- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 7/10/20
ONE SUBJECT ONLY TODAY—FORGIVENESS
Last week we watched Hamilton on Disney+. This is my third time (not including the many times we have listened to the sound track). At the risk of advertising for a company that doesn’t need your money, everyone should subscribe—if only for a month—just to experience this musical. It is among the greatest pieces of musical theatre I’ve ever witnessed.
Hamilton has been one of my favorite historical figures, so I’m particularly connected to the musical. Hamilton was an immigrant child of a Scotsman and a Caribbean prostitute, who came from nothing to be one of the pivotal figures of the country’s formation. The colonial and early national periods are amazing times in world history, in that entire government was created based upon ideals that we strive for today. The French and Russian Revolutions and other revolutions devolved into periods of violence and retribution. The American Revolution did not. Men of varying views established a form of government in the post-Revolutionary period through politics, to be sure, but also through words, ideas and persuasion. Hamilton tells much of that story.
There are many songs in the musical that are extraordinary, including one in which Washington and Hamilton (Washington’s ghost writer) sing in tandem a song whose lyrics primarily consist of words taken verbatim from Washington’s Farewell Address. Another great song comes in the second act, when we learn that Hamilton, otherwise a man of great principle, has cheated on his wife. After estrangement, a tragedy occurs and they come together again. The song that ensues repeats “forgiveness” several times.
I have been thinking for a while about this concept of forgiveness and the equally powerful concept of rehabilitation, as applied in two seemingly unrelated contexts. We often fail to remember that we are all imperfect, we all make mistakes, and we are all worthy of forgiveness and capable of rehabilitation. On a personal level it seems people often are able to find the strength and compassion to forgive each other, as Hamilton was forgiven by his wife. But when acting in groups it seems people often give way to the blood-lust of the mob.
These two areas in which society vilifies individuals, without offering them forgiveness and without giving them any real opportunity to rehabilitate themselves. The first are those who are being publicly shamed for a word and deed that is singular and not indicative of a pattern of behavior. In some circumstances the behavior is just plain wrong but the contrition seems genuine. In others, the person is publicly humiliated, fired, or forced into silence.
Another place where forgiveness and rehabilitation seem absent from the equation is how society is so retributive in feeding people into a criminal justice system that steals their youth, separates them from families, and forever alters the course of their life. I would argue many of their transgressions are relatively minor and unlikely of repetition.
Increasingly, we have all become aware that everyone—conservative or liberal—rich or poor—Black, White or Brown—is human, possessed by human frailties, errors in judgment, bad behaviors and imperfections. Yet we should be thinking about the universality of imperfection and remember the adage:
“Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”
Between the “Me Too” movement and “Black Lives Matter,” our society has been forced to consider some pretty ugly stuff that has existed historically and continues to exist through today, sometimes publicly but sometimes not so readily apparent. I do not purport to write an entire history of the legacy of racial discrimination or gender inequality. There has been so much written—and to be written—by those who have experienced these outrages and by those who study these legacies. Rather, I am concerned about what we do about those who transgress.
First, there are those who deserve the approbation of society for their heinous acts—both throughout history and today. They include the Confederate traitors to our country, the perpetrators of Jim Crow, the organized (and often disorganized) hate groups, and any number of people who willfully and wrongfully engage in racial injustice and sexual harassment each and every day.
My focus here is on those who have said things that are offensive, perhaps even controversial, that might be construed as misogynistic or racist. Let me be clear that I do not condone such behaviors. I just worry that perhaps our judgment, while in many cases justifiable, results in shaming/shunning/loss of careers—penalties that exceed the gravity of the crime.
My question is this: “At what point, and in what context, are we prepared to forgive someone their transgressions?” My case in point with regard to misogynistic behavior is Al Franken. Here is a guy who, by most measures, could be viewed as a feminist. He also, depending upon whom you speak with, might also be considered a comedian. After engaging in childish behaviors that seemed consistent both with his reputation as a comedian and as a friend of the woman involved, he apologized. No one was harmed, or so it seems. Yet he was summarily shamed and pushed out of the U.S. Senate. Many of those who participated in driving him from the Senate have since indicated they had acted too hastily and without giving him a chance to explain himself. The same often holds true for others who told inappropriate jokes, made inappropriate remarks, or condoned inappropriate behaviors—even those who donned blackface at a party in college years ago. The important thing is an understanding of the past error and contrition. It seems we are no longer kind enough, as a society, to forgive such behaviors and allow people to move on—older, wiser and better educated.
It feels like we are embarking in a direction where every past act, every past word, every stumbling misstatement, is parsed, analyzed, and vilified, resulting in ruined careers, public humiliation, and the inability to recover. Add to this the “shaming” that seems to be going on with social media and it is an unforgiving world in which we live. This is the “gotcha” culture that goes beyond pointing out past errors, but canceling out an adversary in total. If a person generally is honorable, the totality of their actions should be taken into account when analyzing a single slip of the tongue or questionable action. A good example of this is President Obama, who initially opposed gay marriage but his position evolved. We all deserve the right to evolve, forgiving ourselves and others. Permitting growth is hard but necessary if we are to form a more perfect union.
Add to this the rejection of free speech by those with whom people disagree—a rejection practiced by the same people who claim entitlement to it. As Bret Stephens noted last week:
“there are those who believe all the old patriarchal hierarchies must go (so that new “intersectional” hierarchies may arise)…who demand cringing public apologies from those who have sinned against an ever-more radical ideological standard (while those apologies won’t save them from being fired).”
A tyranny of correctness seems on the march to remove dissenting views and/or those who have transgressed by automatic shunning, rather than educating the sinner and addressing ideas with ideas.
I worry that, in the rush to appear pure, people may not feel free to speak and, so, their views may be stifled. And I believe this desire to label people and remove them and humiliate them may actually hinder—and not further—the cause of those trying to achieve change. More time should be spent on positive change. Forgive those smaller transgressions and concentrate on identifying and removing those who truly, unapologetically, and repeatedly transgress.
Again, I’m not saying any behaviors are justified. I’m just suggesting that when we label someone—irretrievably and forever—as a racist because of a prior action or misstep, are we acting in a manner in which we would want to be judged? This is nuanced stuff—it isn’t binary. People are not either “good” or “bad.” The bible says “judge not, lest you shall be judged.” That said, we all are judgmental. It is hard to practice nuance. How does maintain a balance between remaining principled while forgiving? It is an extraordinary task, easily exploited by demagogues, and so hard to achieve personally. I’m convinced, however, that we must try.
Because I know this is long, I’ll save for the next musing forgiveness within the context of the criminal justice system and suggest a radical way to think about it. And thanks, Ben VandeBunt, for his editing and thoughtful contributions.
Until then, all the best,