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Everyone wants forgiveness, but no one is being forgiven

Modern outrage is a cycle. Could a culture of public forgiveness ever break it?

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Part of our series on America’s struggle for forgiveness.

The state of modern outrage is a cycle: We wake up mad, we go to bed mad, and in between, the only thing that might change is what’s making us angry. The one gesture that could offer substantive change, or at least provide a way forward — forgiveness — seems perpetually beyond our reach.

In the public sphere, we’re constantly being asked to weigh in on the question of forgiveness as a cultural process. The consensus thus far has largely been that American culture has no room for the concept. In a tweet from March 2021, Atlantic writer Elizabeth Bruenig wrote, “as a society we have absolutely no coherent story — none whatsoever — about how a person who’s done wrong can atone, make amends, and retain some continuity between their life/identity before and after the mistake.”

In other words, everyone wants forgiveness, but no one is being forgiven, and no one knows how to negotiate forgiveness at a cultural level. In an era of polarized politics, “cancel culture,” and the tendency of social media users to conduct informal modern tribunals without a lot of due process, seeking and granting public forgiveness is increasingly complicated.

The questions involved get harder by the day: What use is a good apology if people are unwilling to hear it? Whose forgiveness matters most? And what’s the point of agreeing on answers to any of the other questions if all we really want is to hang onto our anger, scoring points online rather than moving on?

Bound up in the hand-wringing over cancel culture is the idea that lurking on the internet is a potential vigilante justice mob, out to insist that a score must be settled and retribution must be taken. In this messy context, on such a public stage, there’s little room for humanization between offense and vengeance.

The idea of “canceling” turns every potential interaction into a bad-faith nightmare, reframing earnest calls for accountability as witch hunts and often derailing the possibility of penitence before the question of forgiveness can ever arise. Those who sound the cancel culture alarm do have some valid concerns, namely: How is anyone supposed to attain lasting forgiveness at a cultural level without having their past offenses permanently held against them? What if they don’t want your forgiveness — can you still interact with them and their work? When is it okay to move on? Is it ever?

If things are at such an impasse, is public forgiveness even a worthy goal? Perhaps not, but it is preferable to either a public figure’s summary cancellation (unlikely as that is to achieve) or a furious, endless standoff between offender and offended. In practice, rather than becoming an alternative to outrage and wariness, the idea of forgiveness can fuel just as much outrage and wariness as anything else these days.

That’s all thanks to the nature of modern outrage itself — the self-perpetuating cycle thrives on never letting go and turning every attempt at moving past it into another source of anger, another element to distrust. And so it goes: We wake up mad, we go to bed mad, rinse and repeat.

If we applied a positive road map to a typical outrage cycle, what we would hope to find after that initial period of outrage is discussion, apology, atonement, and forgiveness. That process almost never happens on the modern public stage.

Instead, far too often, a single offense becomes part of a litany of wrongs that follow the offender around the public sphere, with the long tail of their sins — imagined, real, or alleged — trailing behind them forever, ready to be brought up the next time they draw attention, leading them to endure still more damnation every time they make new mistakes. That’s all optimistically assuming we can get them to admit and apologize for the offense to begin with.

With the rise of cancel culture — or, more accurately, the rise of hysteria around the idea of a hypothetical “cancel culture” that may or may not exist — public figures, especially ones with massive platforms, have a reason to completely disengage from their critics and from whatever the issue is that may or may not be getting them canceled.

The problem starts, before any apology or even offense, with the public sphere. We seem to be incapable of handling potential opposition in good faith.

Sometimes this looks like the deliberate misinterpretation of old statements, like the intentional twisting, by right-wing pundits in 2017, of an old tweet by MSNBC correspondent Sam Seder, a furor that led to Seder being fired and then rehired. It can take the shape of broad fan-led cultural conversations like the backlash over the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot — before it had been released — because the reboot had an all-female cast. Or it can come from misassumptions born of vulnerability, like the harassment by the queer and trans sci-fi community of the anonymous trans writer Isabel Fall — and the subsequent harassment, over a year later, of people peripherally associated with her harassment, in a tale without apparent end. In all of these cases, the common thread is the presumption, all around, of ill intent.

Internet researcher Alice Marwick’s investigations into morally motivated networked harassment shed some light on why we’re so suspicious of one another and willing to behave so aggressively. Marwick found that when groups of people on social media believed their moral code had been violated, they felt so justified in their harassment of their targets that they refused to acknowledge it as harassment.

