Earlier posts in this series: When You Cancel the Abyss, the Abyss Also Cancels You; Kmart Utopia; The Perfect Is the Enemy of Everything; Will the Real Idiot Please Stand Up
There’s a specific consequence of black-and-white thinking I’d like to talk about here, but it needs very delicate handling. I think the basic point I’m about to advance is not only true, but necessary for any functional society. I’d even be so bold as to say it’s a badly needed corrective to the atmosphere of the Left. However. The reason that corrective comes to be needed at all is because the truth I want to talk about is one that’s very easy to abuse. A lot of people do abuse it, especially in the name of religion (mostly Christian religion), and the effects are highly toxic.
What I want to talk about is forgiveness.
What Do a Forgiveness?
I’m not really sure how we got such a badly screwed up idea of forgiveness in our culture. I have a couple educated guesses, but we neither need nor have time to stop for those now. What we do need, and have time for, is a quick theology lesson.
Forgiveness is a way of responding when people do bad things (which is why acting out forgiveness for things that aren’t bad is either funny or offensive). So let’s talk about how bad things work.
Alice is hanging out at Bob’s place, and, due to a fit of anger or to irresponsible carelessness, she breaks an antique lamp he owns.1 One expensive and rare enough that it would be pretty reasonable for Bob to not want to be friends after this. Alice owes him: legally, she can be held liable for the cost of the lamp, but more than that, she owes him a sincere apology. And if she’s genuinely sorry, she’ll probably want to work on the anger issues or inattentiveness, or whatever, that led her to do the damage in the first place.
None of this is because Bob says so. All these moral facts are independent of his reaction. Bob choosing not to be friends with Alice any more doesn’t alter her responsibility at all. Bob choosing to forgive Alice means him listening to her apology, accepting it, and staying friends—nothing else. Forgiveness repairs Bob and Alice’s friendship; what it doesn’t do is repair the lamp, or make Alice’s character flaws go away.
The Seven Storey Mountain
When we’re talking about an object, like the lamp, replacing it (or at least covering its cost) is the proper way to make amends. Other, less tangible injuries aren’t as easy to repair, but there is usually—not always—something Alice can do to make it up to Bob.
Alice’s character is a tougher problem. When we have a chronic flaw, we’ll probably need to spend a good deal of time and effort to correct it. Prayer can help, if it helps us stay level and responsible; therapy might be a good idea, depending on how serious the flaw is.
Carl Jung is the hot one
All this is an everyday description of the Catholic doctrine of the sacrament of penance,2 but with one important change: in penance, the friend we have offended is God. We can’t really injure him the same way we can injure fellow humans,3 and he always chooses to forgive. However, because God is so ready to forgive, we tend to do two things: ignore or forget that his forgiveness is still a gift,4 and assume that other people can, must, or will forgive just as readily.
But other people don’t have the same status God does, to put it mildly. God knows for certain how sincere Alice’s repentance is; Bob doesn’t. Alice cannot hurt God; she can hurt Bob. If God were to stop thinking about Alice, she would just stop existing; Bob can break off their friendship without damaging her. God can help Alice; Bob has his own problems.
Why We Need Penance
The point is, this is not about forgiveness as an alternative to consequences. Forgiveness presupposes consequences, and rarely waives all of them, even when it can.
But we, i.e. the Left, need a means to welcome people into the fold when they recognize they’ve done wrong and want to fix it. This does not mean everyone who “performs” being sorry gets automatic acceptance. What it means is that, if a person shows by their actions that they’re sorry and are trying to change—i.e., they apologize and make some concrete amends—there needs to be a way to extend some grace to that person.
This doesn’t mean that every person needs to treat them the same way. Let’s say Bob and Carol are husband and wife, and the antique lamp belonged to both of them. They each have a right to their own reaction to the situation. Maybe Carol is satisfied with Alice’s amends, but Bob isn’t. Carol doesn’t have the right to bulldoze Bob’s response and “level up” by insisting they both treat Alice the same as before. Equally, Bob doesn’t have the right to controllingly “level down” by insisting they both cut Alice out of their lives. Either they’ll have to come to a compromise, or Carol will have to have a relationship with Alice that doesn’t involve Bob, until and unless he changes his mind.
