Forgiveness and Revenge Seminar Retrospective

Whenever I teach an advanced class of thoughtful students, I like to offer a short retrospective at the end of the semester. I sit down without my notes or texts and try to makes sense of what we have done.

Below, you’ll find the retrospective I shared on our last day. (As background, we read five main texts with supporting articles: William Ian Miller’s Eye for an Eye, Susan Brison’s AftermathAntjie Krog’s Country of My SkullJoshua Dubler’s Down in the Chapeland Sara Ruddick’s Maternal ThinkingOther major figures: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Desmond Tutu, Maria Chenowith and Erica Stephan, David Kennedy, Susan Griffin, and Hannah Arendt. (Yes, this is too much! Yet the students were game and actually kept up with the reading, which was pretty satisfying.)

[Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Torture, Violence]

We began the class with William Ian Miller’s book Eye for an Eye on talionic cultures. For Miller (no relation, sadly), the cultures of honor that celebrate revenge and reprisal have a few distinctive features: they recognize the legitimacy of resentments and retributive desires and they try to channel those desires through procedures that limit their harmfulness. Thus they respond to the threat of revenge by quantifying harms and restricting reprisal. These cultures are sometimes thought of as primitive, but in vengeance they show remarkable insight and ingenuity. Miller makes much of the fact that revenge involves parties at odds who are trying to get even, and at times these metaphors suggest a seemingly inexorable calculation in justice, one which legitimates payback and every other possible settling-of-accounts.

One of the most interesting parts of Miller’s book is his account of how Christian theories of forgiveness seem to echo and rhyme with the original accounting that the scales of justice entail. St. Paul seemed to suggest that we forgive because vengeance is for the Lord, and so by repaying harms with kindness, we heap coals upon our perpetrator’s head. It almost looks as if the deprivation of punishment in life is a designed to lengthen the sentence or intensify the damnation to be carried out after death. For Miller, the best account of the quality of revenge comes in our discussion of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, because there we see the demand for forgiveness made by a superior foe, because Shylock seeks revenge as proof of his own humanity, and is denied it as proof of the inferiority of his Jewishness.

The echoes with Coates’ work on reparations struck a chord with the entire class. Ultimately Coates suggests that payback is required for spiritual renewal, that Blacks and whites cannot know forgiveness until we settle accounts. So long as Black children must deal with the legacy of slavery, white supremacy, and the continual plunder of Black wealth by whites, calls for racial justice will be cheap talk. Coates certainly set the bar high, and I don’t know that we have yet found an argument to gainsay him, except that the racial accounting he demands is too difficult for us to bear. But Coates can easily see that we are unwilling to pay what we owe; the question is what hope there can be for equality so long as this debt remains unpaid.

Here, the South African experience ought to be instructive. When philosophers write books on forgiveness, we can never seem to do anything better than refer to Desmond Tutu, whose warm celebration of the strength and power of forgiveness strike us all as somehow worthy of emulation. And it’s in Tutu that we start to see the opposite side of Coates’ argument. Coates sets the stakes very high; for Tutu they were even higher, because his book and his constant refrain was that there can be no future without forgiveness. This is an interesting formulation: it does not promise South Africa an easy path, but rather makes a simple logical point: forgiveness is necessary. It may not be easy, it may not be fair, and it may not even be sufficient. But without it, the country is stuck.

Reading Antjie Krog’s book, Country of My Skull, helped us to see that a process can be inadequate and still work, a little. It can be a part of a reconciliatory project that none of the participants will live to see the end of. Sometimes it seems that even the #rhodesmustfall critique is able to point to colonial harms associated with Cecil Rhodes because the later harms of apartheid have been largely exposed and… not resolved, but rendered less pressing. The problem is that the past contains so many horrors, and even when resentments over recent atrocities like necklacing have been quelled, there is a whole previous century of atrocities to explore.

