Forgiveness in an age of cancel culture

by Michael S. Roth

I recently asked the undergrads in my class on virtue and vice to send me a brief note about a time when they either forgave someone in a meaningful way or found that they couldn’t. Their notes spoke of love, sorrow, finding a way — or not — to maintain relationships in the wake of wrongs. Nobody mentioned canceling anybody.

Our class, combining philosophy and literature, begins with Confucius and ends with Spike Lee. We meet in person — though all of us are masked and separated by at least 6 feet. We begin with the ancient world’s emphasis on moderation and practice, and end with our own emphasis on survival itself as a marker of virtue.

Early on we explore how notions of love, charity and forgiveness fundamentally changed the Western ideas of morality.

Grace and forgiveness attract the students’ attention. Many use utilitarian arguments to explain why it’s beneficial to forgive. They say it’s psychologically healthier to not dwell on the past, or that it’s a waste of time to hold on to a grudge.

They have a harder time with the idea of forgiveness as a moral good in itself. “What about justice?” some quickly ask. I remind them of our discussion of the parable of Jesus and the tax collectors: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” ask the Pharisees. And Jesus answers: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Then the question becomes, is repentance necessary before forgiveness is granted, or is mercy unconditional? A question for medieval theologians and, it turns out, also for young people navigating the complexities of contemporary culture and politics.

After collecting students’ responses to the forgiveness question, I asked them what kinds of issues they expected to come up most often.

A woman quickly raised her hand and said it had to be about cheating in a relationship. This proved spot on. Some talked about deceitful romantic partners or old friends who wound up dating their exes. A few complained of best friends knowing about illicit behavior but not sharing it, while others remembered feeling aghast at what seemed like unprovoked cruelties. Almost all, though, said they found a way to forgive the offending party. Most of the time, this wasn’t out of love or grace, but because it was, they said, better for their own psychological health not to carry around such bitterness.

Not all of the personal issues had to do with dating. There were disputes between siblings that had been set aside in order to preserve relationships, and a few commented on how odd it felt to realize that they hadn’t really forgiven a brother or a sister for a silly offense committed years ago. I wondered whether our classroom discussions would somehow amplify the desire to forgive, or at least the willingness to, in words they often used, “let it go.”

The issue of repentance did resonate with a couple of students who thought about forgiveness in a political context. One said that he couldn’t forgive those “who willfully upheld systems of oppression,” while another singled out Donald Trump as being beyond the pale of forgiveness. For both students, the absence of an attempt to seek forgiveness meant it should be withheld — and not only here on Earth!

We talked in class about the conflicts that occur sometimes between justice and forgiveness. One student noted that he had forgiven a friend who had gone on to hurt others and speculated that his kindness might have enabled the persistence of hurtful behavior. It was generally agreed that justice demanded an accounting, or a rebalancing, while forgiveness was more like a gift, more like an expression of love. Even with their COVID masks on, I could see them leaning in, attending carefully to the tensions of this territory.

I was particularly struck by their reflections on how hard it was to find a way to acknowledge hurt while not being subsumed by it. I was concerned for those who felt at fault for allowing others to wrong them, even as they struggled with lingering questions of betrayal.

And I was deeply moved by the student who wrote that he understood why his parents “had to get divorced,” but that it left him with “a constant process of forgiveness.” Another student wrote about becoming homeless because of a parent’s incarceration, and how he had to learn to see that they had both become better people for having gone through this ordeal. Talk about grace!

Among my students’ responses, I didn’t see any hasty canceling of others — no calls to isolate someone who they perceived as having acted wrongly, no move to shun someone with whom they disagreed. Nobody sounded coddled; nobody, it seemed, had had their minds closed by the prejudices often ascribed to their generation.

Of course, they may have set aside their inclinations to censoriousness and wrathful judgment because they were in a directed classroom discussion. But I would note that they didn’t need much encouragement. They just needed, as we all do, safe-enough spaces to work through the complexities of reconciliation — and of forgiveness.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent book is “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses.”