Sunday, 28 March 2010

caffeinated rant about forgiveness and sanctions

i was thinking about this last night and got into a bit of a dark place(!) so i'm trying to write about it on a sunny morning in the hope this will bring out a more balanced result.

i was thinking about forgiveness, and how i don't understand it.

a wonderful witchy woman once told me that cancerians like me carry the stories, and with them the grudges, of the community, and never forgive. at the risk of losing any fragile credibility by confessing my weakness for astrology, this made a lot of sense to me, and i wonder if that's what i'm doing here, and in my work - carrying, trying to release and honour, remember and link together, the secret stories of my community. i don't feel that i choose not to forgive: i just don't understand the concept.

someone once asked me if this means i think people are as bad as their worst actions, and this threw me. i think i do think that, and i'm not sure why i think it, rather than that people are, for instance, as good as their best actions. really, am i just talking nonsense? am i just incredibly judgemental? i think i really need to explore what i think about forgiveness in order to get anywhere in terms of understanding what i think about sanctions, or 'punishment' against abusive behaviour. here goes.

if someone is mean to me or someone else, i try to put myself in their shoes and think about why they did that. and of course there are a million reasons why people are sometimes mean but not in a way where they are systematically putting their own interests first; they've been mean but they weren't trying to get ahead by trampling on others. in this case, to me there is nothing to forgive: they just made a mistake, did something mean, and hopefully understand why they should try not to do it again.

but then there are a lot of times when people are mean in ways that constitute systematically putting their own interests first, trying to get ahead by trampling on others. if someone screws someone else over in this way they are acting as if they believe, consciously or otherwise, that they are entitled to do so. therefore they believe on some level that the other person is less human. to me, this attitude is intolerable. just entirely unacceptable. again, there's nothing to forgive: either someone, when challenged, starts to do the hard work of uprooting their sense of entitlement (as Bancroft would say) and learning not to oppress others, or they don't - because they don't wish to give up the benefits of oppressing, including the comfort of that elevated position.

so i fervently believe that communities need to come up with sanctions that strongly persuade people to do that uprooting.

which reminds me of a quote i've been meaning to link to here for ages, from Mai'a, again, in this post about communities supporting abusers, at Flip Flopping Joy:
"society tells us that being called a rapist or an abuser is like one of the worst things to be called. that it is a stigma that would haunt a man for the rest of his life. but for the most part. it doesnt. men shrug off that label, like a silk scarf slipping off the shoulders."
and the same, so often, if someone is called out for trying to get ahead using racism, for example, in a community. the manipulator may feel uncomfortable for a while as they are challenged and shunned perhaps, but in time things get back to normal. water under the bridge. no one wants to carry on being hostile for too long. i mean, great, if someone has put the work into the uprooting and is no longer prepared to act that way. but if not: no. i have no compassion for someone who would continue, is continuing, to do that (though most likely in more subtle ways so as not to get called out again). and yes, weirdly, i feel some kind of personal responsibility for remembering, carrying that story. why would we forgive that? it makes no sense to me.

except it does. to me, it's forgiveness that keeps the entire kyriarchy turning. we get screwed over, and it's easier to believe that someone did not, or did not intend to, dehumanise us - too frightening and overwhelming to think that that person was systematically trying to get ahead and was prepared to trample us in doing so.

for example, very few fathers end up alone in old age, no matter what they have put the family through. do i want people who've been oppressive all their lives to end up abandoned at the end of their lives? not necessarily. but where is the sanction? how do we, as communities, condemn that behaviour and give abusers something to lose?

i am fully aware that carrying around resentment (meaning, literally, re-feeling) is not at all healthy. i'm glad that forgiveness can be such a powerful way for many survivors of abuse to find freedom. it's not up to me if individual abusers are forgiven by those they have abused, and it is so often a positive thing for the survivor. i mean that as communities, to forgive is to miss the point entirely, and to forget is to collude.

people who oppress operate on the understanding that, at the end of the day, the community will absorb it, work around it. artists and writers who are known to have been abusive in their personal lives are loved and celebrated. overlooking abuse is collusion. 'forgetting' is collusion. forgiveness is a complex distraction and, i believe, colludes. 

ah, got it. i feel much better for working that out!


  1. Thanks Cleaner Light.

    I feel similarly to you - I wonder what people mean by forgiveness sometimes, and especially I am unashamed to say that I'm a grudge holder extraordinaire - if harm has been done (especially to those I care about) and never righted. I hate it especially when I hear people say "I just hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me," as if a harmed party owes comfort to a harm-er, and no it doesn't matter to me if the harm-er is sorry.

    No one has the right to request forgiveness of anyone they've harmed. Nor do I believe anyone has the right to lecture others about how much better they'll feel if they'll just "learn to forgive."

    A friend of mine once put it this way about forgiveness (disclaimer: she and I sometimes talk about god or faith related stuff, even though I'm agnostic and I think she is too):

    "Forgiveness is grace - something god or the universe (or whoever the hell) may grace a person/heart with, but not something an individual can "work" towards or manufacture on their own. It either comes or it fucking doesn't, and either way, it isn't about being "good" or "healthier" or "empathetic" to one who's harmed you."

    That has been my experience. And I *have* felt soemthing that I wouldn't know what else to call it but "forgiveness," towards some who have harmed me. It doesn't mean I have no negative feelings about them or what happened. It basically just means I wouldn't want to see them hurt. And I didn't work to finally feel that, it just happened, who knows why in those instances. In others, it hasn't.

    Anyway, now my comment is as long as your post, ha. Thanks again for visiting my blog and sending me this link.

  2. hi joan, thanks so much for coming by and writing something so thoughtful, i really do appreciate it despite it taking me 3 weeks to respond - i've been out of blogging sorts. i especially appreciate you and your friend's way of articulating how out of order it is for someone who's been harmed to be told that it would be 'healthy' for them to 'work towards' forgiveness! that does not seem to me a useful OR healthy use of a harmed person's energy if it's not already how they want to be using their energy...