What is forgiveness? And are there times when it is impossible? Moreover, are there times when it is not only impossible, but wrong to forgive?

Jo Berry, whose father Sir Anthony Berry was killed in the IRA’s bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton back in 1984, is perhaps best known for her interviews, speeches, writings and film work on the subject of forgiveness, both alone and together with Patrick Magee, the man who served 14 years in prison for planting the bomb. She found it possible to forgive Magee.

“Today, I can say openly that I care about Pat, that he’s a friend,” says Jo Berry. “It’s taken me a long time to be able to say that without feeling that I’m betraying my family or my father. The connection between us, that he killed my father, is always there.”


The interview goes on:

Then she met some members of Sinn Fein. “One man arrived with his son, who had special needs. They had a loving, caring relationship and I saw him in the context of his family, as a human. He told me he was very sorry my father had been killed. Meeting him and others gave me an understanding of why someone would choose violence and that was helpful to me, as it was way beyond my experience. I’d never needed violence in my life.”

Forgiveness appears, for Berry, to be first and foremost about returning to a sense that the future may be different from the past. In this, she subscribes perhaps to a view of the value of forgiveness that is increasingly widespread.

On this view, forgiveness is represented psychologically as a process by which trauma can be dealt with, where trauma is understood as a moment of “splitting” in which the individual becomes divided from herself. There is an “I” before the event and an “I” after it, and an accompanying yearning to go back beyond the split. The experience of being powerless before the event which caused the split results in a preoccupation with the past.

Patrick Magee and Jo Berry
Patrick Magee and Jo Berry

Forgiveness is often therefore understood as a way for the victim to escape this condition of powerlessness. The value of the process thus lies outside it: psychological approaches to forgiving tend to view it as instrumentally useful. Philosophically speaking, they thus take an implicitly consequentialist position on it. It has valuable consequences for the individual and for the society in which she lives, and from these consequences derive its justification.

What are these consequences? Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela‘s book A Human Being Died That Night shows how the personal journey of one woman towards the past of South Africa reflects the public, political journey her country embarked on in the 1990s with the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It is the story of the interviews Gobodo-Madikizela conducted with Eugene de Kock, who was a senior member of the covert South African police unit who killed in secret operations dozens of anti-apartheid activists. What spurred Gobodo-Madikizela to request to meet de Kock in the maximum security prison where he was being held was his own earlier request to meet – and apologise to – the widows of two of the men he killed. The women, upon meeting him, found themselves profoundly moved by his words of contrition, seeing in his actions an acknowledgement that his past had cost him something definitive of his humanity. Gobodo-Madikizela asks:

Was de Kock deserving of the forgiveness shown him? Was he too evil to be worthy of the forgiveness Mrs Faku and Mrs Mgoduka had offered him? Was evil intrinsic to de Kock, and forgiveness therefore wasted on him? (p.15)


What she discovers in trying to answer these questions is essentially a consequentialist case for espousing and promoting forgiveness. The case of South Africa (she mentions in places the Rwandan equivalent of the TRC, but concentrates on her own nation) serves to demonstrate that forgiveness plays a crucial role in processes of personal transformation that she sees as the core of social healing. To ensure that a society has a future, she suggests that people must be able to affirm that they, as individuals, are no longer tied to the past. She argues therefore that personal trauma is a barrier to social harmony.

Gobodo-Madikizela draws comparisons between the personal transformations described by victims of apartheid violence, or their relatives, who participated in the TRC hearings, with a process that she herself experienced as a result of her interviews with de Kock. She saw this process as centring on the feeling of being unable to regard him with the same kind of dehumanising hatred as he had levelled against his victims. This shift, moving from fear and hatred to empathy, is one that she encounters repeatedly in the stories of those who came to the TRC hearings to hear members of the former government and armed forces offer apologies and an account of themselves. It brings with it a feeling of power, one unique to forgiveness. This is, Gobodo-Madikizela suggests, a kind of rarefied revenge, in affirming that to be human is to rise above the wrongs that have been done to one (p. 117).

The public processes of institutionalised forgiveness of the kind pursued by the TRC, she argues, rehumanize sections of society who had previously been dehumanized, by forcing perpetrators to confront the consequences of their actions for the individuals whom they harmed. Further, they allow those who have lost loved ones to give voice to the depth of their hurt in a public forum. In this way, these processes seek to bring about the two different kinds of acknowledgement I described earlier – the recognition of pain on the part of the victim and on the part of the perpetrator. They offer the perpetrator an opportunity to express remorse, and they also grant power to the disempowered. In this way, Gobodo-Madikizela argues, the TRC hearings opened up the possibility of people finding new ways to live together in a scarred society, having addressed the traumas of the past. For the victims, they provide them with an opportunity to become something other than victims. Instead of being at the mercy of the people who have wronged them, they become givers of mercy.