“When you think of somebody as being immoral, that shuts down the ability to have a conversation,” Marwick told me in a 2021 interview. “It really does encourage dehumanization and seeing other people as the other, rather than as actual people. There are places where our sense of morality is so strong that we don’t believe the other person can be redeemed.”

Imagine facing down this kind of collective movement. A person who starts out willing to listen and learn from their critics can become so badly burned by toxic harassment that they lash out at their critics and dig in their heels instead. That has a bunch of ripple effects. It makes the harassers feel even more validated in their actions and anger. It fuels the idea that the offender was never sincerely sorry to begin with, which can lead to more anger and retribution. It also can make the target even less likely to listen and learn the next time someone accuses them of doing something wrong because they’ve already been burned and they have less reason than ever to trust their accusers.

The idea of “bad-faith engagement” has become kind of a buzzy shorthand for the messiness of this process, but it really is the key to any conversation we have about forgiveness.

To reach a point where anger and toxicity are diminished, we have to engage with each other sincerely and respectfully, believing that the people on the receiving end of our anger have the best of intentions in engaging with us. We have to replace bad-faith engagement with good-faith engagement. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that we must wind up dealing in good faith with extremists, conspiracists, disinformation agents, and other bad actors. It might mean that we stop assuming everyone who says anything with which we disagree falls into one of those categories.

We’re a long way from knowing how to do that.

It doesn’t help that a sincere apology — the thing society requires to move forward, presuming a threshold of good faith can be met at all — is often a disaster when it happens on a public stage. If it happens at all.

The classic apology, as described by social psychologists in 2004, involves “admitting fault, admitting damage, expressing remorse, asking for forgiveness, and offering compensation.” Yet while plenty of research has been done on the perfect apology, we’ve had very few cultural examples of one being delivered effectively and sincerely. We’ve had even fewer examples of such an apology being followed up with a process of actual atonement.

Louis C.K., who many were eager to forgive in the wake of Me Too revelations of his sexual misconduct in 2017, drew plenty of tentative praise for his apology to his victims, and his promise to “step back and take a long time to listen.” When C.K. returned to standup, less than a year later, it was a far cry from what his apology had promised; instead of making amends, C.K. mocked and denigrated those who had tried to cancel him. “Fuck it, what are you going to take away, my birthday?” he replied to a shocked audience. “My life is over, I don’t give a shit.”

Even when we get close to something that looks like the “textbook” apology, it’s difficult to trust. After nearly ruining his career by filming a dead body in Japan’s Aokigahara forest in 2017, wildly popular YouTuber Logan Paul embarked on a long and well-mapped-out redemption tour, one that involved making repeated public apologies, including a notoriously poorly received one on YouTube.

At first, his core audience wasn’t buying it, but Paul’s strategy appeared to work. He filmed himself talking to suicide survivors and prevention organizations, rapidly absorbed and adopted the progressive language of the restorative justice movement, and spoke often about social issues on his podcast, Impaulsive. By 2020, his fans were praising him for things like his unequivocal, articulate support of Black Lives Matter. Business Insider observed that Paul “has been more or less forgiven for doing what many consider to be one of the worst things a major YouTuber has ever done on the platform,” and praised him for pulling off a remarkable “redemption story … largely of his own making.”

Some might think Paul has done just about all a person can do to apologize and make amends. Yet wariness persists. Paul’s apology video set off a chain reaction of YouTuber apology videos, each one less sincere than the last, to the point where the media began treating them (and similar videos from others) like their own terrible genre. In 2020, linguists published “A Discourse Analysis on Logan Paul’s Apologies: Are They Apologetic Enough?” The answer, they found, was not quite: While Paul’s apologies contained some of the ingredients of a successful apology, they were missing a few key factors: an offer of repairing the wrong done and compensating those harmed by his actions.

In other words, Paul’s apologies were effective but flawed, and his subsequent comeback is arguably as much a lesson in effective image repair as it is in atonement.

That’s not to say that no celebrity has ever managed an effective apology and won forgiveness from their intended recipient. In 2018, after making a lengthy and considered apology to a former junior colleague whom he had sexually harassed for months, Dan Harmon, creator of Community and Rick and Morty, received a public pardon from her. Their exchange made headlines at the time — though Vice has since noted that Harmon “has a history of being a proud asshole, but apologizing when he gets caught.”

