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The limits of forgiveness

A philosopher on the complicated role of forgiveness in a polarized society.

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

It’s almost banal at this point to say that we live in a very polarized society, but it’s worth repeating because it’s an obstacle to solving almost every major political problem.

From voting rights to public health issues to climate change, it’s hard to move forward if half the population hates the other half. Conflict is baked into democratic politics, and this is a big country with lots of people who hold totally incompatible visions of the future. We need a political system that can manage these differences without sacrificing its basic legitimacy.

This will no doubt require lots of work at the policy level. It will also require something on the individual level: namely, forgiveness, or something like it.

We normally think of forgiveness as an interpersonal act, something that happens between individuals. But what does it mean to think of forgiveness as a political virtue?

I reached out to Lucy Allais, a philosopher at Johns Hopkins University, for an episode of Vox Conversations. Allais studies forgiveness and punishment, and she brings a unique life experience to these sorts of questions. She grew up in apartheid South Africa, and that country’s experience informs how she thinks about forgiveness in an explicitly political context. It goes without saying that contemporary America isn’t South Africa under the apartheid regime, but it’s a useful model for reflecting on these sorts of questions.

So we talked about the limits of forgiveness in a deeply polarized society, why she thinks forgiveness and accountability are compatible, why it’s important not to define people by their worst manifestations, and whether she believes a democracy can survive without forgiveness.

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

Let’s start with your basic understanding of what it means to forgive.

Lucy Allais

I think that forgiveness is most fundamentally a release from blame and anger. It’s an emotional change. It’s a change of heart, a change in how you feel toward someone. So we talk about anger as being appropriate or inappropriate, proportionate or disproportionate, and that means that we think there’s something about it that can be justified or unjustified.

What’s so puzzling about forgiveness is that it’s a release from warranted guilt. When I forgive you, I stop letting your action define the way I feel about you. When you’re angry with someone, you see them as the person who did this thing, you see them in a particular way.

Forgiveness involves a release from that, but what’s puzzling about it is that it’s not because you come to see that they didn’t do it or that they didn’t mean it or that it wasn’t their fault. All of those things are ways of coming to see that there’s nothing to forgive.

Sean Illing

How do you square the desire to forgive with the imperative to punish wrongdoing? Some things really do demand punishment, right? Can we forgive and punish at the same time?

Lucy Allais

I actually think we can. I don’t believe these things are in tension with each other. It’s going to depend a bit on what you think punishment is and what you think justifies punishment. I don’t think that punishment needs to be vindictive vengeance or an all-out desire for annihilation and imposition of suffering or something.

You can think of punishment as the way we condemn wrongdoing, or you can think of it as upholding the law by imposing a penalty that you announced in advance would be imposed for this kind of transgression of the law. And those things are important. We should condemn wrongdoing. I don’t think we can have justice without the rule of law.

But I see these sorts of things as separate or potentially separable from how you feel, from having resentful feelings toward someone. So you can condemn something and impose some penalty while also having very charitable feelings toward the person.

Sean Illing

Do you think we can forgive someone who doesn’t want or accept forgiveness? Does the act still carry meaning in that case?

Lucy Allais

Yeah, I think it does. In fact, I think you can forgive the dead, because it’s about changing your orientation to the other person, and you can do that even if they don’t want or accept it.

Sean Illing

This brings us to this question of forgiveness and politics. I just have to say up front that people who listen to this show know my politics are on the left and there’s a version of this conversation that’s framed as, “How do we forgive all those Trump voters?” and I have no interest in that. It’s too simplistic and boring and would undercut the spirit of this conversation.

But we are living in a very polarized society and there’s plenty of contempt to go around. We don’t normally think of forgiveness as a political virtue, for all kinds of reasons, but do you think we should?

Lucy Allais

I think that not hating people is politically important. I grew up in South Africa during apartheid. Apartheid was one of the evil injustices of the 20th century. It was an atrocity, it was evil. And I grew up in white South Africa and everybody supported it, or let me say that the majority of the white electorate voted for the apartheid party.