Likewise, if Alice has screwed up in a social or political way, it’s rarely reasonable to ask the specific people or communities they’ve hurt to accept Alice’s apology. But if a specific person or community is ready to do that, it’s weird and bad to try and stop them. You can’t5 tell someone to be Daryl Davis or Tiffany Whittier—but if they choose to, they’re performing an incredible and, I’d argue, necessary service. Everyone fucks up, everyone needs generosity now and then, and no society or movement can thrive in the long run if it has a way out but not a way in.
Leftists tend to be good at calling out the powerful on behalf of the disadvantaged. But I wrote this post because leftists tend to be equally good at calling out anyone who does or says anything they think is bad. And, due to the black-and-white thinking we went over in the last couple posts, they tend to treat every kind and degree of badness the same way. That’s not helpful, or healthy.
I personally believe this is one major reason the Right—despite being less popular than Liberalism or the Left (which is the whole reason the Right needs gerrymandering)—has so successfully held on to power, even in democratic systems. The Left accuses right-wingers of hypocritically ignoring their own principles, especially vis-à-vis sexual mores, and that’s largely true. But it’s also true that the Right is generally better at building coalitions, partly because they’re a lot better at prioritizing what they want.
Moreover, even the most toxic right-wing movements usually have a low barrier of entry. Committed leftists often seem unapproachable, if not downright hostile, to anybody who doesn’t already agree with them. There are some good reasons for that; protecting vulnerable people is important. But it can also become a pretext to vent our anger—anger that may or may not be proportional, or even relevant, to the conversation we’re actually having. And the very unfair fact is, even just anger can be alienating. I’m not saying “Stop being angry”; it’s a rational reaction to injustice. But how and when we express that anger calls for rationality too.
A Postscript for Religious Readers
Some of my Christian readers may be offended that I speak about a blatantly political question in religious terms like “penance.” It’s common in some circles to say politics replaces religion among leftists, and frankly, that’s not wrong. (Exaggerating, maybe, but not wrong.) However, I think we’re apt to miss the fact that Catholic doctrines work the way they do because they are describing real things. And injustice is not a strictly religious phenomenon. You may get Catholics to acknowledge this when talking about abortion, and that’s a start, but it’s only a start. You need to face other injustices too. Otherwise you’re probably just going to do what makes you comfortable, instead of what’s right.
Conversely, some people may object to my saying the wounded aren’t obliged to forgive, and throw verses like Matthew 6.15 at me. But like I said, forgiveness is by its nature a gift. If it were a debt, it wouldn’t be grace. And there’s a world of difference between God telling us to do something, and us telling our neighbor to do things. Especially if we don’t and can’t understand our neighbor’s pain.
Final post: Being a Dick Is Bad Actually
1Other than the names, this explanation is lifted pretty much directly from Dorothy Sayers’ introduction to Dante’s Purgatorio (he wrote more than just the Inferno).
2The technical terms in Catholic theology for the steps of repentance are these.
(i) Confession: admitting mentally you’ve done wrong.
(ii) Contrition: being sorry, saying so (normally by going to the sacrament of confession), and asking for forgiveness. (The respective names of confession and contrition are kind of confusing, yes. They make more sense in Latin.)
(iii) Amendment: working to correct both real-world hurt you’ve caused, and your own personal failings. Amendment is what we casually call “doing penance,” and normally happens after absolution, the priest’s declaration of forgiveness.
3Or: since every kind of hurt exists only by being present to the mind of God, he is the person most hurt whenever we do wrong. But we still can’t do him “damage” that he cannot recover from; he’s simply not that kind of being.
4In theological language, this is the sin of presumption. The human analogy would be negligently breaking Bob’s lamp because “he’s so nice he won’t care,” which shows contempt for his rights and feelings.
5Normally. Since Christianity has forgiveness woven in, part of the reason we need professional clergy is to have people whose job it is to remind us to forgive. The alternative would presumably be to have self-appointed moral busybodies doing that work, which, gross.