The Backlash Against Forgiveness Continues
In a recent blog at Psychology Today, I examined “14 Popular Criticisms of Forgiveness.”
The gist of that essay is this: Many people generate their own opinions about why forgiveness is inappropriate, dangerous, disrespectful, and/or confusing, but their defense of these assertions is always, and without exception, philosophically flawed, rendering the opinion unfounded.
Well, I came across yet another set of criticisms against forgiveness and I would like to address them here. As I often do, I will not identify the author(s) because the point is to examine ideas, not persons. So then, let us begin.
1. Encouraging forgiveness might short-circuit the anger process. In other words, people tend to need a time of anger, which shows self-respect. So, don’t encourage. This, of course, is not a critique of forgiving itself. Instead, it is a criticism of those who might put pressure on others who need a time of self-reflection to work out the anger first. Our Process Model of forgiveness, since its creation over three decades ago, always has called for a period of anger and self-reflection as needed by the forgiver. Thus, forgiveness itself and even the encouragement of others to forgive are not the problems. In the case of encouragement, this depends on how the well-meaning person goes about trying to encourage another person to forgive. Is it with gentleness and understanding or is it with at least a pinch of force (which should not happen)?
2. If you encourage people to forgive, then this might short-circuit the quest for justice. As with point 1 above, this criticism is not about forgiveness at all, but about the philosophical mistake of thinking in an “either-or” way about justice and forgiveness. It is not the case that one must choose between these two moral virtues. The criticism against forgiveness itself fails to take this into account.
3. An abuser who asks for forgiveness might be manipulating the victim into the status quo of more abuse against this victim. Again, the issue is not with forgiveness itself, but instead is a problem centered in the poor intentions of the one who asks. The one who might forgive certainly should scrutinize the motives of the one asking for forgiveness. This is plain common sense. In other words, again we have the situation in which forgiveness might be taking the blame for those who fail to ascertain motives in those who behave badly.
4. Suggesting forgiveness by groups that have been oppressed is abusive because this might perpetuate the abuse. Once again, we have a philosophical error in assuming that groups must choose between forgiving and seeking justice: Forgive and then say goodbye to the hope of a fair solution. This is reductionistic thinking. Let us help people to see that as groups consider forgiving, they should scrutinize the best way forward for a just solution to seemingly intractable social problems.
The backlash against forgiveness, I hope you see, is not about the moral virtue of forgiveness at all. Instead, it is about how people erroneously go about suggesting forgiveness or how people go about practicing forgiving. If the advice were centered on persons and how they go about the advice or how they go about the practice of forgiving, then all is well. When the criticism turns instead to forgiveness, it is time, as I have tried to do in this essay, to show the philosophical flaws in the reasoning of those who oppose the moral virtue of forgiveness.
I am in a close relationship with someone I hurt. I have asked for forgiveness from her but I keep getting ignored. Does it ever get to a point that I can demand forgiveness when I know that the other person is just being stubborn?
I sympathize with your frustration. You are ready to be forgiven and the other is not ready to give it to you. You should realize that forgiveness is not something that you can demand from someone. That person is not obligated in an ethical sense to give forgiveness until she is ready. Some religions ask a person to forgive under certain circumstances (such as happens in some of the rituals at Yom Kippur in the Jewish faith, for example). If the one from whom you are seeking forgiveness is under no religious obligation to forgive, I suggest three things: patience, patience, and patience. A little encouragement from you for her to forgive probably would be a good idea, but done sparingly and gently.
The seventh of 15 criticisms I see about forgiveness is this: There is a “dark side” to forgiveness in that you let others take advantage of you.
The answer is similar to your points 2 and 4. You should ask for fairness when you forgive. This is not dark, but instead sheds light onto the problem so that you can solve that problem well.
The eighth of 15 criticisms I see about forgiveness is this: To forgive is to cancel the debt the other owes you and so you never get back what is due.
When you forgive, as stated several times now, you do not cancel justice. Yes, you can cancel any obligation the other person has in helping to heal your wounds, but even here your forgiving, to be more complete, involves kindness and even love (on its highest level) which goes way beyond canceling the other’s obligation to help you to heal.
The ninth of 15 criticisms I see about forgiveness is this: Forgiving others lowers your self-esteem as you focus more on those who did wrong than on healing yourself.
There is a paradox of forgiving in that as you reach out to the others with forgiveness, offering a second chance as well as kindness and love, it is you, the giver, who heals. Scientific studies have demonstrated the validity of this paradox.