So most of these people supported this thing and this thing that they supported was evil and deeply unjust. But were they all evil people? That’s not so obvious to me. I had a great aunt who voted for the apartheid government all her life, or at least most of her life, and she was a very warm, bubbly, affectionate Christian person who lived in a small conservative farming community. And she supported this evil for most of her life.

But it’s complicated, right? You want to say that it’s not plausible that this person is not evil, and yet they’re actually supporting evil. Now, you can say that they’ve grown up in this indoctrinated system and there was all this press censorship and complete control of the education system and you can understand how this person came to hold these beliefs.

But on the other hand, I want to say that that’s not an excuse. Maybe you believed the propaganda, but still, you knew that the system you were supporting refused to let Black people vote, that it gave them worse schools. You knew that Black people weren’t allowed on the same beaches. You couldn’t not know that. You can make all kinds of excuses, but I don’t think it’s totally exculpatory. Someone who’s really thinking about it can see their way through that. It’s complicated when it comes to seeing people as blameworthy and that’s sort of the point.

Sean Illing

Something I’ve noticed living in a place where my politics are out of step with a lot of the people around me — I live in Gulfport, Mississippi — is that if you can find a way to engage people in ways that don’t activate their defenses, you can cut through the performative identity-signaling stuff and find common ground. That’s not necessarily about forgiveness, but it is about seeing people in three dimensions, about not judging them by what you might think is their worst manifestation.

Lucy Allais

That’s connected to forgiveness in an interesting way. We need to see people as potentially better than the worst things they’ve done. And what I think is so important about that is that people need a way to back down. You need to give people a way to back down. If you want people to change, you have to make it possible for them to back down and then accept their backing down.

As human beings, we have a deep need to see ourselves as making sense. We need to see ourselves as basically oriented to the good. I think we all need to be seen as justified. And so when we are engaged in something that isn’t justified, we all have a very deep human tendency to rationalize and to engage in self-deception and to engage in delusional ideology that makes sense of why we are really entitled. And you don’t break through that by telling a person that they’re terrible.

Sean Illing

This need to make sense of ourselves makes us extremely vulnerable to self-deception.

Lucy Allais

We need to make sense of ourselves in situations in which it isn’t fully possible to make sense of ourselves, and this makes simple narratives that give illusions of sense and entitlement appealing. It is difficult to come to terms with having been wrong or having done wrong because it can make us feel too bad about ourselves.

In order to grow, and even just to act, people need to be able to integrate a sense of themselves as having done something wrong with being okay, still lovable. This is scary and takes strength.

Part of the gift of forgiveness, and what can be powerful about it, is that seeing another in this hopeful way — as having done something wrong, but still lovable, still okay — creates a space in which there is a possibility for them to face their flaws without needing defensive denial.

Sean Illing

Part of the story I hear you telling about forgiveness is that, on some level, we’re all sort of ridiculous creatures, we’re all complicated and contradictory creatures, and we naturally assume the best of ourselves and the worst of our opponents, and it’s important to keep that inclination in mind.

Lucy Allais

Absolutely. And also it’s important to remember that there are actually terrible injustices, like apartheid, but then there are lots of things where it’s not totally clear what’s right or what’s wrong. It’s complicated. And we should be careful about being too sure about our beliefs.

Sean Illing

Yeah, but all of our political divisions are not the result of misunderstandings and confusion. There are truly incompatible visions of the good, of justice, and there are people who really do hate, who really do want to live in a world that I find intolerable, and these people do not want forgiveness, will not accept it, and they have to be defeated first and perhaps forgiven later.

Lucy Allais

That’s real, no doubt. But we all live in our own bubbles and I wonder about the differences between the absolutely cynical political actors who are leading things, the Sean Hannitys and the Mitch McConnells of the world, who really do know what’s going on, who know what they’re saying isn’t true, and the people in the base who are being told by every single source they’ve ever taken news from that, for example, there was a corrupt election. There are different layers of culpability.

