From your recent posts here, it seems that there are many misunderstandings about what forgiving is. Why do you think there are so many misunderstandings out there?
I agree that there are many misunderstandings of forgiveness in the general public, in mental health professionals who are trying to help people to heal, and in scholars who publish articles on forgiveness. I think this is the case because most people, including mental health professionals and scholars, have never examined the term forgiveness from a philosophical perspective. This often results in a failure of understanding what Aristotle called “the specific difference” between forgiveness and other related ideas such as “just moving on” or reconciling or even just engaging in a few psychological techniques such as writing a letter that is not sent to the offending person. Forgiveness as a moral virtue takes time and practice. It includes thinking in new ways about the offending person, waiting for softer emotions to emerge, and deciding whether or not to reconcile. So often people miss some or even all of these important points, thus distorting what forgiving actually is.
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.
The fourth of 15 criticisms I see about forgiveness: To forgive is toxic. It hurts the forgiver because he now is giving in to the unfair person’s demands and this relationship, which is toxic, hurts the forgiver.
When you forgive, you need not reconcile if the other continues to abuse you. Forgiveness as a free will choice is not toxic. It can set you free of resentment even if you don’t reconcile.
My friend and I have a lot of conflicts and yet I do want to reconcile in the hope that these conflicts will be reduced. What would you suggest if such a reconciliation will be kind of rocky yet we both want to try?
I would recommend two points. First, are you both willing to forgive each other first so that you do not bring a lot of anger into dialogue with each other? Second, and if you are willing to forgive each other, what are the small steps each of you can take to help the other feel more trusting? In other words, what have you been doing to damage trust and can you take a small step in a better direction? Is your friend willing to do the same by taking small steps to build up your trust?
If I forgive my friend from several years ago, do I have to reconnect and tell him this?
No, you can forgive from your heart and you do not have to let the person know, especially if you already have decided that you will not reconcile.