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Why is it so hard to forgive?

Elizabeth Bruenig on forgiveness and the performative cruelty of the digital age.

Why is it so hard to forgive?

Intellectually, I can make a good case for forgiveness, and I know from experience that I feel better when I’m able to do it. And yet, more often than not, I don’t. I hold on to anger, I hold on to resentment — and it eats away at me.

A lot of us, maybe even most of us, are like this. It’s never been easy to forgive. But I do think there’s something about this moment in history that makes forgiveness even harder or, at least, harder to talk about. Social media is obviously part of this story, but it’s more complicated than that.

A recent tweet by the Atlantic writer Elizabeth Bruenig got me thinking about this in a different way. “As a society,” she wrote, “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 before and after the mistake.”

I think she’s right. We don’t have a coherent story about how a person who’s made a public misstep, or who’s been “canceled” for whatever reason, can find forgiveness. That’s a problem, and we don’t talk about it enough.

So I reached out to Bruenig to do just that. She’s written powerfully about the death penalty in America, so she’s thought a lot about forgiveness — and non-forgiveness. We talk about what it means, why it’s so hard to forgive in the digital age, and how we can all maybe get a little better at it.

You can hear our entire conversation (and there’s much more to it) in this week’s episode of Vox Conversations. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.

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Sean Illing

I want to begin with the death penalty, which is a heavy place to start, but I think it’s a necessary place, since killing a human being is the ultimate expression of non-forgiveness. How has your work on capital punishment shaped your understanding of forgiveness?

Elizabeth Bruenig

It certainly developed how I think about forgiveness. I’m a Christian, and being raised a Christian, we all know forgiveness is important. It’s in the Lord’s Prayer. And that sentiment appears repeatedly in scripture. But it’s very rare that one drills down into what it actually means to forgive someone and what is the cost of forgiveness and the necessity of it. And so those were things that I knew I had not explored in a really complete fashion, although I had thought about them.

Covering capital punishment has certainly put a lot of that into very sharp focus. Because in talking about forgiveness, you’ve got to weigh a couple of things: the good of the offender for whom forgiveness is critical, and the offense to society, the fact of the crime itself, which can’t be undone. All of those things, I think, are brought forward in extremes in capital punishment cases.

Sean Illing

Concepts like “exoneration” or “vindication” are simple, and we know what they mean: Someone was absolved, cleared of guilt, set free. But forgiveness is not absolution, even though it’s confused with that. If it’s not that, though, what is it exactly?

Elizabeth Bruenig

Yes, forgiveness doesn’t undo the fact of the offense, nor does forgiveness suggest that the offense wasn’t really that bad. So a lot of the time when you read people thinking through forgiveness, what you actually see them doing is trying to find ways to mitigate the offense. People will say, “Well, I wanted to forgive this person, and so I took into account that they didn’t really mean it. They were young, they were ill,” etc., etc. And those are all important factors when thinking about how to respond to an offense.

But the truth is that forgiveness pertains to a situation in which the person is guilty and culpable. That is when the question of forgiveness actually opens. It does not open up when you have a situation where somebody is not responsible for the offense. That’s not forgiveness. Forgiveness is when you decide to permanently forgo seeking restitution or vengeance — or however you want to think about it — for an offense that someone really did commit.

Sean Illing

We like accountability, we like consequences, we like strength, but forgiveness is something very different and strange, and requires enormous will and courage. Do you think it’s hard for us to get our arms around it because it cuts against our instinctive understanding of justice as retribution?

Elizabeth Bruenig

Absolutely. Quite a bit of Christian theology tries to come to terms with this. How is it possible that God is both just and merciful? Because they seem to cut against each other. Christian theologians have done a pretty decent job, I think, of reconciling those two things over the last couple thousand years. But that doesn’t mean that it’s something that is very obvious to most people. And I think that when folks hear about forgiveness or when they’re told that forgiveness is a virtue, they wonder, “Okay, so what’s the incentive for someone not to do a bad thing now? If they know they’ll be forgiven, what prevents them from doing the wrong?”

Sean Illing

It’s a fair question. I mean, do you think mercy and justice are one and the same?

Elizabeth Bruenig

Yeah, I think mercy has a paramount place in justice. The death penalty is an apotheosis of an unmerciful kind of justice. And there are a lot of folks who say, “I don’t like harsh punishments, I’m a prison abolitionist,” but when it comes to certain offenses, all of that falls away. And I’m not saying that to mock anyone for hypocrisy. I’m saying this is a very hard position to hold, that mercy is central to justice. Mercy and forgiveness are very hard.

