is assuming this authority for himself.
In a paper entitled ‘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. (1997).
I contend that 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 which the imperfect human being must struggle to attain.
In claiming the necessity for a sovereign ideal that logically creates 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.
Below ideal baseline conditions for legitimate entry into Griswold’s country of forgiveness: ‘…may lie excuse, or condonation, or explanation, or any number ofpsychological strategies from rationalisation to amnesia…’ (Griswold, 2007, p.116). That is, 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. ‘…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,’ (2007, p.116), is not, Griswold continues, sufficient to qualify as forgiveness. However, 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 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’.
To present an injured party with an ‘ideal paradigm’ for forgiveness that insists, as an absolute necessity, on encounter and communication with the perpetrator might be little more than a further abuse of that injured party in two ways, at least. The victim of a violent crime may not wish to physically encounter the perpetrator. To declare her beyond the healing experience of forgiving because of this reluctance is, I contend, a further and compounding offense against her humanity. Our ability to forgive, or to enter the process of forgiveness, is one of the attributes that defines us as fully human, and releases us from the destructive pain of resentment and desire for revenge. Are we then to say to Holocaust survivors, for example, who cannot or will not meet with their perpetrators, that they are forever denied the experience of forgiving them? Or, in the case of survivors who have forgiven perpetrators, unmet and unreconciled-with, that these survivors are deluding themselves, that what they imagine themselves to be experiencing is not forgiveness at all, rather it is some psychological or religious ‘what have you?’ Is it necessary then, that for forgiveness to be real, the injured party will be required to suffer more than he has already suffered, through an unwanted or unsuccessful encounter with his perpetrator? Griswold’s ideal paradigm would appear to have it so.
For example, a meeting might take place in which the perpetrator reveals that she is entirely unrepentant. According to the ideal paradigm, the victim is now denied the relief of forgiveness because the perpetrator does not consider she has done anything wrong. This, I argue, yields all power to the perpetrator, further disempowering the victim, and demanding that he wait upon his injurer’s change of heart, however unlikely that might be, before forgiveness can ensue. Reciprocity between injurer and injured is undoubtedly desirable and necessary in circumstances where both seek to continue their relationship, however for untold numbers of victims this is not the situation, and broader concepts of forgiveness must be applied: the injured cannot simply be disqualified from the possibility of experiencing forgiveness. (In passing, I suggest that a paradigm that is so exclusionary in its nature, can hardly be qualified by the descriptor ‘ideal.’)
The abstract concept of an ‘ideal’ circumstance for forgiveness, compared to which reality is frequently and perhaps inevitably ‘…lacking or imperfect…’ denies the authenticity of any individual injured party’s embodied experience of forgiveness that does not comply, without any legitimate grounds on which to base that denial. In my own case, for example, the injurer died before I was old enough to have maturely considered the question of forgiveness. However, decades later I have forgiven my stepfather, that is, I have foresworn all desire for revenge, and any of the other abuses of resentment. I have done this in the absence of the perpetrator’s co-operation. I have not, however, fulfilled the requirements of ideal forgiveness. My experience of forgiveness is therefore cast as ‘non-ideal’ (Griswold, 2007, p.114) and I have no hope of ever attaining the ideal, through no fault of my own. I am thus further victimised, I contend, in the following ways.
A class system has apparently emerged in the demography of forgiveness: on the one hand we have the fortunate injured whose perpetrators are decent enough to confess and express remorse. For this class of sufferer, ideal forgiveness is realisable. On the other hand, there are the injured such as myself, whose perpetrators are either dead or unwilling to express remorse, or even incapable for any number of reasons. ‘…if the victim is alive and the offender deceased…the ideal conditions cannot, under such conditions, all be met, or met perfectly…’ (Griswold, 2007, p.66).
Griswold has argued as well that the capacity to forgive (under the right conditions), indicates a ‘praiseworthy’ character. Am I therefore to assume that as my perpetrator’s lack of co-operation denies me the expression of my capacity to forgive, that this is an indicator of the unpraiseworthiness of my character? How does the perpetrator’s refusal of reciprocity in any way reflect upon my capacity to forgive? Am I not even more noble, perhaps, in finding it in myself to forgive in spite of the perpetrator’s lack of repentance? But the conditions of ideal forgiveness will not allow me to do that. Forgiving the unrepentant ‘…collapses into condonation’ (Griswold, 2007, p.49) claims. The concept of ideal forgiveness, therefore, serves only to further undermine the victim’s autonomy and render her assessment and feelings irrelevant to the process, which is centred on the perpetrator’s willingness or unwillingness to express responsibility and remorse.