Forgiveness was nonetheless necessary for Tutu and for Krog, even while for Coates, forgiveness is nigh impossible. Necessary but impossible; impossible, but necessary. Something like that is at the heart of the problem of violence and trauma in Susan Brison’s work. How can a woman survive the aftermath of the crime that almost kills her? What Brison argued was that almost nothing about the experience of seeking justice through the police and courts can be said to serve her interests. Her hope and her healing were so very slow, and partial, and frail that I almost hesitate to mention them here: I worry that I shouldn’t “put them to work” as “conceptual resources” in the same way as many of the other texts we’ve read. Yet Brison offers them to us as evidence of considerable philosophical rigor, and I think the right move is to engage with her.

There was and will be no question of forgiveness for Brison; she showed us how irrelevant her attacker even was to these questions of survival and flourishing after violence. But revenge, too, seemed inadequate to her. What she needed was safety and respect, what she needed was to be restored to power and security. As a result, she focuses on a curious paradox: victims who blame their attacker feel much less safe than those who blame themselves. Even though the self-blame is in some sense obviously fictional and inaccurate, it is therapeutic and the source of the strength to grow and change beyond the trauma.

And in her dual conclusions, Brison seems to set up a very different and non-relational account of the aftermath of violence: that the goal of the survivor was to bend and not break, to cultivate in herself and in her child the openness to novelty and sociality that trauma and violence take from us. When I set up the syllabus I hoped this moment in Brison would set up a useful echo for the work of Sara Ruddick in Maternal Thinking with which we ended the class, because that’s where I put my sometimes dwindling hope: not in the promise of forgiveness from victims, but in the sense that revenge may be just as irrelevant to survival, no matter how powerful the impulse sometimes feels.

We began to learn just how irrelevant paybacks have become in our society when we read about the prisoners at Graterford in Pennsylvania. Much of what matters in Dubler’s discussion of faith in American prisons is in the background assumptions of the way his book is written, not often clearly stated or remarked upon: that the prisoners there are intelligent, good, and even wise; that they are not being punished, but merely waiting, living under conditions of arbitrary interference and capricious abuse. What Dubler found in Graterford’s chapel were men who are struggling to figure out how their own past acts have come to define them, and how to survive the evil that they have done and that is done to them. This suggests that one of the worst elements of revenge is the way we see perpetrators as irredeemable, the way we reduce those who harm us to those harms. Graterford makes me wonder what it could mean to love the sinner and hate the sin when we never stop thinking of them as sinners, and never let them forget that they have sinned.

Perhaps this “waste management” of criminals would be more acceptable if there weren’t so many of them. And indeed, I think Dubler’s book on Graterford starts to show us the problem with a world where we simultaneously treat some members of our society as if they are unworthy of our attention or support throughout their lives, subject to constant violence and depredation, until they lash out or misbehave–at which point we become desperately retributive. The men and women in prison are disproportionately poor and poorly educated, and yet the only injustices we’re willing to punish are the ones they commit. This asymmetry of responsibility is a kind of massive structural violence that undermines the entire project of criminal justice, and hampers the reprobative role of punishment in our society.

This is usually the place in the course where one would turn to restorative justice approaches. Instead, we turned to the literature on violence prevention, a transition that requires explanation. The criminologist John Braithwaite often tells the story of two US servicemen in Japan who raped a young Japanese woman. The rapists were called to a private reconciliatory meeting, where the woman read a letter indicating that she was willing to forgive them and ask that they not be punished. The servicemen did not understand, and when it was their turn to speak they told the judge, “We are not guilty, your honor.” This shocked everyone involved; had they been–or pretended to be–repentant, they would have been freed. As a result, they were sentenced to the legal maximum period of incarceration rather than freed as had been planned.

Now, Braithwaite tells the story as an example of a failure of reconciliatory norms in the US: confessions and repentance have been trained out of Westerners by the the procedural safeguards we have created to prevent coerced confessions. But I see the story differently: a young woman was raped by two foreign men, and the male authority figures in her society demanded that she absolve them of the crime for diplomatic purposes. They were only stymied by the rapists’ failure to make the proper ritualized speech acts in a crucial moment of the ceremonial subordination of the victim’s needs and interests.

This is not a story of frustrated reconciliation or failed forgiveness, but frustrated impunity. It’s not an indictment of the refusal of repentance rituals, but of the demand for them. I find myself sympathetic to the Black South African mothers Krog reports on, who argued that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a fancy way for powerful men to smooth over their own transgressions, leaving the mothers no less bereft of their sons and daughters than before.

