Sages from Cicero to Oprah have told us that forgiveness requires us to let go of negative emotions and that it has a unique power to heal our wounds. In Failures of Forgiveness, Myisha Cherry argues that these beliefs couldn’t be more wrong—and that the ways we think about and use forgiveness, personally and as a society, can often do more harm than good. She presents a new and healthier understanding of forgiveness—one that will give us a better chance to recover from wrongdoing and move toward “radical repair.”
You write about a new, healthier understanding of forgiveness that acknowledges complexity and limitations. What are those limits? Does forgiveness heal all wounds? Should it?
Forgiveness is one way at repair. It is not the only way. Forgiveness can never reach repair by itself. It requires work from community members as well as victims and wrongdoers. It requires certain conditions to be met. Oftentimes we might aim for a reparative goal via forgiveness but never achieve it due to circumstances beyond our control. In this way we see the limits of forgiveness. But just because there are limits doesn’t mean that forgiveness is not a worthy moral practice. It just requires that we improve our expectations of it and of each other.
What do you say to those who would call forgiveness a moral duty? Can it do more harm than good?
Forgiveness, if offered, is a gift. It is never a moral duty. Of course, this is a secular view. Many Christians think that it is a commandment and thus a duty. I think forgiveness is one way at repair but not the only way. If there are any moral duties, I, following Immanuel Kant, think that respect is one, treating people as human beings. But forgiveness is not one of them for I can respect you and yet not forgive you. The two are compatible.
At certain times, forgiveness can do more harm than good. For example, forgiveness could communicate that the harm wasn’t that serious or that accountability is not required. At other times, we can forgive and expect forgiveness from people based on irrelevant moral factors like race, gender, etc. When this happens, repair does not result. Rather, we can perpetuate more harm in the world.
What are some examples of the ways in which forgiveness can go wrong in politics or in the media?
It’s not so much that forgiveness can go wrong, but that we often go wrong via the practices of forgiveness. In the case of politics, we could think that forgiveness can substitute for institutional change or that individual forgiveness can occur without any need for it to be a political project of repair. As political members, we must remember that there needs to be political and citizen interventions and commitments. Forgiveness alone will not reconcile citizens or create a better polity.
We can go wrong in the media when, in aiming to create a feel-good story, we ask victims publicly if they can forgive when we have no right to ask this private question. When doing so, we can disrespect victims or even subtly coerce them into forgiveness. We can also write narratives of forgiveness that obscure the wrongdoing and the difficult process of forgiveness. As members of the media and consumers of media, we must be careful not to make these mistakes.
What do you say to those who would call forgiveness a form of weakness? Can forgiveness ever be selfish?
I would ask for those people to describe “weakness.”Usually weakness is translated as soft. And soft is considered the opposite of cruel, masculine, and powerful. When people think forgiveness is soft they think the person who forgives is being too nice and allowing a more powerful person to get away with doing them wrong. What we find is that it can take lots of internal work to forgive; work that only strong people in character and principle can do. So I do not think forgiveness is a form of weakness. I think it can be a strength.
But forgiveness can also be an abused moral power. In this way, it can be used selfishly and coercively. For example, I can require that you do ridiculous and demeaning things to gain my forgiveness. I can remind you that I have forgiven you as a way to keep something over your head, as I also make myself look morally good. This is something we should try our best to refrain from doing.
Can we forgive someone who has hurt us, but not apologized?
Apologies have a role in repair. They can help the wrongdoer make amends. They can communicate to the victim that they are not mistaken in what has happened, and it can give victims assurance that they can go forward with a wrongdoer in the future. However, apologies are not necessary for forgiveness.
There are many who have forgiven the dead; those who did not live long enough to offer an apology. There are also people who have decided to forgive without an apology from a living wrongdoer. Consider the white supremacist Dylan Roof who killed nine black churchgoers in 2016. He never apologized for his wrongdoing. But some of his victims’ family members forgave him at his indictment. They did not need an apology to forgive. But this is not to say that apologies are never needed for forgiveness. In other contexts, some people might need an apology in order to forgive. It would be hard for them to forgive and go forward without an acknowledgment from the wrongdoer and a vow that they would not repeat the wrongdoing. But we must remember that not all apologies are created equal. Some apologies can be offered forcefully and used as a form of manipulation. In that case, a victim may not trust that it’s sincere and thus sufficient for forgiveness. Therefore, conditions for forgiveness vary depending on the goals of the forgiver, the context, an individual’s disposition, and the history of the victim and wrongdoer.
Is it possible to forgive ourselves?
Yes. Now someone might wonder, “why would it be impossible?” One reason is that some think that only victims can forgive. So if you have harmed other people, they think that you can’t forgive yourself for what you’ve done. Only the victim has that right. However, I’m influenced by the work of Kathryn Norlock who writes about forgiveness and also what she calls the “fragmented self.” By the latter she means that we are not just one person, with one particular identity, at all times. We change, we grow, we are often different people in different contexts. If its true that we are not always cruel or disrespectful. Then it makes sense for our mature self to forgive the cruel self we were yesterday.
In addition, self-forgiveness is not only about external victims. We often harm ourselves. And when we do, we can forgive ourselves for harms we have done to ourselves. Since we are the victims in this case, then we would have the standing.
So yes, its possible to forgive yourself for what you’ve done to others and to yourself. But this is not to say that we can do it too quickly or without proper reason. This we should be cautious of. Nor is it to say that our self-forgiveness could ever substitute for victims’ forgiveness.
What are the benefits, personally and for society, of doing forgiveness better?
Simply put, we perpetuate less harm in the world. We open up ways for people to forgive if they want. And we are able to make attempts at repair, even if in the end we only get close to it.
Myisha Cherry is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, where she also directs the Emotion and Society Lab. She is the author of The Case for Rage: Why Anger Is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle and UnMuted: Conversations on Prejudice, Oppression, and Social Justice,which draws on her popular podcast UnMute. She has been widely featured in the media, including the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, BET, and the podcast Pod Save the People.