Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Castigate or forgive...?

(N.B. This post's a little rough around the edges; I wrote most of it near the start of this year and haven't given it the level of polish it deserves.)

When I was in year seven, I used to torment a boy — who was several years above me and twice my size, mind you — by throwing my lunchbox at him whenever I saw him in the yard. Eventually, teachers had to intervene.

When I was in year seven, I was pressured into all kinds of embarrassing antics by a boy in my classes who was probably happy that they were all laughing at someone other than him. Nothing ever became of that.

Credit: deviantART / tawkwondonj

A few months back I stumbled across this short piece by Gint Aras, writing for The Good Men Project, titled Should we forgive apologetic bullies?. Take a look: it's short and bittersweet. In it, Aras poses the titular question, asking about reformed bullies, about past aggressors who really do seem to have seen the error of their ways.

The idea of retribution transcends cultures. One need look no further than our traditional stories — whether it's the hubris and (literal) downfall of Icarus, the creation mythos of Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, or the countless deluge myths that exist across cultures, punishment has always gone hand in hand with crime.

It's not too much of a stretch, then, to say that we're born with a sense of tit-for-tat justice. (One imagines that creatures who let their selfish brethren off the hook did not do a particularly good job at staying in the gene pool.) It's not taught. Society didn't invent our moral compasses: it merely reinforced them.

So here's a question. Whence cometh forgiveness?

Growing up in contemporary Australia, whose culture is strongly informed by Christian tradition, I was taught about forgiveness at an early age, well before I'd had any cause to be on either end of it. The very act of saying sorry is intertwined with the reciprocal apology accepted, to the point where the latter's absence is a statement in of itself. (It's further fraught by the legal problems with apologising, vis. acknowledging culpability — you may remember the furore surrounding Rudd's apology the the Stolen Generations back in 2007, with some commentators worried that this opened the doors for class action.) Aras suggests that we in the Western world idealize... [or even] fetishize the act of forgiveness.

This is not a human universal (that I can see). In cultures past and present, vendettas span generations, and folk tales celebrate revenge served cold and grim. The Greek gods were not nearly so forgiving of transgressions as what's-his-name of Nazareth, and let's not even get started on Hamlet.

Why the difference? Is the idea of forgiveness a cultural artefact, or is there some other explanation for its inconsistent prevalence?

Here I'm drawn to one of the more famous New Testament quotes about forgiveness in practice (since, again, New Testament morality has had a powerful impact on the culture I live in):

And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.

But isn't that interesting? — as we forgive those who have sinned against us — it's a tit-for-tat thing in of itself. Not, as before, between aggrieved and aggravator, but on a larger, society-wide, karmic level. Forgiveness certainly falls under the category of Do unto others... acts. And as the saying goes, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

(Aside: tit-for-tat reciprocation is well regarded by the game theory / evolutionary psychology / economics communities as an effective strategy for repeated interactions with untrusted strangers. And within that context, forgiveness — I'm basically paraphrasing the previous link here — is crucial to redressing the eye for an eye problem. Life imitates maths...?)

In the context of Aras's meditation on past bullies, this explanation falls a little short. The forgiveness being described here is not a question of whether you are going to take revenge here; here the power of the phrase I forgive you is the phrase itself: symbolic, but (importantly!) no less potent for it.

Is it a necessary part of a healing process? (Or, perhaps, can one move on without necessarily forgiving their aggressors?) I'm inclined to see forgiveness not as an act, but rather as an observation: one does not decide to forgive, or do so through sheer force of will; one merely wakes up one day and notices that the nature of the wound has changed.

In this view, the fetishisation of forgiveness that Aras describes is dangerous. A culture that puts too much emphasis on declarations of I forgive you is one which encourages people to lie to themselves, to tell themselves that they are further along the process than they really are, to favour the illusion of resolution over the messy process of the real thing.

But even if there is something to be said for open, heart-bared dialogue about hurt and the complicated residue that victimful transgressions leave behind, there is, too, something to be said for putting on a stoical face and getting on with things. Our culture leans too far towards the latter, but we'd be remiss to unconditionally embrace the former, either.