But this too, is too simple, which is why we ended with Sara Ruddick. Ruddick is my kind of care ethicist: she resists gender essentialism while defending care ethics, and roots the phenomenology and ethics of care in practices of caretaking and peacemaking and the skills and competencies required to succeed in those matters. What’s more, Ruddick acknowledges the tension between the different modes of care, of holding safe, welcoming change, and attentively loving our children and vulnerable dependents, and shows that mothers (who can be men but have tended to be women) develop their skills and competencies in the difficult thinking through of those tensions in contexts and situations. It’s a powerful book of philosophy, and I’ll be teaching it again at JCI this summer.

On my view, Ruddick helps to spell out both the background attitudes required for forgiveness but that we can also only start to think of the role of forgiveness in a society and in a relationship when we foreground the purposes it serves. Women and men who mother understand that transgressions and injuries will occur, and they train their children to forgive them. They do this because resentments are unhealthy; they do this because revenge is unsustainable. But mostly they do this because maternal thinking is a kind of disciplined, cognitively-loaded thinking-through-emotions.

Anger is one of the most pernicious emotions a child must confront, and so mothers prepare themselves and their children for that confrontation. Mothers know that anger always presents itself as immediate, urgent, and correct, but that a child can only survive, thrive, and succeed when she can resist its pull. Mothers teach their children to master their anger; they train them to restrain it and to let it go. And they do the same for themselves: they learn that their anger and sorrow at the loss of one child must be subordinated to the safety of their other children, and other mothers’ children. And so they act out of anger but with reason, they force themselves to put their anger and revenge to use. Sometimes they harness their grief for peacemaking.

A mother’s anger can become violent, of course. But if it remains maternal in the way Ruddick describes, it will preserve the goals of preservation and cultivation, of survival and growth. Ruddick and Brison thus end on the same note: that the meaning of a trauma is ultimately the way it shapes us as mothers. The measure of our revenge or forgiveness is not whether it slakes our revenge but whether it makes the world a safer space for our children. Talionic cultures know this; they limit payback just because they want to settle accounts for the next generation. Reconciliation and forgiveness, too, work only to the extent that they settle old scores, that they bury the implements of violence in places where new generations will not dig them up.

I ended the semester significantly less hopeful about forgiveness than I began. Individual acts of forgiveness have a power to transform people and relationships in a way that still seems sublime, in the technical sense of “sublime:” a phenomenon that challenges our faculty of understanding. And precisely because it has this status, I worry deeply about the demands that we craft policies in such a way as to require that forgiveness become mundane, a quotidian part of the working of a system. Because in those cases it always seems to be the powerless who must forgive, and the powerful who use the rhetoric of forgiveness to demand that their victims ignore oppression and systematic violence.

This is not the hopeful ending I planned. And indeed, it’s not an ending at all; Martha Nussbaum’s new book Anger and Forgiveness came out too late to include in the syllabus, but it’s been helpful to my own thinking, and I shared a few useful passages with the students. Like Brison, Nussbaum treats our relationship to anger, resentment, and revenge as one that we must manage, one that we must prevent from gaining too much control over us. She treats anger and resentment as imprecise heuristics for pointing out injustice, but argues that both justice and individual happiness require the subordination of those passions to capability-expanding outcomes. She brings the literature on survivors together with the philosophical and theological scholarship on forgiveness, and uses that to frame the problems of mass incarceration and transitional justice. So there’s a lot in this book to be excited about, even as I worry that she’s put too much of her emphasis on South Africa’s “success.”

In particular Nussbaum worries about the status-degrading and payback moments in revenge, like when Paul uses forgiveness to get payback. What’s particularly good about the book is that Nussbaum is bringing together so many disparate strands of this problem, so that, for instance, she can show that these hyperbolic payback and status-lowering elements of our retributive impulses have contributed to the American problem with mass incarceration. It’s a big, sophisticated, and difficult text, and while I’ve read most of it, I don’t think I’ve fully digested it yet. So the semester is over, but the true retrospective is always forthcoming.





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