Whether someone possesses the ability to make a thoughtful, heartfelt apology and then apply those learned lessons to avoid other similar mistakes may seem like an apology side quest. But it’s a further consideration for those who’ve been victimized: When experience teaches you that some people can and do hide bad behavior under a mask of contrition, it only increases your mistrust.

Still, we might be able to live with a celebrity doing superficial image repair, or a celebrity who seems to struggle to make lasting change, over a celebrity who’s convinced no offense has happened to begin with. Take a J.K. Rowling or a Dave Chappelle, whose offenses against trans people have yet to make a significant dent in their huge and loyal fan bases. In that kind of case, how does the forgiveness process begin for the rest of us, or should it begin at all?

It’s a basic existential question for which we have no answer. We really don’t know who forgiveness is for. Is it for the alienated, hurt victims of an act, or is it for everyone? Is its aim to heal the injured or to allow the general public to move on?

Consider Roman Polanski. Plenty of major Hollywood figures over the years have publicly called for Polanski to be forgiven for raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977. As an adult, his victim publicly forgave him herself. In the absence of any serious accountability for Polanski, however, many refuse to move on. “Forgiveness is not enough,” Julia Baird wrote for Newsweek in 2009, in a piece stressing the importance of holding Polanski accountable rather than treating his victim’s forgiveness as a form of absolution.

Or consider Mel Gibson, who has apologized and made reparations to Jewish people for his anti-Semitism, but not to queer communities for his homophobia. “I’ll apologize [to gay people] when hell freezes over,” he told Playboy in 1995. In recent years, he’s become adept at apologizing without actually apologizing.

Because there’s no way to collectively arbitrate accountability for unaccountable public figures, there’s no easily definable start and end point for forgiveness. Asking everyone who’s invested in the process to just give up and move on, or to collectively agree that someone has atoned, is all but impossible.

That brings us to what is arguably the most difficult aspect of the forgiveness conversation: letting go.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from Marwick’s research is that the social media dynamics that cause us to feel morally justified in harassing one another also reward holding onto our outrage. So much of the genuine fear of cancel culture involves this idea that once you’re “canceled,” nothing you can do, however well-intentioned, will be enough to satisfy the people baying for your blood. It’s easy to see why that fear exists.

Social media rewards pithy, angry takes rather than nuanced, balanced discussions, then boosts those takes so they attract more angry, non-nuanced takes. It can feel good to be part of that collective anger, especially when you feel righteous. It’s often extremely difficult to let that anger go, to forgive, adjust, and move on.

Most moral and spiritual authorities teach us that the cycle of repentance usually involves grace. Grace, the act of allowing people room to be human and make mistakes while still loving them and valuing them, might be the holiest, most precious concept of all in this conversation about right and wrong, penance and reform — but it’s the one that almost never gets discussed.

That’s understandable. Grace relies on some huge assumptions: that people mean well and that their intent is not to be hurtful; that they are capable of self-reflection and change; and, of course, that we all possess equal shares of dignity and humanity.

These are all pretty big asks in a world that has become increasingly divisive and hateful. It’s easy to say we shouldn’t assume that every anonymous internet stranger or every person on the other side of a debate is a bad actor, sure. Still, when you’re meeting people only in the limited context of a username, a profile pic, and a few angry statements on social media, it’s not easy to stop and remember there might be a whole, well-intentioned person behind the avatar.

That’s what makes the concept of grace so powerful. It forces us to contend not only with other people’s human frailty but with our own: to remember how good it feels when someone, out of the blue, treats us with respect, empathy, and kindness in the middle of an angry conversation where we expect nothing but hostility. To be shown the kindness of strangers when we expect cruelty, and then bestow that gift in turn — that’s the remarkable quality of grace. But there’s little room for it when we’re barely able to handle the concept of forgiveness, and equally unable to stop being angry with the offender after all is said and done.

And so, we arrive back at the beginning of the cycle: We hang on to our anger, and all of this anger puts the possibility of grace even further out of reach. Perhaps there’s a perverse commonality in knowing that no matter what “side” we’re on, we’re all bad at this. Being generous and gracious to each other is a difficult, grueling process for everyone. We all struggle at it, together.


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