As regular readers know, I have been writing about social forgiveness for some time. Social forgiveness is very different from personal forgiveness. When a victim forgives, they relinquish a debt owed to them by the wrongdoer. Personal forgiveness is thus a purely personal choice. But when society forgives, it restores membership to someone who has committed a wrong against the group. It is a social choice.
But what does social forgiveness look like in practice? I got a perfectly serviceable answer to that question from a reader who got in touch with me after my last essay about Jack Teixeira, the young man accused of disclosing classified documents on a Discord server.
My reader generously shared his own journey, which included a lengthy stint in prison for a very serious crime, and I asked him what social forgiveness might look like in his case. He answered, “I would take just being left alone, free of probation, registration, or record, as forgiveness. I’ve served my time and learned my lesson, I would like to just rebuild a better life now.”
Just being left alone to rebuild a better life. That’s as good a definition of membership in society as I’ve ever heard. It implies nothing more or less than acceptance and tolerance. A person who is “left alone,” as my reader described it, is a person who belongs. At least, they belong as much or as little as any of us can hope to be, neither favored nor slighted by society.
In fact, to leave someone alone is the social opposite of casting them out. When we say, “leave that person alone,” we do not mean, “leave them alone on a deserted island.” We mean leave them to stand on their own feet, like everyone else. Leave them to fall in love, get a job, go to school, start a family, create a community. Leave them to build a life. Do not entomb them in their past. That’s social forgiveness, and I am much in debt to my reader for describing it so simply and so powerfully.
Equipped with this understanding, we can go back to Mr. Teixeira and take up the questions I asked at the end of my last essay: Can society forgive a wrongdoer who does not recognize society’s legitimacy? Or perhaps better, can society forgive a transgressor who insists they did nothing morally wrong?
I came to these questions after watching Teixeira’s embrace by at least some portions of the political right. As I described in my last essay, some on the right have embraced Teixeira as an unjustly prosecuted hero who has been targeted for telling the truth about the war in Ukraine. By contrast, friends describe him as a patriotic, All-American boy who would never do anything to intentionally hurt the United States.
This presents Teixeira with a choice: He can either cast himself as a chastened young man who made a terrible mistake, or as a victim persecuted by a system that refuses to recognize the truth. In the former, he wants to come back to society; in the latter, he wants society to come to him. Does social forgiveness turn on Teixeira’s choice?
At its core, the question gets at the obligation of an individual to a group, which is a dilemma that philosophers have pondered for millennia. We’re not going to resolve it definitively here, but we can sketch some default principles that operate in the great majority of cases.
It seems to me any group has a right to demand that its members play by the rules. Members don’t have to like the rules and can (and should) work to change them, as long as they recognize that there are consequences for violating the rules on the way to changing them. That’s why the United States is right to prosecute those who stormed the Capitol on January 6. You can object to the rules all you want, but breaking them has consequences.
So, membership in society does not demand agreement with each other about what the rules should be or conformity to a single vision of life. Instead, it demands respect and tolerance. A member must respect the rules of the group (even as they work to change them) and tolerate those who express their membership in a way that is different from other members. Respect and tolerance are far more important than agreement and conformity.
If this is true, then I think we should be indifferent to how Mr. Teixeira characterizes himself. If he casts himself as a victim, his characterization may find favor with others and it may not; that is for him to discover. It may be sincere and it may not; that is for others to assess. The criminal legal system will judge him and in that way command respect for the rules he allegedly broke. But as long as he tolerates others, I am fully prepared to “leave him alone,” regardless of how he characterizes himself.
Of course, it all gets much more complicated than this. A group has no right to demand respect for rules created unfairly; slave-holders had no right to insist on respect for slave codes, to state an obvious example. But exceptions like that do not come into play in a case like this; no one says the rule prohibiting disclosure of classified information is itself illegitimate. It may (or may not) be misapplied in this case, but the rule itself is legitimate.
Far more challenging is conduct that is egregiously wrong but escapes criminal sanction. What does the group do if someone breaks rules that are unwritten? I have in mind here someone like Alex Jones, who weaponized his followers to torment and taunt the parents of the children killed in Sandy Hook. Jones committed a horrible social wrong but not a crime. If he were entirely unrepentant and insisted he committed no moral wrong, would we expect society to forgive him—that is, to “leave him alone” and let him rebuild his life—so long as he tolerated those who disagreed with him? If a person flagrantly disrespects the rules of the group but suffers no consequences, should society just let him be?
At least in Jones’ case, I think not, and will explain why in a later essay.