Forgiveness as a social grace has been much discussed lately. With the #MeToo movement, men have worried what they could do, if anything, to be forgiven for past sexual transgressions. A cancelled show for an entertainer or two and there were already suggestions that the whole thing had gone too far. A handful of apologies were given—what more could these women want?
Then the Kavanaugh hearings happened. Those who used anything they could find to justify black boys being murdered by police or vigilantes suddenly found the Christian calling for forgiveness sorely missing from our society. Should a man really be punished for what he did as a teenager? The way the hearings were discussed you’d have thought Kavanaugh came into the Senate chamber full of repentant humility. In reality he entered with the fussiness of someone who, because of his affluent upbringing, saw consequences for one’s actions as an affliction of others. Some called his prickliness “righteous anger,” although for something righteous, it was suspiciously pathetic and for anger, suspiciously pouty.
More recently it was revealed that the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, posed either as a member of the Ku Klux Klan or in blackface for his medical school year book in 1984. At first Northam couldn’t remember which person in the picture he was; then he wasn’t sure he was either; then he was sure he wasn’t in the picture but admitted that he had streaked shoe polish on his face to impersonate Michael Jackson for a dance contest that same year. Some have called for his resignation while others have said that it was too long ago to merit punishment. Then there’s actor Liam Neeson telling an interviewer earlier this month that forty years ago, after a friend of his was raped by a black man, he wandered the “black areas of the city” looking for some “black bastard” to pick a fight with him so he’d have an excuse to get “revenge.” Neeson was ashamed of what he did. He didn’t ask for forgiveness; he just confessed.
The “pro-forgiveness” obfuscators lump all these stories together. At the same time, they complain that the #MeToo movement doesn’t acknowledge the gradations of sexual misconduct: that a bad date with Aziz Ansari is unfairly equated with Harvey Weinstein’s sexual coercions and Bill Cosby’s druggings. They complain that such failures of subtlety—failures that are largely fictitious—are manifestations of more nefarious social trends. For them, the calls for Northam’s resignation and repulsion to Brett Kavanaugh are connected. Both are manifestations of “outrage culture” or excesses of “political correctness” or a cultural assault on masculinity. “Shouldn’t we evaluate all these cases individually,” they ask, as they condemn those who are doing just that. As usual, the complaints about moral panic are coming from the moral panickers.
When we talk about whether Northam should be forgiven for blackface or if Kavanaugh should’ve been denied a Supreme Court seat for allegedly assaulting Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in high school, we aren’t just talking about what forgiveness should look like. We’re also talking about what repentance should look like. For without proper repentance, forgiveness is superficial. A perfunctory apology invokes a perfunctory forgiveness. The apologizer isn’t really apologizing, and the forgiver isn’t really forgiving. It’s an ornamental display. I have to do this, otherwise I don’t get what I want. And that isn’t repentance; it’s spiteful self-preservation.
Whether Kavanaugh is guilty or not of sexual assault, he certainly could have taken the opportunity of her hearing do the right thing. If he did what Ford accused him of, he could’ve apologized to her publicly and privately and explained to everyone how what he did affected him. How it changed his life too. How it affected him as a husband, a father of girls, and a man with professional and judicial power. How he didn’t use his own adolescent villainy to justify adult tyranny. How, with his professional and judicial power, he not only protected women when the time called for protection but also empowered them to protect themselves. How he did the only noble thing anyone can do when they do something horrendous: make it change them for the better.
And if Kavanaugh didn’t do what he was accused of, he could have said so with dignity and fortitude. He could’ve said that it wasn’t him that night, but that he’d be willing to answer any questions to exonerate himself and get to the truth. With a bit of reflection, he could’ve said that facing the idea that something he did as a teenager could come back to destroy him as an adult, his judicial opinions going forward would take his own revulsion at being branded for life into account. That, if nominated to the Supreme Court, he would espouse a legal philosophy of absolution. That he wouldn’t take the civil rights away of those convicted of criminality or hang the millstone of “criminal history” around the necks of people for the rest of their lives.
In other words, he could’ve done what a good man would do. But he isn’t a good man, so he didn’t.
A similar path to redemption could’ve been taken by other accused men. Louis C.K., for example, could’ve simply apologized, and done what he could to make amends with the women he harassed. Instead, he’s gone on a comedy tour making fun of gender pronouns and “kids these days” (including the Parkland students who survived a school massacre)—the sort of original and interesting comedy material you hear aging reactionaries muttering to themselves in bank lines.
“That path is all well and good,” some might respond, “but those who were opposed to Kavanaugh’s nomination wouldn’t have forgiven him even if he did the right thing. To them he was eternally guilty.” Maybe. But repentance isn’t about getting forgiveness; it’s about seeking it. And seeking forgiveness means setting yourself right with the world. It means doing the proper things so that you merit forgiveness and so that you can in turn forgive yourself (or at least forgive yourself the best you can). It isn’t about anyone else exonerating you or being cleansed of any stigma against you.
Should Kavanaugh have been allowed on the Supreme Court? Does Louis C.K. still deserve a lucrative comedy career? Should Northam be allowed to stay governor? For me, the answers to all three could’ve easily been “yes”—if they had done the right things and shown that their head and heart were in the right place. Instead, Kavanaugh and C.K. were petulant and Northam seems so obsessed with his political career that he can’t tell up from down.
Without proper repentance, things just get worse. More nebulous. If you don’t think you owe an apology, say so. That way at least everyone knows where you stand. The worst thing that can happen (and usually does) is a superficial apology where nothing changes and no one is really forgiven: then everyone just clings bitterly to the irresolution.
Although all the accused discussed here are relatively powerful people, a widespread fear felt by men across class and status has been cultivated. I have friends who couldn’t be bothered to read their own grandfather’s obituary but became forensic researchers with each new #MeToo case. I’ve heard men say they’re no longer comfortable being alone with women for fear of being accused of some social or sexual impropriety. Likewise with the blackface scandal. White kids in suburbs and towns that had a “ghetto day” during school spirit week, during which they donned oversized sports jerseys and sagging pants, are worried it might someday be seen as comparable to what Northam did.
This is where the obfuscators are partly right. We are dealing with a manifestation of a nefarious cultural trend. A trend where repentance is more performative than interpersonal. Where it’s more about your reputation than it is about your soul. In that case you aren’t guilty because you did something wrong, you’re guilty because you let the fear of being exposed for your own wrongdoing lead you to justifying the wrongdoing of others.
How does one find forgiveness today? By seeking it. By using your mistakes to become a better person rather than using them as a pretext for defending the mistakes of powerful people. By not expecting forgiveness but, instead, trying to earn it. By knowing that some might never forgive what you did. And by being willing to accept that.