We try to control forgiveness because we know we need it

We try to control forgiveness because we know we need it November 5, 2018

Hanif Abdurraqib finds wisdom in his frustration with the rituals of performative public forgiveness, “Why do we expect victims of racism to forgive?

To deny someone a forgiveness that you cannot honestly grant them is a reasonable refusal to participate in a ritual of hollow civility that doesn’t serve a complex and honest emotional response to trauma, grief, or rage. … The harmed party should always have the first hand in establishing what counts as civil, what counts as worthwhile, and what will serve a greater good.

But if the demand is born of a thirst for polite performance, that demand can shorten cycles of both accountability and healing. When forgiveness is transactional, it is meaningless.

The miracle of forgiveness is that it inverts — it corrects — the prior power dynamic. The process of forgiveness acknowledges that the wronged party, the victim of an injustice, now has a kind of power over those who wronged them — the power to grant or to withhold forgiveness. This inversion of power is intolerable for The Powers That Be. It threatens their identity and source of meaning, i.e., their monopoly on power and choice.

The “ritual of hollow civility” of expected, or mandated, or coerced “forgiveness” then is partly an expression of resistance to this power inversion. The Powers That Be cannot abide the idea of the previously powerless having power over them, even so seemingly abstract a power as the granting or withholding of absolution. (And even though such absolution is something that none of their actions has previously shown them to desire or care about.) And so TPTB will not allow the victims of injustice to offer forgiveness, they will simply take it from them, thereby restoring and re-blessing the previous imbalance of power.

Abdurraqib gets at another huge part of this ritualized mandatory forgiveness when he writes that “It is unavoidable to mention that these expectations of forgiveness are often drawn along racial lines, in situations where there are black victims of a white offender.” He traces how this plays out in the face of both massive injustices, like the slaughter at a Charleston church, and in the more routine injustices and indignities of daily American life brought about by the various “incidents where white people call the police on black people for doing mundane things.”

Abdurraqib writes that the expectation of black forgiveness “feels fueled by a perverse need to see harmed people demonstrate nobility — because that’s how we can believe the myths that political suffering builds character, and that righteousness rather than power will inevitably triumph.”

Yes, but I think something larger and deeper is also at work.

I think this “need to see harmed people demonstrate nobility” stems largely from a fear of retribution. More than that, from a fear of justified, well-deserved retribution.

I tried to get at that a while back in a post about the panic of 1741 in New York City — “Empathy turned to fear and resentment.” In 1741, slavery was legal in New York, and white New Yorkers lived in perpetual fear of a slave uprising. There was no evidence that any such uprising or revolt was in the works, but white New Yorkers were convinced it had to be, and so they lost their minds in an orgy of mob violence, lynchings, sham-trials, torture and executions.

There was a kind of logic to this panic — a logic based on something like a perverse empathy. White New Yorkers saw the mistreatment of enslaved people in their city and they could not help but imagine what they would do if such an injustice were being done to them. They could not help but imagine all the violent retribution they would be justified in doing if their situation were reversed. And so they could not help but imagine that enslaved people were thinking the same thing — planning for it, plotting against them as they knew, deep down, they deserved to be plotted against:

The recognition — the stark, unavoidable knowledge — that enslaved New Yorkers were being subjected to an intolerable injustice wasn’t permitted to flow into a constructive form of empathy, so it was rechanneled into fear. And in 1741, that fear overheated in a fever of madness, the result of which was a string of public hangings and burnings at the stake. This brutal expression only compounded that initial fear by making the injustice even worse and thereby making an even clearer case for the semi-acknowledged justification of revolt.

I think this same fear, driven by the same perversely empathetic and only semi-consciously acknowledged recognition of injustice, is what drives white Americans’ desperate need for black Americans prompt, unqualified forgiveness.

That same fear also fuels white opposition to highly qualified, inspiring candidates like Stacy Abrams in Georgia or Andrew Gillum in Florida. It is the fear that if “they” are allowed to be “in charge,” then they may turn around and do to us what we have been doing to them. And even though those driven by this fear may not be able to admit or to articulate this to themselves, that fear is itself evidence — proof — that “we” know exactly what it is that we have been doing to them. We know that it is wrong, that it is unfair and unjust, and that it deserves to be corrected. And that it deserves to be punished.

There are only two ways of escaping that long-delayed and well-deserved punishment. One is to fight to preserve the injustice of the status quo, pressing down even harder and compounding the guilt. The other is to hope for forgiveness — to hope that those to whom we have never shown mercy will show mercy to us.

We know we need that forgiveness, desperately, and the realization that such forgiveness is out of our control drives us wild with fear. So we try to control it — to demand it, to mandate it and expect it. Because we know.



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