Forgiving the unforgivable

What happens, and what might happen, when the unforgivable is committed? I may need to issue a trigger warning under the category of sexual violence.

I also need to acknowledge French pomo guy Jacque Derrida. I’ve purloined the title of this article from a public lecture he gave in Auckland, years ago. He was talking about another place of unforgivable acts: South Africa.

But first, some reference points from people more qualified than I am. “Claudia” posts anonymously, courageously and with great precision on Public Address about the emotional impact of John Key’s usage of the word “rape”.

And Hadassah Grace has succinctly documented John Key’s miserable policy record on sexual violence. Never mind his thing for pony tails or even Tony Veitch. It’s about infrastructure for vulnerable people: rape crisis, Women’s Refuge, ACC … and its systematic dismantling.

And then – this week – he has deliberately insulted those same vulnerable people. And then refused to apologise. And this was all fine by David Carter, Speaker of the House, who added to the insults by casting female opposition MPs out of the House, for the simple, courageous act of invoking their own abuse stories.

I believe this photo is by Katie Bradford. I don't usually do this. But I have posted it to show the people who acted with dignity when the PM and the Speaker did all they could to remove it.

I believe this photo is by Katie Bradford. Please correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t usually do this. But I have posted it to show the people who acted with dignity when the PM and the Speaker did all they could to remove it.

So, what would happen if they apologised? Let me rephrase that. What sort of apology would be suitable? Helen Clark once offended George W Bush by something she said about war in the middle east. Her apology, something like “I’m sorry you took offence at my statement”, did nothing to appease the president. And that simply gave her and her supporters exactly what they wanted: more oxygen.

Apologies are hard. They should be. They have to be. When they’re not hard, they tend to be useless. And indeed, many people are intolerant of those who make a habit of over-apologising. Although my limited experience of Asian culture tells me this might be a western thing. Could it be that westerners simply suck at apologising?

And forgiveness is harder still. It’s like cancelling a debt someone owes you. Forgiveness is a thing we inflict on each other, simply by withholding it. But what happens when we unleash it?

The uncomfortable truth about forgiveness is that it’s only meaningful in the face of unforgivable acts.

Well, South Africa ain’t exactly perfect. But for a moment, it gave us a strong indication of what a leadership of forgiveness can look like: say out loud you did something, and say out loud it was racially motivated, and you’re off the hook. If the idea was ever sullied by the execution, it’s no less of an idea. Of course, it necessitated regime change. Some apologies only make sense if you’re leaving the stage.

In Claudia’s post on Public Address (link above), she comments “the only thing I feel for the men who hurt me is pity.” This is remarkably close to (but maybe not the same as) forgiveness, and possibly better than forgiveness.

To pity someone who has wronged you is powerful, because it requires you to understand their action as their failure, not their success. Even if their action was committed in deliberate, calculated hate, to pity them is to see their action as a shortcoming, a bad choice, something that limited them, as well as you. Pitying our wrongdoers puts us in a position of power.

That sounds dangerous. By “power” I don’t want to extend the culture of combat that is already out of control. I’m talking about the power of exemplary behaviour, the power to change, and to cause change.

Personally, in relation to the people who are currently causing the pain (i.e. the PM and the speaker of the house), I don’t know how I’m going to conjure up this high ground. I don’t want to negate my own anger. I doubt the wrongdoers can express contrition. I can’t see any change in either the PM or the speaker or the government’s policy programme. I want to reach out to the families of John Key and David Parker, to know they’re safe. I want to stifle the hatred I feel boiling inside me. I want the Speaker to say something bloody useful.

And, damn it, I want to feel safe. The government is becoming hostile towards its own people. The only acceptable apology at this point is one that brings about change.

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