Sean Illing

The pandemic and the debate over vaccines is such an obvious example here. Our ability to deal with this virus, or at least slow it down, has been undermined by people who refused to get vaccines for all kinds of reasons, and that pisses me off and I know it pisses off lots of other people.

And yet, as you were just saying, there are layers of culpability. The Tucker Carlsons or the Laura Ingrahams of the world, the people publicly sowing doubts about vaccines while almost certainly receiving them in private, are not good-faith actors. They’re television performers peddling a product.

But how do we think about our neighbor or our family member who may be genuinely anxious about the vaccine, who genuinely believes it’s not safe, who’s been told it’s not safe by people they trust? I can forgive that, I can understand that, but I can’t forgive the bad-faith operators.

Lucy Allais

I think the people who have consciously spread vaccine misinformation are in a separate moral category from the people who exist in information ecosystems that suggest to them that this is doubtful.

Sean Illing

A lot of people, with good reasons, point to social media and “cancel culture” as evidence that we’re becoming a more punitive society. I do think that the internet has made us less forgiving on the whole, and I worry that the world we’ve built has supercharged our worst pathologies. Do you think that technology is making it harder and harder for us to forgive?

Lucy Allais

Twitter mobs and the comments section of the internet do seem to reveal some terrifyingly punitive, uncharitable, angry, ugly parts of humans. Something about the speed with which people can respond and pile on, and sometimes anonymity, seems to encourage this, but I wonder how much of it is caused by the technology and how much is revealed by it.

Perhaps it is loneliness, alienation, and a perceived lack of agency behind some of the anger and apparent desire to crush others. It does seem like anonymity encourages people to let their worst sides show, and perhaps the rapidity of the communication technology makes people less likely to think carefully before they speak.

Sean Illing

We can probably assume that lots of people won’t be able to forgive fellow citizens for what they believe or what they’ve done, so can we move forward in the absence of that forgiveness?

Lucy Allais

We can move forward without forgiveness. I think it’s very hard to move forward if you can’t get beyond hatred, however.

So you told me that you position yourself on the left, but you didn’t want to frame this as, “How can we forgive Trump voters?” and that’s fine, but let’s suppose someone out there is thinking like that. Being angry about Trump voters is just not a productive way of thinking about them.

For one thing, you’re not actually in a relationship with these other people. And also these are complicated people who might be struggling, who might be one paycheck away from bankruptcy because of a medical emergency. Who knows what’s going on in their lives?

When I think about forgiveness, I go back to what we were saying at the very beginning: that it’s about not holding things against someone. Most fundamentally, it’s about seeing people with an openness and an optimism.

Sean Illing

One obvious challenge is that the onus for forgiveness necessarily falls on the victim. It’s easy to say “we should forgive,” harder to say that to a Black mother whose son has been shot by police, or a family who’s been separated by the government at the border, or a parent whose kid was killed in a mass shooting. Is it fair that the victims should shoulder that burden? Or is forgiveness, in your mind, beyond “fair” and “unfair”?

Lucy Allais

I do think that forgiveness is in a way beyond “fair” and “unfair.” I think it is almost intrinsic to forgiveness that it gives people something better than they deserve or have a right to.

But I don’t find it obvious that forgiveness is required for democracy to function. Some amount of reconciliation, and lack of hatred, seems good and maybe needed for democracy, but that can be achieved without forgiveness. But even reconciliation that is less than forgiveness puts burdens on those who have been historically victimized, so the more political culture and policies can do to acknowledge such victimization the better. I think we should almost always avoid telling people that they should forgive.

Sean Illing

Is forgiveness something that politics or policy can ever reliably foster?

Lucy Allais

I think that politics and policy can potentially foster reconciliation and restitution; symbolic and material reparations, and public recognition of victims and condemnation of wrongs can play a role in this.

Finding ways of exposing people to other people’s narratives and experiences seems like it would be helpful in fostering forgiveness. But how to bring that about is not easy.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.


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