Is it ever OK not to forgive?
The print edition of this month’s Prospect Magazine has an article from me on forgiveness. It’s a huge subject, but the particular focus of my piece is the pressure faced by victims of extreme violence publicly to declare forgiveness towards those responsible, even when the perpetrators have shown no remorse or willingness to change their ways.
Together with my own family’s case I was privileged to be able to include an interview with Julie Nicholson, whose extraordinary book, A Song For Jenny, recounts her experiences and reflections following the murder of her daughter Jenny in the July 7th 2005 London Bombings. Julie Nicholson’s story made international headlines in 2006 when she stepped down from her post as a Church of England vicar, and told the media that she would not forgive her daughter’s killer.
Forgiveness is one of those strange areas of human life where a small semantic nuance can have profound political consequences. In some of the most brutalised societies in the world, it has sometimes been taken as read that a) victims of violence are morally obliged to forgive their abuser for the perceived “greater good” and b) “forgiveness” necessarily entails granting immunity from prosecution to mass-murderers.
When these ideas are taken to extremes, as they have been in Northern Uganda with the treatment of victims of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, the results can be both dangerous and deeply unpleasant.
Alongside these individual cases, I was keen to highlight the excellent work that has been done in recent years by philosophers and psychologists seeking to challenge some of the common assumptions about forgiveness and clarify a very muddled area of moral thought.
In preparing the article it was enormously useful to have the chance to speak to Professor Charles Griswold of Boston University, whose outstanding book “Forgiveness – A Philosophical Exploration” has been a huge help in un-muddling my own thinking on this issue over the last few years. Charles Griswold pointed me towards two further books that I would also strongly recommend to anyone seriously looking into this issue.
“Ancient Forgiveness” is co-edited by Charles Griswold and David Konstan (Professor of Classics at New York University), with essays from both, and was published in the UK just at the end of last year. This book seeks to unravel the mishmash of traditions that have given rise to the many modern (and at times contradictory) definitions of the word.
The second book that Charles Griswold highlighted, and which I also found very helpful in writing the piece, was “Resentment’s Virtue”, by the Danish Philosopher Thomas Brudholm. This takes a refreshingly sceptical view of the absolutist discourse of “forgiveness and reconciliation” that dominates so much of the literature. In careful, forensic detail, Brudholm shows how, well-intentioned though such ideas are, they can often have the effect of re-victimising victims of horrific crimes, and even demonising those who make a free and informed choice not to forgive.
The last book I would recommend is “Forgiveness is a Choice”, by the University of Wisconsin psychology professor Robert Enright, who was also kind enough to speak to me at length about his work in this area. Enright is a strong advocate of the psychological benefits of forgiveness, and has won praise for his work treating victims of serious abuses who choose to go down this path. Enright offers a clear definition of forgiveness that is respectful towards victims, and robustly delineates this very personal process from the political issues with which it is so often conflated.
What’s interesting, however, in comparing Robert Enright’s writing with that of Charles Griswold, is the extent to which their respective definitions of forgiveness – and therefore a number of their conclusions – differ so widely. Even among the experts there appears to be no single definition of the word that is universally accepted, and some of the most fundamental principles around the issue are still being worked out.
This makes for an interesting discussion, but also further highlights the predicament that victims being pressured to “forgive” find themselves in.
Prospect Magazine is available from all good news outlets and on subscription – I’d be interested to know what people make of the piece, and hope to return to this issue in more depth later in the year.