There is also the question of trust. It is perhaps unreasonable to insist as a condition of forgiveness, on an encounter with a perpetrator who has profoundly betrayed the victim’s trust. Forgiveness, this paradigm is insisting, requires that the victim trust the proven untrustworthy perpetrator both sufficiently to be again in his presence, and to believe in his remorse. There are situations in which, for the wellbeing of the victim, this is, or ought to be declared an unacceptable and intolerable requirement. For example, as the child victim of a rapist who regularly threatened my life, and who perpetrated upon me violent physical abuses, as well as sexual and emotional, there is nothing I would desire less than to be in the same room as this individual, were he still alive. Not because I cannot forgive him, but because I can never trust him, and to be again in his physical presence would cause me more terror than I can begin to imagine. Forgiveness, I argue, does not require me to either trust, or overcome my very real apprehensions about this person, apprehensions that are healthy, self-protective, entirely to do with my recovered self-esteem, and thoroughly grounded in the dreadful reality of his actions.
While I have forsworn revenge and its attendant abuses, I am not obliged to trust the offender, or to put myself at physical and or emotional risk by personally encountering him again in order that forgiveness may be fully enacted. What might well be enacted in such circumstances is frightening to contemplate, and need bear no relation at all to forgiveness. What the victim is obliged to do under Griswold’s paradigm is take unacceptable risks with her wellbeing, after she has already suffered intolerable abuse. Forgiveness, I argue, by its very nature, cannot entail further exposure and suffering as a condition of its full realisation and expression. And yet, Griswold would have it, there can be no forgiveness unless such conditions are fulfilled. ‘…forgiveness is fundamentally an interpersonal process whose success requires actions from both parties. Anything an individual can accomplish on his or her own regarding forgiveness is less than fully adequate’ (2007, p.212) [my emphasis]. This demand for reciprocity, I argue, places the victim in an absolutely untenable position that might be, quite frankly, horrible.
While Griswold clearly states that his is a ‘philosophical exploration of forgiveness,’ I contend that in his claims of what forgiveness is not, he is transgressing the stated parameters of his inquiry, and providing no evidence of any kind for his claim that ‘psychological’ strategies are, in certain circumstances, masquerading as forgiveness and are not the real thing, but are instead induced by some ‘…what have you…’ (2007, p.116). At the outset he states that ‘…forgiveness is a concept that comes with conditions attached. It is governed by norms’ (Griswold, 2007, p.xv). As McKenna observes:
…all philosophical reflection on language strives to stabilise meaning and anchor it in principles that are immune to critique: nature, ideas, and history are simply passwords for an effort – called ‘logocentrism’ by post-modernists – that Derrida claims is as relentless as it is futile (McKenna, 1997).
The question of forgiveness is, I suggest, an urgent one in today’s world. As such it is worthy of an exploration that inquires widely and deeply into all its possible embodied practices, and we are ill served, I contend, by limited and exclusionary philosophical ideals of what it is or is not.
In her book on trauma and recovery, Judith Lewis Herman acknowledges the very common fantasy of revenge to which trauma survivors can resort, in order that they might reclaim a sense of control and empowerment. In The Practice of Goodness, Angelica imagines confronting her stepfather when he is bound in chains and at her mercy: ‘Angelica approaches the man. “Don’t,” he begs her, “Please don’t.” “Why not?” she snarls, “it’s what you wanted isn’t it?” She laughs at him. She’s feeling very strong’ (Wilson, 2007, p.229). ‘The revenge fantasy is often a mirror image to the traumatic memory, in which the roles of perpetrator and victim are reversed,’ Herman observes, (1992, p.189). However, as Angelica discovers, the fantasy does not bring relief. The only way she can do to him what he has done to her is to become equally depraved: ‘To satisfy our desire for revenge, we must be agents in bringing harm to others who have harmed us, and we must act with the intention to cause this harm…’ (Govier, 2002, p.3).
That Angelica has justification for her revenge fantasies doesn’t alter the fact that she must find it in herself to act, with deliberation and awareness, as the perpetrator has acted towards her. This proves to be a stumbling block: ‘Suddenly, she’s ashamed. When light comes she crosses to the man. She unlocks his chains. She helps him lie down…He says Thank you, thank you for unlocking the chains. Then he closes his eyes… The man has gone’ (Wilson, 2007, p.230). Angelica is deprived of her revenge, or rather, has deprived herself, because she is sickened at the prospect of becoming like him, that is, of joining the ranks of perpetrators, no matter how strong the justification may seem. ‘…[U]sing the suffering of a person or persons to satisfy oneself is morally objectionable, because it amounts to the treatment of wrongdoers as a means only, failing to respect their human worth’ (Govier, 2002, p.11). Using an other as a means of personal gratification is precisely what her stepfather has done to Angelica: there is no way of her exacting revenge without herself committing the same offense. This places Angelica, the victim, at the very heart of a very moral predicament.
