false forgiveness

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.


A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

17.2 (Spring 2017)


Faith vs. Cultural Meltdown


On False Forgiveness: When Childish Fantasy and Moral Cowardice Mask as Mercy
John R. Harris

True forgiveness allows people to identify moral absolutes through honest exchange: false forgiveness is a drug that allows both parties to flee the truth.

The subject of forgiveness—and of behavior awkwardly, indulgently, and sometimes deviously classed as forgiveness—continues to preoccupy me as I grow older. Usually, I should imagine, people “cool off” and feel compelled to view past offenses more charitably as the proverbial mellowing of later years sets in. For me, the process appears to have worked in reverse. I was a very whimsical boy, a daydreamer. When I was thrust into the harsh light of an elite private school, where a stiff academic competition was routinely trumped by ubiquitous assertions of social status, I retreated passively into my overdeveloped imagination, for my waking hours had turned into a nightmare. I was able to impose some semblance of order upon my feelings after exiting college into the marketplace by embracing certain quasi-mystical religious ideas that had great currency at the time. Though I never slid so far as to become fodder for a cult like Sun Myung Moon’s, I accepted being a “mark”, a “pawn”, and a “chump” with the joy of a martyr welcoming crucifixion. I sincerely pitied my benighted exploiters, and I also applied my fertile fantasy to inventing reasons for why I deserved to be humbled and shouldered out of the way.

It would be neither pleasant for me nor edifying for my readers to follow the course of these years blow by blow. I will add but a few more touches to the portrait. I might note that I went from being quite charismatic in a Protestant vein to something of the same species as a Catholic-in-becoming. I was bothered on occasion that places of employ subscribing to both aisles of Christendom (for I’ve worked at several Catholic and Protestant private schools) occasionally seemed to treat me very cynically at contract time, and that fellow employees who walked whatever walk was in vogue much prettier than I would nevertheless sometimes whisper scurrilous speculations about my private habits, which I can only believe they found too clean and tedious to be true.

A genuine turning point came for me when I was living the life of a pauper saint in Wexford, Ireland. The year was 1980. A policeman by the name of Seamus Quade was murdered execution-style by punks belonging to the Irish Republican Army, whose main mission at that time appeared to be providing illiterate youth with access-via-gunpoint to other people’s bank accounts. Wholly unarmed, as required by the absurd rules of Europe’s suicidal gun codes, Quade was on roadblock duty in the middle of the night, and he was unwise enough actually to do his job. Having identified through careful search the fools who had just knocked off the bank at Kilkenny, he and his compatriot were marched into a nearby quarry to be butchered. Quade threw himself upon the machine-gun at his back and was sawed in two, but his sacrifice allowed the junior officer to escape. For his heroism, he was rewarded with grumbles throughout the community about the folly of defending the public interest with such zeal, no grumble of which (and some were very public and very self-righteous) could have offered much comfort to his widow and six orphaned children. And the Catholic Church would say nothing, in print or from the pulpit. Absolute silence.

Becoming a father also changed my life in this regard. Already somewhat sobered up from my earlier debauches on idealism, I nevertheless continued to turn the other cheek when taken advantage of… but not, in my new state, when someone took advantage of my boy. I discovered a side of myself whose existence I had never suspected. Sometimes I occupied rhetorical positions that I didn’t know were accessible to such as I, and in a tone that I didn’t know to lie within my register. I learned that I could get mad as hell when someone was trying to exploit this little fellow who had no defenses whatever against a cynical, self-seeking world of adults. That world began to piss me off mightily.


A few weeks ago, an older student who had chosen to become my advisee began an e-mail conversation with me on subjects related to this one. He pointed out that another professor in my department had just published a chapter on forgiveness in a philosophical anthology. I wrote back:

I haven’t had any opportunity to question ___, whom I now never see about the house… but I, too, have mulled over forgiveness for some while, less thru print than by studying ppl.  Many apparently confuse forgiving with forgetting.  I can forgive the principal at ___ School where my son was so terrified of a teacher that he had chronic nightmares… but I would never sit down at a table and break bread with her—not unless she actually asked to be forgiven for deflecting all the blame back on my family.  I forgive her, that is, insofar as I seek no redress from her.  But I have not forgotten!  And I suppose I have not fully forgiven in that I CANNOT do so if the person herself does not wish forgiveness.  Even God cannot forgive a person who admits to no wrong.
On the other hand, I have observed many who will forget these and far worse incidents because it disturbs their composure “not to let go”… and so nothing has ever happened, as far as they are concerned.  To me that is both repellently self-interested and sadly pusillanimous.  I do not seek revenge on ppl because for a mere man such as I to do so is categorically wrong; but if I wipe all from memory, then I am very likely enabling a bad actor to repeat his offense against another innocent in the future.

