Tag Archives: Forgiveness

Dear Mr Abbott. Unlike god, the people are not infinitely forgiving

9 Feb

 

Good Government

 

“Good government starts today,” promised Prime Minister Tony Abbott, fresh from his party’s first failed spill motion this morning in which 39 members of his team turned against him, and one of them cast an informal vote. We are moving on, the difficulties are now behind us, is the vein in which he continued.

All of which begs the question, what kind of government does he think we’ve we been enduring since the LNP won power in September 2013?  Many of us already sensed it wasn’t a good one, and it’s reassuring to have this view validated by our PM, who is, after all, responsible for its lack of substance and quality.

These last seventeen months, as Bill Shorten remarked in a splendidly energetic display during Question Time this afternoon, are seventeen months of the nation’s life it will never get back, and what has it been good for?

Abbott’s determination to put all this behind him and make a fresh start reminded me that he is a Catholic, and so is very used to making fresh starts and putting awkward things behind him.

This is one of the many things I fail to understand about the Christian god. He is, apparently, infinitely forgiving and that to my mind is just plain stupid. Generous human beings will forgive much, but we have the sense to know when forgiveness is a waste of time and the offender has no intention of changing his or her behaviour.

One of the many problems in believing in a god who will forgive infinitely is that it can make you morally sluggish. It doesn’t actually matter what you do, you can count on being forgiven. We’ve seen this played out a million times in the Catholic priest pedophilia scandal, for example. Those priests surely confessed their crimes against children and were forgiven every time, then went right out and did it again, because why not?

And didn’t Abbott give one of them a reference once?

The concept of putting things behind one has much to be said for it, on the proviso that one has learned the lessons to be learned first. To be honest, I don’t have much trust in a government that admits it’s only starting good governance today, seventeen months after it took office. That’s a little long to stay on the training wheels, and they weren’t actually out of office long enough to forget how to govern.

I am also becoming more than a little aggravated with mainstream media commentators who are busily writing a new narrative about volatile, over-sensitive voters causing leaders to crash and governments to fall. This is codswallop. With the advent of social media and the twenty-four hour news cycle, voters are more engaged and more vocal than at any time in our history and we often do not like what we see. Politicians are more scrutinised than ever before, and we all too often and with very good reason take a set against what our scrutiny reveals.

The problem lies not with an hysterical (and therefore feminised, don’t you love it) electorate, but with the lack of substance and integrity of many of those who seek high office. The Abbott government (and the Newman government in Queensland) attempted to inflict its pathological ideology of inequality on a nation whose general ethos is still, miraculously, the fair go. We’ve turned on them. We’ve done this because we are largely a decent people who don’t believe those at the bottom  of the food chain should be ground even further into misery, while those at the top profit obscenely. We haven’t done it because we are volatile, over-sensitive and hysterical.

Politicians and mainstream media can find democracy a struggle.

Abbott is on notice, from his party and from the electorate. Not only does he have 39 home-grown dissidents to contend with, his personal polling figures are abysmal. I have no idea what the PM’s idea of “good government” might be, but I do think it is an admission of grotesque failure that he is promising the electorate good government from today, when he’s been in office all this time and only now because of a revolt and attempted coup. In other words, Abbott has been forced to consider “good government.” It hasn’t come to him naturally.

Prime Minister Abbott might well be about to learn the hard way that unlike god, we the voters are not infinitely forgiving, and he’s likely had his one and only shot at reforming himself and his ideologically driven party.

A song for the changed Tony Abbott: Bruno Mars and Today my Life Begins 

“I will leave the past behind me…”

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On the “unforgivability” of child sex abuse

3 Feb

Mandela ForgivenessOn the weekend, Dylan Farrow published a piece in the New York Times recounting her experience of childhood sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by her mother’s then partner, Woody Allen.

There was, predictably, an explosion of views on the matter. What caught my attention were the many observations that child sexual abuse is ‘unforgivable.’ As one who has lived through childhood sexual abuse, I find that assertion offensive, ignorant and entirely unhelpful, and I’m about to explain why this is so.

But before I do, there ought not to be any expectation for anyone to forgive injury. Forgiveness is an action that, if embarked upon, can take years to complete. It may never be completed. It may never be begun. I’m writing about my own experience as it has unfolded over many years, and what I needed to do for my own well-being.

What is meant when people talk about forgiveness?  The philosopher Charles Griswold, in his 2007 book Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, 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.

I am in complete disagreement with this definition. Many situations of  injury are such that it is impossible and/or entirely unwise for an injured party to communicate with a perpetrator. Many perpetrators never concede their actions have caused harm. Griswold’s paradigm excludes many from the possibility of engaging in the process of forgiveness, as he admits:

When 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.