Butler suggests that ‘…it may be that the very way in which we respond to injury offers the chance we have to become human’ (2003, p.58). That is, commensurate punishment, or revenge, dehumanises the victim, however, what humanises her is the opportunity she now has to develop a ‘…model of ethical capaciousness that understands the pull of the claim, and resists that pull at the same time, providing a certain ambivalent gesture as the action of ethics itself’ (Butler, 2003, p.60). What I understand Butler to be suggesting here is that in the space of uncomfortable tension created by opposing claims (to punish or to abstain from punishing), the injured party can realise her humanity. To be human, then, is among other things, to be able to live with powerful and irreconcilable desires with regard to those who have injured us. There is no suggestion that the victim minimise or condone her injuries, rather that she fully recognise the wrong that has been done to her, acknowledge her desire to make the perpetrator suffer in kind, and consciously refrain from acting on that desire. ‘That we are impinged upon primarily and against our will is the sign of a vulnerability and a beholdeness that we cannot will away,’ Butler observes (2007, p.57). This vulnerability is the inevitable state of both victim and perpetrator, as it is an inescapable condition of embodiment and relationship. We are always in a state of ‘beholdeness’ to others, if that word is understood to mean that we live in hope, conscious or unconscious, that we will not be harmed by them. We are always dependent on their goodwill, and their decision to refrain from harming us. This is an unwilled beholdeness, that is, it is a necessary result of embodiment.
‘What might it mean,’ Butler continues, ‘to make an ethics from the region of the unwilled?’ (2003, p.58). In order to achieve this, one takes one’s vulnerability, exploited by the perpetrator, as the sign and reminder of our common vulnerability: our injury, then, alerts us to our responsibility for other. ‘It is only from the point of view of the injured that a certain conception of responsibility can be understood’ Butler claims (2003, p.59). That is, the responsibility of the injured, Butler seems to be arguing, is to develop the capacity to refrain from harmful action against her perpetrator, and it is only in circumstances of injury that this responsibility can be enacted. In this Butler seems to be referring to responsibility for other as defined by the ethics of Levinas, and discussed in the previous section. This is what I have described as forgiveness being the privilege, task and responsibility of the victim. ‘There is, she is discovering against her will, a universal imperative to forgive’ (Wilson, 2007, p.88).
While the victim may not consider the matter in terms of the perpetrator’s ‘human worth’, she must, if she is to be released from the aftermath of traumatic events, consider the effects of exacting revenge on her own wellbeing. The desire for revenge fixes the victim in her trauma: forgiveness brings release:
Forgiving…is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven (Arendt, 1998, p.241).
While in agreement with most of this observation, whether or not ‘the one who is forgiven’ is freed from the consequences of his or her act is at times difficult, if not impossible to determine. Arendt’s observation would seem, like Griswold’s, to be founded on the assumption of reconciliation, in which the wrongdoer makes acknowledgment, and expresses remorse.
I have argued that the wrongdoer can be wholly absent from the process of forgiveness and the victim may still be freed from the consequences of the wrongdoing, to the degree that he or she can pursue a satisfactory life. Indeed, to suggest otherwise is to condemn the victim yet again to the whims and desires of the perpetrator: to have the victim wait upon the perpetrator’s pleasure, and to situate the act of forgiveness within the perpetrator’s sphere of control. The decision to exact or forgo revenge and the desire to forgive are, I would argue, entirely individual matters. ‘I grant that the act of forgiveness properly belongs to the injured party to offer…’ Griswold states (2007, p.91), though within, one presumes, his stated dyadic ideal. These are not decisions that can be legitimately approved or disapproved of by another agent: ‘Whether she says “I forgive” or “I do not forgive,” in either case I am not sure of understanding…This zone of experience remains inaccessible, and I must respect its secret’ (Derrida, 2001, p.55). The ‘secret’ Derrida refers to I understand to be the experiential relationship between victim and perpetrator, a relationship established by virtue of being joined in the same act, albeit in polarised roles. An event takes place: the actors are both involved in this event; a relationship is created. This is a relationship of horrible and unwanted intimacy, at least on the part of the victim, (abuse is always intimate: even when inflicted en masse it is always experienced as personal by its victims), and as such, is as secret and complex as any intimate relationship, particularly when the abuse is conducted over a prolonged period by the same agent. The notion of forgiveness as reconciliatory might well be inappropriate in circumstances such as these: the victim may not wish to continue any relationship with the perpetrator and it may not be in her best interests to do so. Forgiveness as ‘…a restoration of inter-subjective ties, a re- creation of a “we” where two “I”s had sprung apart’ (Scruton, 2007), is but one of its aspects: I argue that whether or not this aspect is relevant to a particular situation can only be finally determined by the victim.
I have experienced disbelief when I’ve observed to others that I’ve forgiven my stepfather; the inference being that I have been so irreparably damaged and brainwashed by the perpetrator that I am incapable of rational thought on the topic. This is highly offensive to a survivor, and adds to her sense of disempowerment. Eva Kor (2008), a survivor of the infamous Dr Mengele’s experiments on twins in Auschwitz, has been subjected to considerable attack by some of her fellow survivors, for her public decision to forgive the Nazis. ‘Forgiveness is really nothing more than an act of self-healing and self-empowerment,’ she observes, a strikingly opposing position to the views of Griswold and Scruton.
