This past weekend, I was happily working on my new book, which takes aim at our ruthlessly unforgiving society. I have written about the book before, so I won’t dwell on my objectives here. Suffice it to say that I had just finished a paragraph that lamented the way complaints about American life seem always to reinforce unforgiveness. It is an attitude and approach that we adopt so often and so reflexively that we have come to think of it as normal. As I wrote that last sentence, I knew I needed a few good examples that would help me make the point. You know the rule: Show, don’t tell.
And just then, I heard the familiar ding of an incoming email. It was a notification from the Washington Post: “Blame 1990s MTV for today’s awful politics.” The notification was a plug for a guest column written by Jim Geraghty, the senior political correspondent for the National Review, which, in case it matters to others, bills itself as the magazine that “defined the modern conservative movement and enjoys the broadest allegiance among American conservatives.” In his column for the Post, Geraghty traces our political troubles to the frivolousness of the MTV “Rock the Vote Campaign” of the early 1990s. According to Geraghty, MTV encouraged politicians, and especially Democrats, to treat their craft as a whimsical invitation to entertain rather than a sober challenge to govern.
Yes, of course. Now everything makes sense. Our toxic political culture has nothing to do with irreversible demographic or economic transformation or shrinking opportunity. It has nothing to do with the increasing polarization in Congress that began in the early 1970s or the rising partisan animus within the electorate that began in the 1980s. It has nothing to do with a constitutional design that all but guarantees the election of presidents who lost the popular vote. It has nothing to do with the electoral consequences of rising mortality rates in non-metropolitan areas, especially for white men. It doesn’t even have anything to do with the memo Newt Gingrich wrote in 1990 (years before “Rock the Vote”), encouraging GOP politicians to describe their opponents with words such as, cheat, traitor, lie, sick, disgrace, pathetic, and corrupt.
No, politics has become awful because MTV made Democrats silly.
In case it isn’t obvious, the unforgiving society loathes complexity. It reduces even the most complex problems of national life to a single, identifiable, simple villain. Preferably that villain is one we can name and shame in as few words as possible. Even better if the villain obviates the need for us to consider the broader structures of American political, economic, and social life. And best of all, let’s hope the villain reinforces what has become the most familiar and most divisive signifier in American life: political partisanship. As I have explained before, in the unforgiving society, all our most serious problems can be, and will be, cast as simple but existential tribal grievances. Though Geraghty quite rightly ends his column by decrying the present-day tribalism of American politics, he nonetheless traces this admittedly baleful condition to a single, tribal lament, thus reinforcing the unforgiving society even as he tries to reject it.
Still, Geraghty’s column hardly covers all that is wretched about the unforgiving society. Fortunately, as I was writing about his column, I heard that familiar ding again. This time, it was a notification from The New York Times alerting me to an unfolding episode in St. Paul, Minnesota. It seems an adjunct professor at Hamline University was teaching a class in art history. In the syllabus, she advised students she would be showing a 14th century painting that depicted the Prophet Muhammad and, recognizing that this might be upsetting to some students who object to visual representations of the Prophet, invited any student who had concerns to meet with her outside of class. According to the professor, no one did. On the day set aside for the painting, she provided a trigger warning at the start of class, alerting students again to what she was about to do and offering anyone who might be offended an opportunity to leave class for the day. Again, according to the professor, no one did.
Then she showed and discussed the painting. After class, a Muslim student approached the professor and expressed her dissatisfaction that the Prophet had been visually represented. Afterwards, the student, along with other Muslim students, complained to the administration and, according to the Times, “demanded that officials take action.” The professor, in coordination with the chair of her department, wrote a letter of apology to the student but the university nonetheless told the professor that her services would not be needed the following semester. That, however, was not the end of the matter. A few weeks later, a Hamline official sent an email to all faculty and staff which said that actions recently taken in an unnamed class had been “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”
In response to this labeling, the professor contacted a prominent art historian at the University of Michigan, who organized a petition in favor of the terminated professor. In the petition, the Michigan professor pointed out, among other things, that the painting in question is considered a masterpiece of Islamic art and that many scholars routinely show it in their classes, often without the prior warnings and opportunity to opt out provided by the professor at Hamline. The Times indicated that the painting is housed at the University of Edinburgh and that “similar paintings have been on display at places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Times also observed that the Quran does not prohibit the visual representation of the Prophet and that while many Muslims agree with the position taken by the students, their view is not universally shared. Finally, the Times quoted a senior official with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who said there is a difference between sympathetic, respectful representations of the sort depicted in the painting and the offensive caricature created by the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Intent, in other words, matters. Thus far, Hamline seems unmoved.
If the Times account is correct—and I have not seen anything to indicate otherwise—the Hamline episode shows the apparently irresistible seduction of punitiveness. Hamline imposed the most severe punishment it could. It not only terminated the professor, which is the most any employer can do, but it branded her behavior “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic,” which implies a venality that seems particularly gratuitous on these facts. As importantly, the university does not even seem to have considered the possibility that the episode could have been a learning experience for all concerned. Borrowing a page from the campaigns for restorative justice, for instance, the university could have brought the professor and the students together to share their perspectives in a constructive, properly facilitated setting. Instead, they cast the professor out. This is the ugly face of the unforgiving society, turning reflexively to punishment and eschewing compassionate understanding that seeks to create a diverse community bound by shared values.
And here’s the ultimate irony of all this: I suspect that when it comes to other aspects of national life, the relevant actors at Hamline object vigorously to the operation of the unforgiving society. Hamline, for instance, has an Office of Inclusive Excellence, which makes it abundantly clear that the University is opposed to the labeling and exclusion that is the calling card of the unforgiving society: “We are committed to the pursuit of excellence by being inclusive of individuals without regard to race, color, religion, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, national origin, marital status, familial status, disability, age, or protected veteran status in any activity administered by the university.” Likewise, the Office opposes the closedmindedness that so often accompanies unforgiveness: “The University embraces the examination of all ideas, some of which will potentially be unpopular and unsettling, as an integral and robust component of intellectual inquiry.”
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What do we make of these two episodes? To me, they suggest that even those who recognize and want to reject the unforgiving society nonetheless turn to it almost reflexively, not because they are hypocritical but because that’s how a dominant ideology works. I assume Geraghty and everyone involved in the Hamline episode have acted in the best of faith, without meaning to be either overly simplistic or overly punitive. But the unforgiving society supplies a seemingly irresistible way to understand the world and navigate conflict. As I have described before, the unforgiving society “approaches transgressors and transgressions in a particular way. It is dogmatic and moralistic, quick to condemn but slow to inquire. It is uncurious, ungenerous, and unyielding.” This approach, this automatic recourse to unforgiveness, has become so thoroughly accepted as to be invisible.
If we want to free ourselves from the grip of the unforgiving society, first we have to recognize the hold it has over our thoughts and action. Otherwise, unforgiveness always wins.
The day after this essay appeared, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country, issued an important and nuanced statement regarding the controversy at Hamline. The statement is worth reading in its entirety, but provided in relevant part:
Although we strongly discourage showing visual depictions of the Prophet, professors who analyze ancient paintings for an academic purpose are not the same as Islamophobes who show such images to cause offense. Based on what we know up to this point, we see no evidence that former Hamline University Adjunct Professor Erika Lopez Prater acted with Islamophobic intent or engaged in conduct that meets our definition of Islamophobia…. Academics should not be condemned as bigots without evidence or lose their positions without justification.