The Curious Politics of Forgiveness


“To err is human, to forgive divine.” If Alexander Pope was right when he penned this line in “An Essay on Criticism,” it helps explain why forgiveness is so often sought but so rarely given. Some get it, and some don’t. But who and why? How has forgiveness changed over time, and what does the arc of the unforgiveable reveal about American life? As I finish my book about neighborhood well-being, I have already begun to turn my attention to the next one. It will be about the very curious politics of forgiveness.

We tend to think of forgiveness as a private negotiation. Suppose I have an affair. Should my wife forgive me? That is a matter for her to decide. But forgiveness also has a public dimension. When society forgives, it makes a judgment that a person should be accepted back into the fold after having violated its norms. Though it is typically not thought of in these terms, forgiveness is a social good. It is an invitation to rejoin a community.

Like any social good, forgiveness is doled out unevenly. Some are considered worthy of forgiveness, and some are not; some transgressions are forgivable, others are not; a transgression may be unforgiveable to one group but celebrated by another. Some groups are quicker to condemn or forgive than others. And whenever we ask who wins and who loses in the distribution of a social good, we are asking a political question. All social goods, forgiveness included, have a political dimension that arbitrates and justifies winners and losers. To forgive may be divine, but it is also political.

At first blush, the notion of political forgiveness might seem pretty simple. For instance, there was a time, not so long ago, when consensual homosexual conduct was not only illegal, it was unforgivable, a sin that cast the “offender” outside the pale. Fortunately, that day is done, and we understand the change as simply the progress of a morally just society. Today, the much-ballyhooed turn to criminal justice “reform” alerts us that the meaning of prior involvement in the criminal justice system is likewise changing, and with it, the meaning of forgiveness. Most of us consider these developments salutary, and believe that our prior views were grossly unfair.

But closer examination reveals political forgiveness to be more complex than we might have thought. In November 2017, five women accused the comedian Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct during episodes that occurred over the course of many years. Apparently, C.K. had a pattern of inviting women to his hotel, where he exposed himself and masturbated. A few days after the accusers came forward, the comedian admitted the accusations were true and publicly apologized to his victims. “I can hardly wrap my head around the scope of hurt I brought on them,” he wrote. After a “long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want,” he vowed to “step back and take a long time to listen.”

For C.K., nine months is apparently a long time, since that is how long he waited before returning to the stage. By the end of 2018, he did a series of sold out shows where, among other things, he mocked the survivors of school shootings. A journalist asked the club owner whether he had any misgivings about letting C.K. perform. “Not at all,” he said. “When you get a legendary comic like that playing your clubs, you’re just so fortunate, you know?” From this, we should presumably understand that society thinks nine months of self-imposed purgatory, but no criminal or professional consequence, is sufficient punishment for his repeated sexual transgressions.

Yet compare that with the case of Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame. Recently, Yarrow was scheduled to appear at a free, outdoor arts festival in Norwich, New York. When some people involved in the event learned that Yarrow was on the bill, they protested and successfully demanded his removal. His transgression? On a single occasion, 49 years ago, he invited two teenage sisters to his hotel room. When they arrived, he answered the door in the nude. He eventually pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a minor, was sentenced to three months in jail, and has apologized repeatedly and profusely for his transgression. He was pardoned by President Carter in 1981. From this, we should presumably understand that society thinks a criminal conviction followed by nearly five decades of exemplary behavior and a presidential pardon is not sufficient to justify readmission into at least certain segments of society.

Some might say these two episodes are not inconsistent, that Louis C.K. is simply a bigger draw than Peter Yarrow, and that money trumps everything. But I’m not sure the two can be distinguished so easily. In 2006, the comedian Michael Richards, who is best known for his role as Kramer on Seinfeld, exploded at an African American heckler during a stand-up routine, erupting in a racist rant. The incident quickly went viral. Richards immediately and repeatedly apologized. Unlike with Louis C.K., this appears to have been an isolated event; there has never been a suggestion that Richards has a history of racist behavior, or that he engaged in anything like the sort of calculated, deliberate pattern of misconduct as C.K. Yet Richards could never escape the stigma of his original transgression. After a few scattered appearances over the next decade, where he continued to be hounded for his outburst, Richards disappeared from public life.

Then there are occasions when people are punished though their only transgression, if you can call it that, is to stand alongside a transgressor. Ronald Sullivan is a Harvard law professor, a celebrated criminal defense lawyer, and a longtime advocate for social justice. Recently, Sullivan elected to become part of the criminal defense team for Harvey Weinstein, who has been charged with sexually assaulting a multitude of women over the course of a long career in Hollywood. And that was apparently an unforgiveable choice, at least to some Harvard students.

Sullivan and his wife Stephanie Robinson—a lecturer at Harvard law school—were faculty deans at Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s residential dorms. As Randall Kennedy, a colleague at the law school, recently described, their role at Winthrop was to create “a safe, fun, supportive environment in which students can pursue their collegiate ambitions. … Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Robinson are expected to attend to the students as counselors, cheerleaders, impresarios and guardians.”

After his role on Weinstein’s defense became known, a number of Harvard students protested and demanded that he be removed from his position as faculty dean, claiming that his professional association with Weinsteinwas evidence that he did not “value the safety of the students he lives with.”Shamefully, Harvard College acceded to the students’ demands and removed Sullivan and his wife from their positions at Winthrop.

Sullivan’s transgression was to associate himself professionally with a person believed by the students to have committed an unforgiveable sin, as though Sullivan’s professional involvement implied an acceptance of Weinstein’s alleged behavior. From this, we should apparently understand that mere professional engagement with some transgressors not only justifies but demands ostracism.

Examples like these could be multiplied many times over. But even these few illustrations are enough to show that there is more to the politics of forgiveness than we may have thought. Political forgiveness depends on unstated and shifting value judgments that society makes without conscious awareness, including assessments about the person who seeks readmission, the person or group he wronged, the norm he violated, the harm he caused, etc. These are all political judgments. People have not given enough thought to the hidden politics of this universal experience. My goal is to get people to ponder the politics of forgiveness.