I have come to understand this disbelieving, and at times angry reaction against those who forgive their abusers, as a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of forgiveness; a mistaken belief that forgiveness necessarily implies reconciliation with the perpetrators, and/or a forgetting, or minimisation of their crimes, all of which devalues the survivor’s experiences. Forgiveness, then, becomes associated with self-abasement and self-delusion. However, ‘…what is forgiven will be remembered; the issue is whether it will be remembered with or without accompanying feelings of hatred and vindictiveness’ (Govier, 2002, p.108). This is the secret that may be incomprehensible to those who have not suffered extreme abuse; that one will never forget, but if one is to fully live one’s own life, one must forgive. Derrida recognises that this ‘secret’, this ‘zone of inaccessible experience’ must be respected, if not understood, if one is to avoid further abusing the survivor by questioning her capacity for judgement and action on her own behalf. Eva Kor emphasises that she speaks only for herself in the matter of forgiving the Nazis, and she indignantly refutes any attempts made by others to speak on her behalf, or to tell her what her position should be. That she is empowered by her acts of forgiveness is undeniable. No longer enslaved by bitterness, misery, hatred, and desire for revenge, she has established a museum to the Holocaust in her American hometown, (for she will never forget, and does not wish to), and lectures around the world. Hatred, I argue, is as powerful a bonding agent as is love, without any of the compensations, and along with Eva Kor, I attest to the glorious and hard-won liberation of forgiveness.
While justice may sometimes prevail in the form of juridico-political action, this is not the same thing as forgiveness, which can never be granted by an institution, but originates in the individual human heart. In many cases, such as my own, there is no formal punishment of the crimes; this is the case for many victims of intra-familial violence, as has been established in the previous section. Forgiveness, however, is the ‘…something that exceeds…’ institutions, ‘…forgiveness must engage two singularities: the guilty…and the victim’ (Derrida, 2001, p. 42). In this sense, much literature and theory on forgiveness lacks the humility Derrida expresses: it lacks the acknowledgement that there is a serious distance between thought and opinion on these matters, and experience, particularly of extreme abuse, both intra-familial and political. Thus: ‘…many victims of human rights violations criticised the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the grounds …that it had been too forgiving, had pre-empted what should have been their exclusive right to forgive, and had wrongly put pressure on victims to forgive’ (Govier, 2002, p.93). To the degree that one victim heartbreakingly claimed: ‘The oppression was bad, but what is much worse, what makes me even more angry, is that they are trying to dictate my forgiveness,’ and: ‘Tutu knows very well that he is not the person to forgive on behalf of victims’ (Govier, 2002, p.93). From the victim’s perspective, for another agent to ‘forgive’ one’s perpetrator is an act of breathtaking arrogance and insensitivity that further effaces the suffering and traumatised human being. As well, the pressuring of victims to ‘forgive’ can result in little more than lip service, and further abuse: ‘Forgiving and the relationship it establishes is always an eminently personal (thought not necessarily individual or private) affair…’ (Arendt, 1998, p.241). Again, Arendt presumes relationship: again I argue relationship is not necessary to forgiveness, or, in certain circumstances, desirable.
What much of the literature on forgiveness has in common is the suggestion that the wrongful act be separated from the actor who perpetrates it. ‘There is a logical and ethical distinction between the acts and the agent who committed them,’ Govier claims, (2002, p.110). This distinction is that the perpetrator is a human being and therefore: ‘…should never be regarded as entirely lacking in potential for moral change’ (ibid, p.110), while the act is irrevocable. The perpetrator, as long as he is mortal, is assumed to have the potential for repentance and reformation.
This is a distinction that can be extremely difficult for victims to concern themselves with. In my own situation, my childhood sexual abuse was prolonged over several years: the perpetrator frequently expressed remorse, but repeated the offence over and over again. A profound betrayal of trust took place, which, it can be argued, in some circumstances can never be reinstated, even if the perpetrator undertakes reform.
While one is being raped, one does not concern oneself with the distinction between the rapist and the act of rape. There is no such distinction. Even when safe, one is disinclined to make such distinctions: the act and the actor may be separate, however the actor commits the act, thus bridging any separation between the two by his or her willing and deliberate engagement. The actor brings the act to life, without him or her that act would have no existence. ‘…the act is the work of the agent…the thought of the action is inseparable from that of the actor whose action it is’ (Griswold, 2007, p.56). There is no rape without a rapist. It is an inter-human event. The perpetrator forever remains the actor who has done these things, even when these things are forgiven, for forgiveness does not require forgetting on the part of the victim or the perpetrator. The perpetrator must incorporate into his or her personal narrative the inescapable fact that he or she has acted in these ways against another human being. The perpetrator has proved herself capable of abusive acts: in her action she has made the act a part of who she is. In the case of the rapist, he must forever be aware that under certain circumstances he is capable of this act: he cannot claim, I would argue, a moral distance between himself and the act he perpetrates. It is written in his body, as much as it is written in the body of his victim. Indeed, it is only by accepting full responsibility for the act, that there can be any possibility of moral change.