Sean Illing

I think a lot about who forgiveness is really for, and I don’t have a good answer. Is it for the offender? The offended? Should we regard it less as an individual practice and more as a social virtue?

Elizabeth Bruenig

That’s a really important question because a lot of resistance to the idea of forgiveness arises from the fact that it’s often sold as a kind of self-help practice. “Oh, someone hurt you, and you’re still traumatized by it. ... All you need to do is forgive them and then you’ll feel better about it, and you can let go and move on.” That’s just not true. And I don’t think it takes much experience in that realm to realize that forgiving someone and letting go of your right to pursue some kind of recompense from them doesn’t feel amazing. It can oftentimes be, in its own way, another layer of pain.

So whatever forgiveness is, and I do think it is a personal virtue as well as a social virtue, it’s certainly not something you do for your own pleasure or your own health. The person doing the forgiving isn’t getting a lot of bang for their buck. The person who benefits way out of proportion to what they’ve done is the offender.

But that raises an important point: Forgiveness is not deserved by definition. It’s not something somebody earns. It’s something that’s freely given. You give it to someone for lots of reasons, for reasons of personal virtue, for reasons of mercy and concern for the offender, which is a strange thing to imagine in our day and age.

Sean Illing

Does your philosophy of forgiveness fall apart without your religious worldview to anchor it?

Elizabeth Bruenig

I don’t know. That’s a difficult question for me to answer because I can’t extract myself from my religion. The things that I believe as a result of being a Christian are the most true things to me. Those are the things I believe the very most, the foundational principles upon which everything else is built. So it would be similar to asking someone, “Well, does your theory of justice make sense if gravity doesn’t exist?” That’s kind of a shattering proposition. But there are many religions aside from mine, and many secular ideologies as well, that offer theories of forgiveness that are comparable to Christianity.

Sean Illing

There are lots of things about this moment that would suggest it is ripe for forgiveness — you’ve pointed to all the energy around criminal justice reform, for example. But instead, the opposite is true. There seems to be no place for it, no interest in it. How do you explain that?

Elizabeth Bruenig

People are very angry, especially when you have forms of systematized oppression that have operated for a very long time, and you finally have an opportunity to reckon with those. I think it’s very difficult for a lot of people to say, “Okay, so for the first time we have the opportunity to deliver accountability here and you’re asking us to just walk away and say never mind?” That’s not necessarily what forgiveness is, but it does mean asking an individual to decline to prosecute, to the fullest extent of their rights, the offense. And that’s a hard pill to swallow.

Forgiveness gets confused with so many things. It gets confused with mitigation or exoneration or with this idea that we have to pretend that what took place wasn’t all that bad, which is just wrong in my view. But more critically, forgiveness is a very difficult moral practice. And so when you get in a situation where you’re asking someone to forgive, the response often comes from a place of, “Look, I was victimized, I did nothing wrong, I was minding my business and someone hurt me and I’ll never get that back. Now you’re telling me I have to do this extra work? I have to add a layer of emotional labor and the person who caused this harm is off the hook?” And fuck, that’s not an unreasonable feeling to have there. I get it.

Sean Illing

Has the internet just made us shittier, less forgiving people? Has the world we’ve built, the digital world, supercharged so many of our pathologies, like the will to punish and humiliate, that an act of public forgiveness takes some kind of fucking heroic effort?

Elizabeth Bruenig

I definitely think that the Internet is very good at inflaming our worst tendencies. And one of those is the tendency to discipline and punish and prosecute, not for safety, not for the preservation of community, but just for fun. So there’s someone who’s already been totally raked for a bad tweet or something and has already absolutely taken it on the chin, and then we see the shitty tweet again a year later and we’re like, “Huh, okay, let’s go back in on this!” That happens all the time, and it’s a function of the internet’s capacity for preservation and the incentives for people to resurrect others’ failings for their own purposes.

At the same time, I don’t think people have ever been especially forgiving. I don’t think we need to be too down on ourselves because I think it’s just a perennially difficult thing. I look back at late antiquity and the early medieval period and the stuff I studied in grad school, and those are definitely not what I’d call especially merciful times or forgiving people. They knew it was important, they thought about it, they wrote about it, it was a virtue on their minds. But in just looking how society played out, it was something that, to borrow from Updike, was on their minds much more than on their schedules.

Sean Illing

There seems to be a whole class of people for whom the greatest imaginable joy is discovering another person’s mistake and publicly bludgeoning them with it. Humans are wired for vengeance, and I think the ability to mete it out without real effort or risk has been a social catastrophe.