The principal in question, by the way, was a devout Southern Baptist who always kept her Bible very visibly on display, center-staged on her desk; and she seemed to have some under-the-radar connection with the fundamentalist private school next door to ours, as well, since parents whose children eventually transferred there were given royal send-offs instead of having finding all entries locked against them (as quite literally happened to my family). In addition, the most petty, vengeful, mendacious, and pitiless human being I’ve ever known in my thirty years and more of working in academe was my department chair at a Southern Baptist school. The reader must not conclude, therefore, that I have any particular axe to grind against Catholicism.

It appears to me, rather, that all religious institutions suffer from a tendency to extort money or service from their faithful by representing the contribution as a duty—and that employees are often also expected to absorb criticism without comment in the spirit of humility, which of course invites the critic to bare the incisors a little more viciously. Clearly, the selfish interests of such institutions and their officers are promoted by saddling a servile body of devotees with a duty to say nothing and smile when trodden upon. Forgiveness, in such circumstances, can be more potent than one of the IRA’s nervous gunmen.

But my e-mail, to be sure, was considering forgiveness strictly from the forgiver’s perspective. Ask most people who forgive in this spectacularly generous manner what they gain from the act, and you will likely hear mystical language equivalent to what I myself used hundreds of times in the internal monologues of my naïve youth. It’s all about that special feeling: it’s all about the forgiver’s intimate sense of release, of standing down from tension, of surrendering the need to prepare a defense, of accepting whatever destiny has to offer, of living at a higher plane.  There will be virtually no discussion either of the forgiven person’s desire to receive pardon or of real-world consequences that will likely arise beyond the narrow reach of subjective exhilaration. The forgiven party, at the very least, will probably be emboldened to practice his abuse on others now that he’s gotten away with grinding one person under his heel. He’s learning as you’re “forgiving”—and his lessons are such as may not be fully forgiven you for teaching him, in the judgment where our earthly deeds are weighed all together.

What distinguishes “blanket” or “automatic” forgiveness (such as my departmental colleague apparently preaches with dense philosophical underpinnings) from a joint of marijuana or a fifth of Scotch? What is it but an irresponsible escape into a fantasy which one is pleased to call moral idealism or a duty of faith, but which is no more tethered to moral realities than a child’s cartoon about pink unicorns?


In recent months, I have employed this space to present my own “philosophy of metaphysical purpose” (if you will pardon the highfalutin jargon: I sincerely beg forgiveness). As my years mount, I have concluded that—for some reason not fully comprehensible to us in our present state—we are thrust as individuals into this world in order to probe the borders of universal truths through personal exchanges. We are both to speak and to listen, to answer and to question. We can only come at Human through the filter of being Jack and Jill. Our circumstantial identity, naturally, can be a severe impediment to ascending toward the Golden Rule’s plateau; yet it is also, paradoxically, the only hope we can have of climbing higher. Perhaps the most wicked people in human history, indeed, are those crazed few who flatter themselves that they have conquered the mountaintop, and that their will is now no longer merely theirs, but all of mankind’s. They appoint themselves the universal conscience, so that they have no further need of contributions from the petty fools beneath them. Should such delirious minds acquire physical power on this earth, they become scourges from hell.

(I will not be more specific here about where we are most likely to find the “conscience of mankind” species of lunatic. One political ideology seems especially to attract or encourage the derangement at issue, insofar as it invites its adherents to ignore fixed realities as nuisances created by the short-sighted—small obstacles capable of being subverted by “pure” visionaries. In response to my charge, these same ideologues would counter that religious zealots are the primary source of the “God’s right hand” insanity… and they are by no means entirely incorrect; for the ironic truth is that the political ideology of hard-line progressivism is itself none other than religious zealotry of a polemical, crusading, anti-reflective, and irrational kind.)

