Forgiveness can be misunderstood and dismissed for the wrong reasons.
A colleague, Megan Feldman Bettencourt, has written an important article in Harper’s Bazaar entitled “How Forgiveness Has Been Weaponized Against Women.” The gist of the article is that as people misunderstand the actual meaning of forgiveness, they can so discourage people from forgiving that emotional healing is blocked. In the case of sexual abuse of women, as Ms. Feldman Bettencourt points out, the “forgiver” is supposed to refrain from reporting the abuse and is expected to go back into the unwanted relationship.
In her article, Ms. Feldman Bettencourt gives stark examples of women who, in the name of forgiveness, think that they must keep the abuse against them secret, thus personally pardoning the offender. One woman who did stand up for justice (not condoning or pardoning) was shunned by her support group because that group misunderstood what forgiveness is. Forgiveness does not abandon the quest for justice. The author’s call is for a clear and accurate definition of forgiveness so that it can exist side-by-side with justice-seeking and not block emotional healing. True forgiveness can enhance the forgiver’s well-being.
Another Example of Weaponizing Forgiveness:
I once was asked to help an organization set up small groups focused on forgiveness in the workplace because there was high tension among the workers. A Human Relations specialist in the company was convinced that adding a level of forgiveness into the workplace would be one strong way of diminishing the conflict and increasing productivity. When we met with the owner of that company, it took him less than five minutes to dismiss the specialist’s idea. “No. Forgiveness is inappropriate here,” he said with cold confidence. “Forgiveness asks too much of my workers,” was his reply.
When we asked him how this is so, he quickly responded, “Look, when there is conflict in our workplace, this is an emotional pain. Forgiveness adds another layer of pain to my workers and so why would I impose this second pain on them? Forgiveness is quite a struggle and we don’t need that at this time.” And that was the end of the specialist’s idea, which as of this writing has not been implemented… and the conflicts at that company continue with no end in sight. What the owner did not understand is this: When there is physical injury, sometimes surgery is needed. Yes, the surgery is an added burden, but it is temporary and restores what is broken. It is the same with forgiveness: When the heart is broken, we sometimes need surgery of the heart to restore emotional health.
Ms. Feldman Bettencourt sees how the weaponizing of forgiveness can actually hurt women who are trying to heal from sexual abuse. I have seen firsthand how the weaponizing of forgiveness can keep workers from reducing acrimony and striving toward greater cooperation.
The moral of this essay is that to misunderstand forgiveness is to keep people from a scientifically-supported way of reducing resentment and getting on with life in a healthier way. We misunderstand forgiveness sometimes at our own peril. We misunderstand forgiveness sometimes at the expense of others. It is time simply to define our terms — in this case forgiveness — and lay down the weaponizing against it.
This blog originally appeared in Psychology Today on October 08, 2018.
This argument, more from psychology than philosophy, does not present a moral criticism but does portray forgiving as negative. The gist of the argument is that forgiving always commences after injustice. It does not prevent injustice from happening in the first place, and so it is a passive form of communication and action.
Our response is a question: What is effective in stemming injustice in this imperfect world?
No form of communication, no problem-solving strategy to date, can prevent all injustice. Is it not reassuring to know that there is a potentially helpful response to injustice after it occurs?
Furthermore, we must ask why forgiveness is considered passive just because it comes after an injustice. When one examines the struggle to overcome anger, the struggle to offer undeserved compassion to an injurer, one can hardly label forgiving as passive.
Finally, as one forgives, is it not possible that the offender may be transformed through the forgiving, thus making that form of injustice less likely in the future? In such cases, forgiveness precedes issues of justice and injustice and acts as a preventive of further abuse.
Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P.. Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5225-5234). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.
Criticisms of Forgiveness–3rd in a series: “Forgiveness Obscures for the Forgiver What Is Just or Unjust”
J. Safer (1999) presented a case of family dysfunction in which “forgiveness” plays a major role in perpetuating deep injustice: Two middle-aged parents ask their adult daughter to “forgive and forget” her brother’s sexual abuse toward her. The daughter, of course, is aghast at the parents’ apparent attempts to downplay and deny the offense. The parents in this case study do not seem aware of the enormity of the offense. Their quest for forgiveness is an attempt at distortion of reality, a cover-up for their son, and oppression of their daughter.
If J. Safer (1999) had shown this as a case of pseudo-forgiveness in which people are deliberately distorting the meaning of forgiveness for some unspecified gain, we would have no problem with the case or the analysis. Safer, however, used the case as an illustration of the dangers of actual forgiveness.
In our experience, true forgiveness helps people see the injustice more clearly, not more opaquely. As a person breaks denial, examines what happened, and allows for a period of anger, he or she begins to label the other’s behavior as “wrong” or “unfair.”
The parents in the case described here, however, have minimized what is wrong with their son’s behavior. They are using pseudo-forgiveness as a weapon. Certainly, therapists should be aware of such distorted thinking in a client or patient. The therapist, however, need not condemn genuine forgiveness because a client twists its meaning.
In sum, forgiveness is no obstacle to justice. Forgiving acts do not perpetuate injustice or prevent social justice from occurring. Forgiveness may thwart attempts at extracting punishment for emotional pain, but this usually turns into a gift for the offender and a release of potentially hurtful anger for the forgiver.
Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P.. Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5161-5175). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.
Safer, J. Forgiving and Not Forgiving. New York, NY: Avon Books.
The Forgiver as Inferior
When someone forgives so rapidly that he or she glosses over a legitimate period of anger, that person is not showing self-respect, as Jeffrie G. Murphy, (1982, 2005) reminded us. Murphy’s concern, however, was not with forgiving per se but instead with the short-circuiting of the process. As long as the process of forgiving makes room for this legitimate period of anger, Murphy and those who agree with him should not be troubled by forgiveness.
The Forgiven as Inferior
Even if a forgiver does not try to dominate the offender, the latter may nonetheless feel very badly about having to be forgiven (see Droll, 1985; O’Shaughnessy, 1967). Derek may feel that Alice (his wife with whom he is having conflict), by her forgiving, is morally superior to him. Yet, Alice need not tell Derek of her gift. Even if he should suspect forgiveness on her part and then pine over this, Alice has done nothing wrong. Her gift remains a gift regardless of Derek’s response. If a child wails in protest over the gift of socks on Christmas morning, does this present then not count as a gift just because the child wanted a popular computer game and did not receive it?
Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P.. Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5076-5085). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.
One argument states that when someone is hurt by another, it is best to show some resentment because it lets the other know that he or she is being taken seriously. If forgiveness cuts short the resentment process, the forgiver is not taking the other seriously and, therefore, is not respecting the other. Nietzsche (1887) also devised this argument.
We disagree with the basic premise here that forgiveness does not involve resentment. As a person forgives, he or she starts with resentment.
We also disagree that resentment is the exclusive path to respecting. Does a person show little respect if he or she quells the resentment in 1 rather than 2 days? Is a week of resentment better than the 2 days? When is it sufficient to stop resenting so that the other feels respected? Nietzsche offered no answer. If a person perpetuates the resentment, certainly he or she is not respecting the other.
Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P.; Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5090-5097). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.