Elizabeth Bruenig

That’s exactly right. Like you say, the fact that it’s incentivized by the internet, and the fact that it carries relatively few consequences, is a huge problem. If you see someone online do something really stupid, maybe even evil, and you just rake them for it, right? I mean, you just cut them down. You’re never going to see the consequences. They just disappear from the internet. And it’s like a video game.

But you never see if maybe somebody had a bad day, or maybe they’re going through something hard, or they’ve been going through something hard, and God knows we’ve all gone through a lot of hard stuff the past year. Or maybe they have a substance issue. Or maybe they just made a mistake and posted something shitty.

But none of that matters. We see something, and we drag people. And then it becomes a big deal. They lose their job, and that’s it. Justice is done. The bad person has been punished. You forget about it. They don’t. They still have a family. They still have friends. They still have emotions. And now they’re out of a job, and the reason that they have been fired is now preserved in amber for the rest of human history, such that any time they try to get a new job or do better, what they did and what happened to them is instantly Google-able and it will continue to punish them for years and years. You never see that part of it; you just see the fun part.

Sean Illing

Given the core values of the left (and you and I are both of the left), you’d think forgiveness would be a natural outgrowth of progressivism, but that’s not the case, or at least it’s complicated. On the one hand, progressives value forgiveness, and you can see that in their willingness to forgive people who’ve committed violent crimes, for example. But on the other hand, a lot of progressives seem unwilling to forgive low-stakes missteps like speech crimes. What do you make of that?

Elizabeth Bruenig

I’ve thought about this a lot. I have a friend who’s a philosopher and pointed this out recently. He’ll notice folks on the left saying we need to take it easy on folks who are in prison, and we need to look at abolition and reintegrating them into society, all of which I agree with. But then they say, you know, if someone does a shitty tweet or a shitty podcast or something, it doesn’t matter the degree to which they change or to which their current views no longer reflect their former views. They can’t be forgiven because that stuff is poisonous, and it causes all the problems in society, etc.

My friend said it’s very hard not to feel like they just don’t care that much about the harm that’s caused by criminals, because by and large, well-to-do professional-managerial class folks are not affected by violent crime. Most of the victims of violent crime are poor people. And so it’s easy for a professional-managerial class person to say that a 19-year-old who participated in a triple homicide related to a cocaine deal that went off the rails should be forgiven, because their major contact with that kind of individual or that kind of crime is watching Law and Order episodes. But that same person absolutely can’t forgive someone who pissed them off on Twitter, because for them being interpersonally offended on Twitter is one of the major conflicts of their life.

Now that’s maybe a mischievously uncharitable reading, but it’s meant to prompt a real reflection, which is why can’t we articulate a continuity between where we are on criminal justice reform and where we are on interpersonal offenses? And I think you hear a lot of explanations. People on the left will say, “Well, these interpersonal offenses are upstream of those criminal offenses downstream. So when we allow these bad ideas to percolate in society without punishment, it’s going to lead to violent expressions.” I think that’s possible, but I still think that it’s pretty clear that not all of the offenses that people are “canceled” for are actually related materially in any way to violent crime.

Sean Illing

How do you practice forgiveness in your own life?

Elizabeth Bruenig

I say that I have four people that I’ve forgiven for things they’ve done to me. And it’s a decision that’s kind of like the 12 Steps program: You remake it every day, and you do it every day. Because sometimes it’ll come to you, the thing that happened. You’re standing at the sink or looking out the window at the bird feeder, and the fury comes back to you and you want to explode all over again. At that point, you have to remake the decision to forgive. A lot of forgiveness, at least as it’s manifested in my life, is me reaching out and being there, and being friendly and warm and open for the restoration of a relationship with a person who hurt me and saying, “I’m still here, I’m not going anywhere.”

But you know, and maybe this is another discussion for another time, it’s also hard to be forgiven. There are so many issues with respect to pride and ego and accepting fault, and there are feelings of condescension and suspicions of having something lorded over you. So part of forgiving is to stand humbly and say, “I’m not kidding. I’m serious. It’s forgiven.”

Sean Illing

Do you think much about where to draw the line? Is there anything truly unforgivable?

Elizabeth Bruenig

I think there are things a person can do to another person that make the likelihood that they will ever be forgiven zero percent. But in my view, a person cannot actually eliminate the value of their own life, no matter what they do. It’ll always be the right thing to do to allow that person to live. I understand, though, the feeling of not being able to forgive. There are some things that just exceed the moral capacities of even the most morally heroic person. But I think we should always keep in mind that those are very, very rare instances.

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