He can, however, claim that a rapist is not all and everything that he is, or is capable of, and to deny him that claim is inhumane, and unjust. This position, I argue, is not the same thing as separating the act from the actor, though it may well be what is intended by proposing such a separation.
It is difficult, therefore, to understand the purpose of the common distinction between the actor and the act: more truthful, perhaps, to acknowledge there can be no such distinction, and grant the possibility of moral change in spite of that. That is, our notions of what it is to be human might expand to accept that the act and the actor are not separable, and to forgive in spite of that, in other words to agree that: ‘Forgiveness accepts that the past is unchangeable, but asserts that our responses to it are not’ (Griswold, 2007, p.29). What we do and what is done to us contributes to the sum total of who we are: the perpetrator must live with this reality just as much as the victim must live with the reality of her suffering. However, the perpetrator is no more in entirety a perpetrator, than the victim is in entirety a victim.
A further difficulty with separating the act from the actor is that it can seem to imply that the actor is in some way less responsible for his or her act because of that separation. Separation can seem like denial. However, an integral part of accepting responsibility is ownership of the action: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,’ Prospero admits, accepting responsibility for either the slave Caliban, whom he has formed, or his own dark nature, or both. (Shakespeare, c. 1611). That is, I am not separate from this act and it is not separate from me: the difference is not that we are separate, but that I cannot undo what I have done, even if I do not remain the person who was capable of doing it. This does not imply separation: it implies irrevocability. Neither does the lack of separation from the act condemn me to being eternally characterised by it: just as the victim is more than his victimhood, the perpetrator is also more than her crime. The victim is not encouraged to separate from the injury, rather to incorporate it into his life experience and history, to forgive but not necessarily forget. Neither should the perpetrator be encouraged to forget, or distance herself from her actions, but to take responsibility, make amends and forgive herself.
It is perfectly possible, therefore, as part of forgiveness, to leave the offender to his or her fate, with the gift of liberation from the victim’s ill will. That is, in her forgiveness the victim has granted the perpetrator: ‘…freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end’ (Arendt, 1998, p.241). This is not, and does not have to be, any kind of reconciliation between victim and perpetrator. Rather the reconciliation takes place within the victim, in the sense that she reconciles herself to the inescapable realities of her experiences, the undesirable effects of pursuing revenge, and the irreversible nature of the wrongs that have been done to her.
Certain acts, then, do not definitively characterize a human being, whether those acts are good or bad. Ethically, it must be assumed that every human being has some capacity for reflection, and it is a denial of human rights to declare otherwise. It is a denial of human rights to declare any human being to be lacking in potential for change. Every human being is entitled to the opportunity for reflection, remorse and atonement. No one can assume the power of declaring a human being to be beyond redemption. The act itself, however, as Arendt points out, is irredeemable and she calls this ‘…action and action’s predicaments…the predicament of irreversibility – of being unable to undo what one has done…’ (1998, p.237). No matter how much remorse a perpetrator feels the act remains done and will not be undone. That is, the act is no more erased from the perpetrator’s life history, or the history of the world in which it took place, than it is from the victim’s life. The perpetrator remains a human being who has done this grievous thing, and while he or she may be forgiven, the fact that they have acted in these ways ought not to be forgotten or repressed; it must be incorporated into our notions of what human beings can do. It is as much a part of our being as are heroic actions. Monstrous acts are only committed by human beings though they are frequently described as animal. To be human is to carry the potential for “monstrous” behaviour, as much as it is to carry the potential for any other kind of behaviour. ‘The language of monstrosity occludes this distressing and perplexing thought, and is therefore misleading’ (Griswold, 2007, p.75) observes, and: ‘They were not monsters,’ writes Primo Levi of his concentration camp guards, ‘I didn’t see a single monster in my time in the camp. Instead I saw people like you and I…’ (cited in Griswold, 2007, p.75).
This is not to advocate eternal blame and punishment: ‘…radical evil-doers still belong to the constituency in which considerations of fairness are relevant,’ argues Gaita, (1999, p.10). If, as suggested in the previous section, we are to base a system of human rights on the fact that we share a common vulnerability by virtue of embodiment, there can be no exceptions to that commonality: crimes and abuses are perpetrated by embodied, vulnerable human beings. This is what I understand Gaita to mean by the phrase ‘considerations of fairness’; that even the most depraved of us, as long as he or she is alive, is entitled to considerations of fairness by virtue of his or her mortality. We cannot deny this mortality and the human rights to which it is entitled, without ourselves becoming abusive. However, because the capacity, the potential exists for remorse and change, this is no guarantee that it will be exercised: perpetrators, by their very nature, are frequently disinclined to acknowledge their offenses and express remorse: ‘Genuine contrition in a perpetrator is a rare miracle,’ Herman observes (1992, p.190). It would seem that the very ability to perpetrate gross abuses on human beings requires a corresponding lack of interest in, or sorrow for, the suffering they endure.
