Woking Up with Forgiveness and Compassion
"I worry sometimes that outrage, even when completely justified, can blind us to spiritual values such as forgiveness and compassion, and that fury can drive us to sacrifice offenders on the altar of social change rather than treat them as individuals with the capacity to learn, grow, and reform."
In this era of wokeness, we are collectively grappling with, awakening to, and coming to terms with new social realities. We are learning about subtle forms of racism and sexism and the very real pain they have caused. Concepts like “microaggression” and “structural racism” are now part of the national conversation, and sexual misconduct now encompasses far more than physical assault and blatant harassment. While some reject these developments as runaway political correctness, a growing number of us seek to fully understand the lived experience of those on the receiving end of offensive behavior. New norms are being constructed before our eyes, and we are attempting to adapt and adjust.
If we handle this transition phase effectively, we will all be better off when the dust settles. Men with power will no longer feel entitled to behave like Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer, and women will be empowered to stand up to predators, gropers, and molesters and make them pay a price. The more innocent offenders—those in the Joe Biden School of Unwanted Touching—will keep their hands to themselves. Language and images that once seemed innocent but are actually wounding will go the way of the “n” word. White men and others with privilege will better comprehend how unfair their advantages are and, one hopes, gain a measure of empathy for those who bear the burden of history and bigotry. Our hard-earned wisdom should result in a more harmonious pluralism and perhaps even structural changes that level the playing field.
That said, we need to proceed thoughtfully and manage this cultural shift with dignity and integrity. I am concerned that some of the more zealous reactions to revealed misbehavior might be excessively punitive. Certainly, egregious offenders should be held accountable, and the consequences should be severe enough to deter others. At the same time, disproportionate punishment and extreme retribution would not only be unfair, it could cause a backlash and impede the process of change.
I refer not only to the obvious fact that offenses vary widely on the spectrum of seriousness—e.g., Al Franken is not Bill Cosby, or even Louis C.K., and the Jewish tropes uttered by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, for which she apologized, are a far cry from the virulent racism that has, arguably, incited violence.
Similarly, recent acts by grownups who should know better are different from offensive behavior that occurred decades earlier, when the perpetrator was a young, naïve product of a racist and sexist environment. Shouldn’t sincere apologies be respected even as phony contrition is called out as BS? Isn’t confession more admirable than denial (I’m looking at you, Justice Kavanaugh)? Is it not more spiritually mature to judge people by their present actions rather than their earlier transgressions?
I worry sometimes that outrage, even when completely justified, can blind us to spiritual values such as forgiveness and compassion, and that fury can drive us to sacrifice offenders on the altar of social change rather than treat them as individuals with the capacity to learn, grow, and reform. It is especially disconcerting to see liberals and progressives—the traditional champions of mercy and rehabilitation over draconian punishment when it comes to criminals—exhibit the kind of Old Testament wrath that has long been the hallmark of law-and-order conservatives (who, ironically and hypocritically, now tolerate all kinds of immorality in political leaders who deliver them the goods).
Let’s not forget that the most effective and admired soldiers for justice were apostles of love, empathy, and forgiveness. “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” That stance did not make him weak, any more than it did Nelson Mandela. Quite the opposite. As Dr. King’s great predecessor and role model, Mahatma Gandhi, put it, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Can we be strong enough to remain unwavering in defense of what’s right, proper, and morally just while also discerning when to punish and when to forgive? Can we stand strong for the rights of victims and also give offenders the right to learn, evolve, and radically transform? We struggle with such conundrums when it comes to criminal justice; we also need to grapple with them when it comes to changing social mores.
Keep reading: Click here to see more Philip Goldberg columns.