The readers mailbag used to be a regular feature at SJ, which died out somewhat after most of the emails consisted of young public defenders writing, “fuck you, traitor. DIE!!!” But an interesting, unsolicited query arrived the other day that might provoke some useful answers from anyone but Barleycorn, so I thought it prudent to post here.
I’ve spent some time reflecting on Elizabeth Bruenig’s recent tweet about forgiveness and atonement; specifically, she said our current environment is unsustainable: we demand atonement but disdain forgiveness.
I don’t know whether you follow her but I’d just appreciate getting your take on my reaction. I’m happy to have you disagree with me. I’m reaching out because I’m trying to keep an open mind and I’ve always admired your push back on twitter. So, push back. I’m open to conversation.
I would argue that there isn’t disdain for the concept of forgiveness itself, but instead a well-warranted disdain for the idea that black people should be the ones to offer white people forgiveness. The onus of forgiveness should not be on victims, nor do victims owe perpetrators their forgiveness, even if perpetrators atone.
I guess it depends on what she thinks the point of atonement is. Is the point to acknowledge when you’ve been in the wrong and work to do better, because that’s the right thing to do? Or is the point to relieve your own feelings of shame and guilt? When is forgiveness warranted (at what point of atonement, I suppose), when is it necessary, and from whom?
I’m reaching out to you in particular because I’m hoping you can put the issue in a legal framework. I’m a law student and hope to be a criminal defense attorney, so I realize I should perhaps be better on this issue. I’d want my clients to be forgiven for an act of violence. But then again in that situation their wrong isn’t necessarily part of generations of racism.
What do you think?
To provide some additional context for this query, consider this twit:
Cancel culture: If you are “cancelled” but do not wish to be, you must WORK to EARN back people’s respect by owning up to the thing that cancelled you in the first place, LISTENING to others, EDUCATING yourself, and ADVOCATING on behalf of the people that you have offended/harmed
— Phillipa Soo (@Phillipasoo) July 8, 2020
The problem, of course, is that the person being canceled might not be “guilty.” It may be nothing more than a baseless accusation that gets the mob’s blood boiling. It may be that someone decided that an opinion, a word choice, was racist or sexist, such as black bird watcher Christian Cooper’s decision not to cooperation with the New York County District Attorney’s prosecution of Amy Cooper because he decided she’s suffered enough, which evoked outrage by white allies who grasp what the black guy fails to see.
And if the wrong in fact happened, and in fact was a wrong, and putting aside the lack of any due process in the court of mob opinion, or proportionality in punishment, which invariably is social death plus social cancer, and if one has redeemed oneself according to the rules of the “Queen,” what then?
My inquirer, of course, takes all of this for granted as well, as did Elizabeth Bruenig.
It’s an interesting question, given that we shouldn’t believe the cops, but the mob can’t be wrong. Pushing past this dilemma, can the mob forgive? How would that happen? Who would decide? What would forgiveness mean? What if one duly grovels, but doesn’t dedicate one’s life to being an “anti-racist” by stoning others condemned by the mob to death?
To err is human, but that doesn’t mean the human who errs shouldn’t be condemned. To forgive, divine, but can the mob ever be divine?
When I first read the email, I couldn’t get past the underlying assumption that if the mob condemns someone, they must be guilty, must be punished and, if there’s to be any hope of redemption, must atone in the manner prescribed by the high priestesses of the religion of social justice. My thought was that this person is not cut out for criminal defense if they’re an adherent of mob justice, but then, it seems to be the overwhelming view of young public defenders these days, so what do I know? They see no conflict with believing their poor client is worthy because they’re victims of generational racism, but the mob’s target must be crushed.
The onus of forgiveness should not be on victims, nor do victims owe perpetrators their forgiveness, even if perpetrators atone.
But my inquirer, a law student with whom I’ve never engaged before and who wrote me out of the blue, has graciously allowed me to offer a different view.
I’m happy to have you disagree with me.
How kind of her. Now, would you be so kind as to give me a hand in answering her query?