How, then, are we to address human rights abuses, public and private? In particular, those abuses that seem to be beyond the scope of forgiveness: ‘…these crimes, at once cruel and massive, [that] seem to escape…in their very excess, from the measure of any human justice…’ (Derrida, 1997, p.33). A mechanism must exist for humanity to deal with the irreversibility of such massive actions, and Arendt suggests that: ‘The alternative to forgiveness, but by no means its opposite, is punishment, and both have in common that they attempt to put an end to something that without intervention could continue indefinitely,’ (1998, p.241). Punishment, however, comes from a cultural system of law, and in itself need bear little relation to forgiveness. Arendt continues: ‘It is therefore quite significant, a structural element in the realm of human affairs, that men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable’ (ibid, p.241). I would argue the first part of this statement is incorrect: people can be capable, and at times must be capable, of forgiving what they cannot punish, because for any number of reasons the perpetrator is absent and cannot be held to account. Punishment does not necessarily put an end to anything, on the contrary, forgiveness does. Punishment is determined by the rule of law, but this rule has little jurisdiction in the human heart. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is entirely to do with the human heart and it is, in the end, only the human heart that can determine a situation to be ended. Punishment may bring some gratification to the aggrieved, a sense of fair and decent retribution, however these feelings do not guarantee forgiveness, and if they are grounded in desire for revenge, they will never be appeased by punishment.
The rest of Arendt’s observation is also contestable: punishment of some kind may be possible, to the extent of life-long deprivation of liberty, however whether or not the punishment fits the ‘unforgivable’ crime is almost impossible to determine. How, in the first place, is a transgression determined ‘unforgivable’, and by whom? ‘…the injured party must decide what forgiveness is, and thus must decide the question under discussion here,’ writes Griswold, on the matter of the unforgivable (2007, p.91). (I note in passing that the first part of this observation: ‘…the injured party must decide what forgiveness is…’ would seem to render pointless his entire construction of the paradigm of ideal forgiveness, and imply that we have, after all, been engaged in an intellectual game of “what if”). The unforgivable he defines as both ‘…beyond one’s ability to forgive…’ and ‘…not to be forgiven in principle’ (ibid, p.90), both of which are to be determined primarily by the injured party.
Arendt makes a distinction between ‘trespassing’, and ‘the extremity of crime and willed evil’ (1998, p.239), the latter being described by Jesus as beyond inter-human forgiveness and subject to the judgement of God. ‘Crime and willed evil are rare…according to Jesus they will be taken care of by God in the Last Judgement, which plays no role whatsoever in life on earth, and the Last Judgement is not characterised by forgiveness but by just retribution’ (ibid, p.240). The unforgivable might thus correspond to the ‘crime and willed evil’ that is in Christian terms, beyond inter-human forgiveness. However, I would argue that crime and willed evil are far from rare, and its victims are entitled to the possibility of a secular redress.
The tone of Arendt’s short thesis on forgiveness seems to indicate that it is predicated on the forgiving of what she terms ‘trespass’, that is, ‘…an everyday occurrence…and it needs forgiving, dismissing, in order to make it possible for life to go on by constantly releasing men from what they have done unknowingly’ (ibid, p.240). In the same way, Griswold’s exploration of forgiveness is predicated on the possibility of both communication between the parties and reconciliation, possibilities that must be acknowledged as quite likely unrealistic in many cases of injury, particularly those consequential to ‘willed evil.’ However, the challenge of forgiveness is undoubtedly most deeply felt by the victim in the space of the ‘unforgivable’, that is, those offences that exceed the notion of trespass, and instead are located in the terrain of radical evil, or willed evil. It is, I argue, very difficult for anyone other than the victim to determine the degree of will that is involved in offences perpetrated upon her. My personal experience was that every act of rape I endured was carefully plotted in time and space: the question of the perpetrator not knowing what he was doing is ludicrous. Many of the victims who gave evidence of their suffering at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have felt the same way: only they could determine the degree of severity of the offences against them, and only they could judge the perpetrator’s awareness of his intentions in the moment of his actions.
I would suggest, as well, that there may be a correlation between a transgression that is widely perceived as being beyond the reach of lawful punishment, that is, too immense to be commensurably punished, and the transgression that is perceived as unforgivable. This conflation is untenable, however, because of the subjective nature of forgiveness. At the same time, there is the question of whether or not the punishment fits the crime in the victim’s opinion, as well as that of the legal system. At all times, however, determination of forgivability is the privilege of the victim, while punishment is rightly determined by an uninvolved third party.