Now, if we are to learn from each other, exhort each other, chide each other, and generally push and pull upon and against each other in an indefinite terrestrial struggle toward moral objectivity, then a society permissive of free and open exchanges is a prerequisite. The adult should hear the child even as the child hears the adult; the captain should listen to the corporal, and the physicist should have long talks with mechanics. We should swallow our pride constantly: we should make a pill of it twice a day, coated in humility, and gulp it down like a virtuous medicament. To that salutary dosage we should add an equal amount of courage. We should speak truth to power, truth to beauty, truth to menace, truth to our mob of brethren. Most of all (because hardest of all), we should speak truth to the mirror. We cannot scale the slope toward objectivity if we readily convince ourselves that others have gone too high and need to descend to the pleasures of our present view.

When we introduce into this complex equation the self-indulgent, rather childish practice of “blanket” forgiveness, we corrupt the give-and-take necessary for our moral progress to occur—our collective moral progress, that of the forgiver as well as the forgiven. If I were to say to the woman who turned a blind eye while my young son was being bullied by a teacher, “I forgive you. There’s no unresolved issue here. We’ll forget all about it. We’re probably both right and both wrong,” etc., etc., then the world would continue to turn with a very correctable wobble. That particular little wobble, indeed, would likely become magnified. A bullying classroom teacher would be allowed to upset more small children unaware that her manner was traumatizing to some. Her superior would be allowed to continue ignoring parents whose financial contribution to the school amounted to so little that their protests could pass unheard. The little boy or girl in such cases, looking on and observing no attempt to redress the situation, would learn some atrocious and most regrettable lesson or other about life: that adults in authority do what they want, that the powerful rule the world, that parental love will not override parental desire to preserve a smiling front before other adults, and so forth.

Such is not the action of true forgiveness. Such is the action, rather, of cowardice, complacency, and short-sightedness. I should know. I “forgave” people for far too long in this manner. I stagnated for years in my “saintly” passivity, and I also occasionally allowed others around me to profit from mistreatment of the weak or the gullible. Every time I hear about such false forgiveness now, I go to a slow boil. Just as I once betrayed myself, having accepted direction from other fantasists like me or from manipulators adept at programming their victims, the current exponents of this “virtue” are priming their audiences to betray their own moral development and their obligations to their fellow beings. If you wish to have someone benefit from an act of mercy… then alert that person to the foul committed and the victims affected. Give the person the opportunity not to degenerate from a casual malefactor to an inveterate villain.

Obviously, I am not promoting or suggesting anything on the order of revenge. To interpret my words in such a vein, it seems to me, would require so obtuse an understanding of the issues as to leave further discussion fruitless. As I wrote in the e-mail reproduced above, vengeance is not for such as us to take. Speaking truth is not vengeance, and speaking an unpleasant truth loud enough to be heard over a deliberate screen of mindless chatter is not ruthless vengeance. We owe it to ourselves and each other to cry, “No, that should not have been done.” Perhaps one reason we seldom do this—especially people of my own political inclination—is that the current scene pullulates with self-styled victims bellowing, “I’m offended, and I will not be silenced! The world must notice my hurt and anger!” Such a response manifests the same degree of childishness as the retreat into quietist fantasy, only from the opposite direction. It is most definitely not the response I recommend—no more than plotting a punitive ambush of the unforgiven offender.

Instead, we must seek a universal principle under which to class our protest. The statement, “A child without experience of the world and adequate words to describe complex emotions is utterly helpless in the hands of a domineering adult authority,” can readily be ranged under such a categorical objection. In contrast, the statement, “I’m a woman, and the word ‘postman’ makes me feel like I’m disqualified from certain professions just because of my gender,” has no such force. It is couched in the first person, to begin with. It also involves a quibble about wording rather than a deed (let alone a series of deeds) capable of stirring physical fear. The child in this hypothetical is likely so intimidated that he may not even use what few words lie within his reach to express his extreme discomfort. The offended female has such a super-abundance of words that she rather seems to be trying to intimidate someone else.

If our preeminent calling is to allow people of all conditions to speak, to ask, to propose, to forgive, to apologize, and so on, then the person who has been deprived of speech in this instance clearly needs a defender. In contrast, the person who would confine in someone else the free expression of ideas (with their occasional, plainly unintended yet painful associations) does not appear to be an advocate for moral progress, but rather a practitioner of political browbeating.

If I offend you in writing that much, then I regret your discomfort. Express the causes of your discomfort to me, and allow me the chance to counter with an explanation of why I risked giving offense and why I considered the risked offense minor. I, in turn, will try not to be offended that you’re seeking to shut me up—but don’t expect me to shut up in the “spirit of forgiveness”.

Dr. John Harris is the founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.  He teaches English classes at the University of Texas at Tyler.