My own perspective is a secular one, and I think of forgiveness as perhaps belonging in the human rights discourse rather than the religious, or any crypto-theological morality such as that espoused by Griswold.  When I have foresworn all desire for revenge, and any of the other abuses of resentment, I have forgiven. It is irrelevant if the perpetrator knows this or not, unless it is important for me that he/she does.

I don’t believe forgiveness requires the perpetrator’s remorse. I don’t believe an injured person needs to confront a perpetrator, or continue any association with him or her, in order to forgive them. Most importantly, I don’t believe forgiveness is first and foremost for the benefit of the perpetrator, but rather it’s a state of mind that can finally bring relief and freedom for the injured party from cripplingly painful and destructive emotions.

Which is not to say there’s anything amiss if an injured party chooses to confront their perpetrator. Only that this is not necessary for forgiveness.

I see forgiveness as a human rights matter because acts of revenge that cause suffering to another are always a human rights matter. …Using 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, writes Trudy Govier in her book Forgiveness and Revenge. At the height of extreme pain caused by injury, it’s difficult if not impossible to think of the perpetrator as having any ‘human worth,’ however in order to inflict injury on me, the perpetrator has already used me as if I have no human worth. Am I to become like him/her? How will that help me?

While it’s perfectly acceptable for anyone to say ‘I would find that injury unforgivable if it were inflicted on me,’ it is not acceptable to apply that judgement to another. The state of non forgiveness is a horrific state in which to spend one’s life. Having been grievously injured by an abuser, is one then expected to suffer the agony of everlasting hurt and desire for a revenge that cannot possibly ever be commensurate with the injury? The desire for revenge, the inability to forgive (if we understand that term to mean the relinquishing of such desires) fixes the victim in their trauma and denies her or him the possibility of a life free from the aftermath of injury. The victim is trapped in a relationship of horrible and unwanted intimacy (for abuse is always intimate) the only escape from which is to forgive. Why, then, would anyone cruelly claim there is such a thing as an ‘unforgivable’ offence?

I will never forget, but I must, if I’m to have any life at all, forgive. The injurious act, as Hannah Arendt points out, is irredeemable, it presents us with …the predicament of irreversibility. This is but one of the challenges facing an injured person. The injury cannot be undone, the life-altering impacts cannot be undone, one is forever changed by the experience of being injured, the life that might have been, perhaps should have been is stolen, and one will never forget. As well as grieving the injury, I grieve the loss of who I would have been had this injury not occurred, a particularly difficult process for those injured while children, who can feel their childhood was destroyed by the actions of an adult.

Judith Butler, in Giving an Account of Oneself, The Spinoza Lectures, suggests that …it may be that the very way we respond to injury offers the chance we have to become human. Commensurate punishment or revenge dehumanises the victim of injury, however what humanises her/him is the opportunity 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.

What I understand Butler to be saying here is that in the space of uncomfortable tension creating by opposing claims (to punish or to abstain from punishing) the injured party has the opportunity to learn to live with powerful and irreconcilable desires and in so doing, move beyond the ‘unforgivable’ into a life free of revenge and its abuses.

In so doing, I am empowered. In contrast, if the injury done to me is deemed ‘unforgivable,’ I am condemned to a life of ongoing disempowerment, in which my actions are forever governed by my desire for revenge, and my bitter hatred of the one who has done this thing to me.

Commensurate punishment of a perpetrator may frequently be impossible. However, forgiveness …becomes possible from the moment it appears impossible. Its history would begin… with the unforgivable…what would be a forgiveness that forgave only the forgivable? asks Derrida.

Forgiveness must rest on a human possibility – I insist on these two words… he continues. Injury is a human action, the rape of a child takes place in the realm of human affairs. Monsters do not sexually abuse children, humans do. Forgiveness arises in the recognition of our common humanity, and the terrifying capacity for injury and destruction that humanity contains.

So this is why I object to child sexual abuse being described as ‘unforgivable.’ If I tell you I have forgiven, do you then tell me I’m deluding myself?

Do you tell me it is impossible for me to forgive what was done to me, and I don’t know what I’m talking about? Do you disempower me yet again with your opinion? Do you know better than I know myself what my life’s struggle has been? Would you have me lose my life to emotions that destroy my freedom, while affecting my perpetrator not one bit?

If I decide that what was done to me is unforgivable, though I may, at times of great distress, use that term, I am terminating all hope of freedom. Forgiveness is a mystery, beyond the reach of justice and punishment, both of which can be, and often are, incommensurate with the injury inflicted.

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

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.

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