On Forgiving (?)

Published April 6, 2017 by Nan Mykel

The Trouble with Blame — Sharon Lamb | Harvard University Press

Because of the scripted nature of apologies, they can also serve to manipulate the wounded to turn the tables. The scriptedness of the apology/forgiveness interaction is not only about social expectations but about power relations. When the victim is wounded (and her wounds are documented, believed, acknowledged, and validated) she is in a powerful position vis a vis the offender. Her wounds not only mark her as a victim but also give her a certain power because of the associations with the position of victimhood–in particular the innocence but also the protection one affords and special considerations.

Victimhood affords one a sort of instant purity and sympathy, if not martyrdom.  And all too often the public has trouble with victims when they do not live up to this idealized standard. The victim-offender dyad is set as a dichotomy–that one is evil, the other pure in exaggerated form. So when a perpetrator apologizes and does an excellent sincere j0b at such, our natural expectations are to expect and require forgiveness from a victim. Apologies can thus be power plays used to pull at victims’ notions of themselves as good. To maintain their role in the dichotomy as the “good one” the victim will need to apologize, or to prove in some way that their wounds are just too immense and they have suffered too long. Rarely is anger considered an appropriate response to a sincere apology….

The power relations between the offended and the offender are always important to keep in mind, for an apology offered by an offender who ultimately has power over the injured party brings with it even more pressure for forgiveness.

The demands on individual victims to forgive are bound up with traditional notions of what it means to be a “good girl” or “good woman”  it is entirely possible to have compassion for an offender, even your own offender if you have been abused, and not be willing to forgive. Whatever happened to the older psychoanalytic notions of  ambivalence?  While it may be difficult to live with ambivalent feelings, this is the human condition.


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