Flawed Forgiveness: Why the State Shouldn’t (and can’t) Apologize

Yu Xuan Chia – Singapore

buy propecia online cheap In 1995, South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission dedicated to discovering the truth about wrongs committed during Apartheid and helping the nation to heal in Apartheid’s aftermath. The chairperson of that commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, would later write a book about his experiences titled go to my site No Future Without Forgiveness.

Now the act creating the Commission cites reconciliation as a goal, and the word appears 107 times in the document. Forgiveness, by contrast, is never used. But Tutu was hardly the only one to conflate the Commission’s goals with forgiveness. Indeed, the connection between reconciliation and forgiveness has become increasingly muddled as political and social leaders continue to peddle the rhetoric of forgiveness. Political figures apologize and thus beg our forgiveness, people demand political apologiescountries vow not to forgive past atrocities, and certain wrongs are declared “unforgivable.” But even in Tutu’s own Commission, we see the limits of political forgiveness.

A woman whose husband was assassinated by police officers under Apartheid came forth to testify before the Commission. Her statement was translated to, “a Commission or a Government cannot forgive. Only I, eventually, could do it. And I am not ready to forgive.”

This woman’s comments point to an important historical note: government and state forgiveness is largely a recent development of the post-World War II era. A website that tracks political apologies lists that from 1077 to 1937, there were eleven. Since World War II, there have been at least 200.

The recent ubiquity of political forgiveness makes it seem natural, which makes it difficult to step back and question this development. Jacques Derrida is one thinker who has done so and uncovered the paradoxical and problematic aspects of this recent development. In “On Forgiveness”, Derrida uses a conceptual genealogy of forgiveness to problematize political uses of the word.

Dealing with Derrida is extremely difficult, so I do want to caution readers first: I do not claim to understand fully any part of his work. His writings are complex, confusing, and deeply interconnected. But his essay does make several astute observations that we can appropriate for our purposes, and that is what I have done here.

In his work, Derrida traces the concept of forgiveness to the “Abrahamic tradition,” his term for Judeo-Christian-Islamic thought. In this tradition, he locates the notions of unconditional and conditional forgiveness. Unconditional forgiveness places no terms or conditions on the forgiveness; it does not demand amends or even that the target of the forgiveness acknowledges his past wrongs. Conditional forgiveness, on the other hand, is granted on the basis of the forgiven apologizing or promising to change or some other such condition.

These two views of forgiveness are, according to Derrida, both irreconcilable and indissociable. They are irreconcilable in that they are completely different. Not only do they differ in whether there are conditions, but they also differ in the target of the forgiveness. If we forgive people, then unconditional forgiveness forgives “the guilty as such,” whereas conditional forgiveness forgives a person only after he has fulfilled some conditions. Conditional forgiveness can thus only forgive the better person that results from fulfilling the conditions.

But they are also indissociable. Unconditional forgiveness needs to account for the conditional, material facts of the world to be effective, concrete, and historic. Forgiveness undertaken without any consideration of these factors can become unrealistic to the point of being sterile. But without unconditionality, forgiveness is stripped of meaning or significance. If we have conditions that one must fulfill for “forgiveness,” then this begins to look more like an “economy of exchange” and not true forgiveness. Part of the significance of forgiveness is that it avoids this economy of exchange and is not done for any particular purpose. Even “forgiveness” done for a noble purpose, such as national reconciliation, is not truly forgiveness because there is a kind of calculation behind the act. For Derrida, forgiveness is beyond calculation, and that is part of what makes it so meaningful.

Keeping forgiveness out of political contexts is crucial, in Derrida’s view, as any political use of “forgiveness” inevitably involves a kind of calculation that subordinates forgiveness to some other purpose, depriving it of significance.

Furthermore, such usage can mislead and deceive people. By using the logic of forgiveness, political leaders “enable all sorts of strategic ruses and unacknowledgeable politics.” Political calculations can be shrouded in the veil of forgiveness, a veil which protects leaders from facing critical questions surrounding motive. When one asks for forgiveness or when one forgives, the impulse to interrogate and question one’s true motives is deemed improper. In this way, the rhetoric of forgiveness can sidestep uncomfortable questions and inquiries.

Derrida offers a comparison here to the concept of “crimes against humanity.” In 1964, France declared these crimes “imprescriptible” or “timeless.” This kind of statement attempts to efface the historical fact that these offenses were “produced and authorized by an international community on a date and according to a figure determined by its history.” The application of these laws remains subject to the power and reputational imbalances of the international community. Labeling certain events as “crimes against humanity” and authorizing international bodies to prosecute effaces the concrete power struggles that undergird these “imprescriptible” and “eternal” laws. Similarly, forgiveness aims to efface political calculations or motivations, some of which may be very noble, but which are nonetheless important to expose and judge on their own merits.

There is a final sense in which forgiveness must be taken back from the political. When one forgives, the heritage of the concept establishes an exclusive, two-party act. In Derrida’s view, the introduction of a third-party at once converts the process into something else, perhaps amnesty, reconciliation, or reparation, but “certainly not forgiveness in the strict sense.” Forgiveness is something which occurs strictly between the guilty and the victim and is an intensely personal process for both. Indeed, the wrongs that require forgiveness are often those that cannot be adequately compensated for in other ways. They are, in short, some of the most personal and most hurtful events people have experienced.

The state has no place interfering here under the banner of forgiveness. Our experiences show that there are spheres where the state cannot and should not interfere—what Derrida calls “secrets,” because the state has no understanding nor any possibility of understanding such things. They escape the juridical logic of legislated institutions. An important part of our personhood consists in just these things, and it is, therefore, necessary to resist any efforts to uncover our “secrets” and appropriate them into the legal framework.

Thus forgiveness, in any true or sincere form, remains ultimately unknown to the state, which must always act with another end in mind, converting any use of “forgiveness” into a calculated display designed to achieve something else. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge this Derridean view and demand that states stop abusing the rhetoric of forgiveness when they clearly mean something else.