There is little in the sources cited in this section to indicate how the unforgivability of an act is to be determined. What is clear, however, is that what reveals itself as ‘unforgivable’, in whatever manner that is determined, cannot be commensurately punished without the perpetration of another unforgivable act: human beings are restrained in the prosecution of commensurate justice by the need to remain fully human. As well, to determine something unforgivable is to declare that ‘…bitterness, resentment, and hatred should not be overcome under any circumstances’ (Govier, 2002, p.106). Clearly this is a painful position for the victim to maintain. However, Griswold argues that the victim’s need to release herself from such emotions is not the right reason ‘…to claim that no one should be unforgivable’ (2007, p.93). That is, we would (wrongly) be refusing the determination of ‘unforgivable’ because of the repercussions of that determination on the victim, rather than (rightly) making such a determination based on the gravity of the offence or the attitude of the offender. ‘…[S]ome offenders,’ he continues, ‘turn out to be incapable of remorse, choice, and moral transformation…’ However, while some offenders may well turn out to be so in the matter of their specific offences, it is perhaps impossible to characterize anyone as absolutely bereft of these qualities in every possible aspect of their lives. The offender who is utterly without care or concern for any other sentient being is a rare offender, and perhaps unhinged, and therefore in a category to which such matters as moral choice and transformation might be utterly inapplicable. The victim, as I continue to argue, is the only one who can determine whether or not an act committed against her is, for her, unforgivable. Nobody can do this on her behalf. For example, if my child is harmed I cannot forgive or withhold forgiveness on her behalf. I can only do that in respect to the injuries I have suffered as a consequence of my child being harmed.
Should the victim decide the offence against her is unforgivable, then she is inevitably doomed to ‘bitterness, resentment and hatred,’ by virtue of the very definition of forgiveness Griswold employs (2007, p.33). Therefore the victim’s need to release such emotions, is, I argue, absolutely one of the right reasons to ‘…claim that no one should be unforgivable…’ The recognition of our common humanity is not, I would further argue, the reason we forgive, rather it is a necessary component of the process of forgiving. The reasons we forgive are to be found in the desire to live our lives free of ‘bitterness, resentment and hatred,’ free, that is, of the perpetrator’s ongoing control of our lives after the offence is ended.
While commensurate punishment then, may be impossible, forgiveness ‘…becomes possible from the moment it appears impossible. Its history would begin…with the unforgivable’ (Derrida, 2001, p.37). ‘What would be a forgiveness that forgave only the forgivable?’ he asks, (ibid, p.36).
The concept of forgiving the unforgivable can seem rather obscure. Arendt’s conflation of punishment and forgiveness may be misleading. A leap is required into the experiential: forgiveness exists only in action and as such cannot be, in itself, subject to legislation. Punishment, on the other hand, is legislated and administered accordingly: the two are entirely separate matters. I can be ordered to punish. I cannot be ordered to forgive.
Forgiveness then, is not a concept housed in a place of radical exteriority, external to the world of action, and the immediate. While from time to time philosophers and belief systems may come up with various prescriptives, forgiveness must be socially articulated. It is not a culturally permanent given. ‘Forgiveness must rest on a human possibility – I insist on these two words…’ (Derrida, 2001, p.37). There can be, I contend, no universal meaning of forgiveness. Rather it is a constellation of embodied practices that occurs over a period of time, as the victim masters the emotions aroused in her by her situation. Punishment is determined by the state, and the victim is discouraged from taking matters into her own hands. However, forgiveness is a private matter, outside of the reaches of legislation. The punishers in Western society are rarely the same people as the forgivers. Forgiveness is the victim’s privilege, as punishment is not.
As has been argued, no act in itself is either forgivable or unforgivable: the act can take place only through the agency of a human being, the taking of the action, the putting into play, is what is to be judged forgivable or unforgivable. Christianity recommends hating the sin and loving the sinner, but the sin cannot exist without the sinner’s agency, and how does one sanely hate a sin that, in itself, has no existence? At the same time, can any human being, given that we share a common vulnerability, ever be judged to be ‘unforgivable’ without simultaneously being cast out of the human race, that is, executed? By virtue of our common humanity, our shared vulnerability, no one can be determined to be ‘unforgivable’, as has been argued earlier, and I would argue further that it is precisely at the moment that the victim becomes aware that her perpetrator is a human being, that the processes of forgiveness begin. ‘…recognition of shared humanity by the injured party is a necessary step on the way to forgiveness’ (Griswold, 2007, p.79). That is, the point at which a victim might be approaching the possibility of forgiving the perpetrator is, I would argue, the point at which she is willing and able to acknowledge that her perpetrator shares with her the common vulnerability of embodiment. That the perpetrator is in fact a human being, not a monster of any kind, but a human being who has behaved in a manner, the like of which only human beings are capable. Having brought the perpetrator into the human species, she has then reached a stage from which she can release the abuser, for her own sake, through the recognition of his or her common humanity. This is an act of great courage. We do not want to recognise that our persecutors are human like us: ‘We very often tell ourselves that the doers of heinous wrongs are monsters, in no way like ourselves,’ (Nussbaum, 2001, p.450). While we do not want to belong to the same species of life as the perpetrators, we do, and it is this acknowledgement that prevents us from taking revenge in kind and becoming perpetrators ourselves. Arendt speaks of acts that ‘…transcend the realm of human affairs and the potentialities of human power, both of which they radically destroy wherever they make their appearance’ (1998, p.241). However, while there are acts that certainly transcend the potential of human power to commensurately punish, I would argue that no act transcends the realm of human affairs, because an act in itself is a human attribute, an act is embodied, no matter what its nature, and therefore no human act can logically transcend the realm of human affairs. Neither do they transcend human power, because the ultimate human power is, I argue, the power of forgiveness.
