Ask Dr. Forgiveness

I have heard some people say that forgiveness runs counter to justice movements because it cuts into the anger that can energize people to stand up for what is right. What is your reaction to this criticism of forgiveness?

I think the criticism is based on a confusion of what forgiveness is. The criticism also fails to distinguish kinds of anger. Forgiveness is not practiced in isolation from the other moral virtues, particularly justice. As a person forgives, he or she can and should stand up for what is right. Forgiveness and justice can stand side-by-side.

There is healthy anger and unhealthy anger. Resentment, an abiding, deep sense ill-will toward another, is an unhealthy kind of anger. In contrast, righteous anger, the kind that says, “You cannot treat me this way and I ask for a change,” can energize a person and help create justice. Forgiveness targets the unhealthy kind of anger, the kind that can destroy self and other.

When we make these distinctions (forgiveness in isolation vs forgiveness working with justice; healthy vs unhealthy anger), I hope you can see that forgiveness does not thwart justice. In fact, asking for justice without fuming anger might lead to a better justice.

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There are so many talk and reality shows on television that feed the anger monster. I guess it is supposedly entertaining to see people being deeply upset with each other. To what extent does our seeing this kind of “entertainment” affect how we view our own anger and how we express that anger to others?

You raise an important point for us all. We might be witnessing a shift in our American culture, and anywhere else where such “entertainment” is exported, in this way: heated expressions of anger might be seen now as more acceptable than in decades past. If that is the case, then perhaps our norms are shifting so that expressing and harboring intense anger is seen as more acceptable. Research shows that deep and abiding anger is not healthy for the one who has this nor for those who receive it. We need to realize that toxic/unhealthy/intense and abiding anger is not healthy and not acceptable. Forgiveness is one way of reducing and even eliminating this kind of anger.

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I have a couple of friends who are so caught up in their “rights” that they forgive too much. It annoys me. A waiter is too slow with the food, they think their “rights” are being usurped and they forgive. Their husbands are tired and not so attentive one evening. They think their “rights” are being usurped and they forgive. I think all of this “rights” business and forgiveness is phony. In this case, forgiveness is not helping them at all. Instead it is serving to keep them stuck on themselves. What do you think? Might forgiveness under this circumstance be harmful?

You raise a number of issues worthy of consideration. I will make three points that might be helpful.

1. Genuine forgiveness, even when practiced frequently and for small issues, is legitimate because forgiveness is centered on the good. To forgive is the practice of goodness and everyone should be free to decide when and if they will forgive. So, this really is the choice of your friends.

2. You seem to be concerned with what we call false forgiveness. In this case, false forgiveness takes the form of dominance or power over others. If a person wants such power, he or she can feign hurt, openly forgive the other person, and continually remind him or her of the need to be forgiven. This is not helpful to anyone because it is not a true form of forgiveness and, depending on the situation, might incorporate control over others.

3. Practicing genuine forgiveness for the little things of life can increase practice of this difficult-to-master virtue. Thus, forgiving for the little things can be growth producing. Please see our Adult Forum discussion of these “little things” and forgiveness in our Forum section.

Now, it seems to me that your frustration regards point 2 above, the false form of forgiveness. A psychiatrist, Dr. Hunter, in an early article on the psychology of forgiveness published in 1978, made the point that most of us can identify the false form of forgiveness because there is a “smug” quality to the “forgiver.” I am suspecting that you see that in your friends. If so, you can help them by pointing out the three issues above and gently discussing the fine points of each, without accusation or judgment. Include yourself in the discussion so that this is not a blaming session, but instead an educational opportunity.

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You guys seem to have a lot of knowledge about forgiveness. I am curious. How many hours a day do you spend on forgiveness and what do you read to attain this knowledge?

Yes, we spend about 12 hours a day thinking about the topic of forgiveness. We read classic works, such as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Plato’s Republic. Currently we are reading the following book chapter and journal article to challenge us:

Murphy, G. (2005). Forgiveness, self-respect, and the value of resentment. In E.L. Worthington (Ed.), Handbook of Forgiveness. New York: Routledge (pp. 33-40).

McNulty, J.K. (2011). The dark side of forgiveness: The tendency to forgive predicts continued psychological and physical aggression in marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 770-783.

We are also thinking about community-based forgiveness programs and we find this article helpful: Gibson, J. L. (2006). The contributions of truth to reconciliation. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50, 409-432.

Our reading list is ever changing and expanding.

Added Note from the IFI Director: Dr. Forgiveness (aka Dr. Robert Enright) is the unquestioned pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness. He has been called “the forgiveness trailblazer” by Time magazine and is often introduced as “the father of forgiveness research” because of his 25-year academic commitment to researching and implementing forgiveness programs.

Dr. Enright is the author or editor of five books, and over 100 publications centered on social development and the psychology of forgiveness. He published the first social scientific journal article on person-to-person forgiveness and the first cross-cultural studies of interpersonal forgiveness. He also pioneered forgiveness therapy and developed an early intervention to promote forgiveness–the 20-step “Process Model of Forgiving.” The Enright Forgiveness Inventory, now used by researchers around the world, is an objective measure of the degree to which one person forgives another who has hurt him or her deeply and unfairly.

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One of my close relatives has a really bad habit. He says to me, “Please forgive me for this….” and then he proceeds to criticize me. How can a person forgive someone who pre-meditates meanness and then goes right ahead with it? I am finding it hard to forgive this kind of thing.

I understand your frustration. The relative obviously knows this will hurt you, but then goes ahead anyway. It further is obvious that there is an intent to hurt, otherwise he or she would not ask you beforehand to forgive. Forgiveness is more difficult when we know that the other intended wrong. Yet, that is why we have this virtue: to offer goodness to others even in the face of injustice. Yours is a case of unambiguous injustice. Forgiveness would be a good idea under this circumstance, knowing it may take longer because of the intent to hurt. At the same time, please consider exercising the virtue of justice by talking with the relative about this pattern of asking for forgiveness before delivering a criticism. If he or she knows it is unjust, then restraining from delivering the criticism is in order.

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