The rape of the child takes place in the realm of human affairs, as did the Holocaust, and as does every genocide that follows it. The notion of an evil that transcends human affairs permeates discussions of forgiveness, as does the notion of a forgiving transcendental being. However it is my contention that ‘…it is not true that only God has the power to forgive…this power does not derive from God – as though God, not men, would forgive through the medium of human beings – but on the contrary must be mobilised by men toward each other…’ (Arendt, 1998, p.239). Arendt locates forgiveness firmly in the human. By the same token, the power to perpetrate evil acts cannot be attributed to an anti-god, or satanic being, as though Satan, not men, would perpetrate evil, but on the contrary, evil is, and must be: ‘mobilised by men towards each other’ (ibid).
Finally, Herman warns of the pitfalls of a fantasy of forgiveness: ‘The survivor imagines that she can transcend her rage and erase the impact of the trauma through a willed, defiant act of love. But it is not possible to exorcise the trauma, either through hatred or love’ (1992, p.190). Instead, ‘Her healing depends on the discovery of restorative love in her own life; it does not require that this love be extended to the perpetrator,’ (1992, p.190). ‘Restorative love’ is compassion for the self, the compassion that was not shown by the perpetrator, as when Angelica crawls into bed with her childlike drawings of her trauma. ‘“My darling,” Angelica whispers to the child, for the child who lives in her still is now as real to her as her own dear sons, “my darling, darling girl”’ (Wilson, 2007, p.178).
One of the effects of trauma is to provoke anger against the self, for having failed to protect oneself, for having been seen to be inadequate in this regard, for having been so thoroughly disempowered. ‘I was thinking,’ mourns Cixous, ‘about the tragic truth that the victim is guilty of being a victim’ (1998, p.38). And Angelica asks: ‘What is this vile inclination in our human nature that would have us crucify the victim?’ (Wilson, 2007, p.151). Restorative love restores positive self-regard, relieves the sense of guilt the victim carries, without which the trauma cannot be left in the past. Restorative love allows the victim to regain her own humanity, to acknowledge her vulnerability, not as a weakness, but as a condition of life, and to live again in spite of the perpetrator. While coming to restorative love may be made easier by seeing the perpetrator punished, and by having the support and recognition of one’s suffering that other people can give, essentially the return of self-regard is a private endeavour, and there are victims of trauma who do not come to this point, even though their perpetrator is punished. Punishment, then, does not necessarily bring relief to a victim in the same way as, I would argue, forgiveness does.
It is this ‘restorative love’ that creates the conditions for forgiveness. Forgiveness, I propose, can occur when the victim enters into a state in which the traumatic events have ceased to control his or her life. It is an absence of either love or hate for the perpetrator. It is entirely to do with living in productive peace with oneself: ‘Once the survivor has mourned the traumatic event, she may be surprised to discover how uninteresting the perpetrator has become to her and how little concern she feels for his fate’ (Herman, 1992, p190). It is, therefore, never in the victim’s interests to determine a traumatic event ‘unforgivable.’ It may be unforgettable and, it could be argued, ought to be unforgettable, as one does not forget, eradicate from memory, any aspect of one’s history without creating a lack, an absence that by its very existence, speaks to trauma too disturbing to be recalled and as such, still powerful. The survival of trauma is an act of courage that should never be forgotten. However, if forgiveness advantages the victim, there is nothing to be gained by determining an event unforgivable. Such a determination chains the victim even more securely in the prison of the aftermath of the ‘unforgivable’ trauma.
As Derrida points out, it is difficult to conceive of the term ‘forgiveness’ without reference to religion: ‘…it is the case that the scene, the figure, the language which one tries to adapt to it belong to a religious heritage…’ (2001, p.28). However, if forgiveness is placed in the discourse of human rights, it is immediately secularised. It becomes a question not of religious belief but of common sense and practicality. It is in the recognition of our common humanity that the act of forgiveness begins, and therefore the concept of forgiveness belongs firmly in the discourse of human rights, rather than in any religious discourse. Forgiveness is not the act of supra human agency, any more than the crimes are committed by monsters. The fact of our ontological vulnerability is not determined by religion or law. It is existential: it is a condition of being. Part of that vulnerability is our capacity for experiencing love, hatred and, I argue, forgiveness. In themselves these qualities are utterly anarchic and frequently entirely outside of any system of explanation. They are also ‘…conditions of our existence which we cannot change’ (Seneca, 1969, p.199). So let us speak then, not of an ideal, but ‘…of the mystery of forgiveness…’ (Cixous, 1998, p.39), and the power and the glory of the human heart from which it springs.