Victims might have been able to function quite well in other contexts, but in this one area, at those moments when something reminds them of this one person, this one ordeal, they feel dehumanised again, halved and ineffective, quarantined in an area of their mind and of their life where they remember being told in effect that they do not matter. (pp. 128-9)


It is a notable aspect of the TRC hearings that they offered perpetrators (from the government and non-government sides) who testified to their crimes the possibility of amnesty. Such amnesties were not always granted. De Kock, for example, was sentenced to over 200 years in prison for his own deeds. But might this have meant, then, that the hearings gave perpetrators an incentive to offer a cheap apology, together with testimony about some of their deeds, with the hope of getting an amnesty? Gobodo-Madikizela writes that sincerity is sometimes difficult to judge. Certainly, the process of institutionalised forgiveness requires that the perpetrator should give signs of remorse. Certainly, one can always ask the sceptical question of these signs, how can you know for sure? But Gobodo-Madikizela writes that philosophical questions of this kind have at some point to be subsumed by “human questions”, such as “how shall we have a future together?” (p. 125).

In other words, she gives a consequentialist answer to the sceptical question. There are benefits to be had from promoting forgiveness which are essential to the health of a society. In addition to the benefits already mentioned, to forgive also implies the acknowledgement that we ourselves are perhaps not immune to perpetrating wrongs on others: the urge to forgive could, in this sense, be understood as a product of sorrow at the potential that human beings in general (including ourselves, who have been victims) have to inflict such pain on others. Such an awareness of our own potential may guard against future conflicts. And besides which, if it is always possible to count someone as beyond forgiveness, as irredeemably given to evil-doing, then we should be aware of the costs to ourselves of judging someone in this way. On this view, to place the perpetrator beyond forgiveness – due to their supposedly intrinsic evil – dehumanizes them. It dehumanizes them by placing them beyond responsibility for their crimes, for if they are simply and purely evil, how else could they have acted? To recognise their humanity is to hold them to account, to invite them to recognise that, all along, they were human and knew right from wrong. To put the perpetrator beyond the pale, then, is to mirror his or her own evil act within oneself.

Now, let’s go back to Patrick Magee. Norman Tebbit, whose wife Margaret was permanently disabled by the explosion that killed Berry’s father, was asked in May 2007 if he would meet with Magee, an invitation which he refused. Why?

What it comes down to is a principle. There is a principle at stake and it is a very dangerous thing to breach that principle. People who use violence should not profit from it. You must not be allowed to bomb your way to the political table, and yet that is what they have done. I don’t get angry at Magee personally. He isn’t worth that. I refer to him as a low grade terrorist hitman, and you can pick those up anywhere. What upsets me is that the godfathers have got away with it. Not just the Brighton bomb, but the maimings, the kneecappings, the robberies.


He continues:

Terrorists can be let out of jail none the worse for the loss of liberty for a few years but for victims the slate is never wiped clean. Early release has no meaning for the victim unless it’s early release to the grave from a ruined life or a body broken by the barbarous use of the bodies of the innocent to gain what the terrorist wants.


Does this suggest that the therapeutic model of forgiveness has shortcomings? Does it point towards additional moral complexities involved in forgiving?

More to follow.

Cardiff Philosophy Cafe ran a session on forgiveness in December 2008.

Enhanced by Zemanta

4 thoughts on “The Difficulties of Forgiveness (1)”

  1. First, a complaint. Berry unnecessarily doffs a more than respectful cap to psychology by interpreting the roots of forgiveness in psychological terms that still have the power to frighten and intrigue. On offer is a standard gloomy psychological kitsch that throws the spanner of madness into the works, beginning where Berry describes forgiveness in terms of trauma. From there we are led along the well-trodden psychological path to “splitting”, and to a “divided” self. Beyond that, who knows what schizo-esque psychotic delights await us: but for psychology, we might suppose.

    That’s a side-gripe. My main point is that Berry seems to have omitted some critical points about “forgiveness” and that by omitting these we put an ad hoc, psychologically-laboured, definition of “forgiveness” in place of what experientially happens to us when we do the forgiveness thing…

    To elaborate, Berry misses the vital point (I have only the above text to work from) that forgivenesss is not primarily about forgiveness of the other. My point is that forgiveness is forgiveness of oneself, primarily, and only of the other if there is an other. A person who has been involved in a natural catastrophe will go through the same feelings of disempowerment, humiliation and soul-death even though no malevolent agent is responsible for the hurt.

    Berry offers us the idea that understanding the other is one of the best restoratives for the self. Here, both Berry and psychology seem to offer variations on coping strategies while ignoring the anti-psychological idea that the human can heal itself in a thoroughly positive manner. For example, psychology’s “consequentalist” position – that forgiveness is not a healing response but is only socially useful – denies either trauma, or forgiveness as a restorative to it. Psychology can’t deny trauma as it deals with it, so it must redefine trauma in terms that take us away from experiential markers like forgiveness. This is when acolytes can be seen thumbing through galleries of brain scans. Forgiveness is then expelled into a social category, and individual resolution to trauma can be achieved without it. Consequentalism leaves a victims hatred untouched.

    A better model of forgiveness ought to reflect what actually happens when we do more than cope with a tragedy. When things or bad things happen to us the happening is a complete entity or gestalt in itself. There is no separation of victim from victimised, or separation of victim from the physical minutiae of the “traumatic” event. A healing forgiveness must involve all parties. BUt psychology marches away from acknowledging natural, positive healing responses by pathologising many of its experiential and physical concommitants. These might include prolonged hyperventilation, flashbacks, intense sobbing, gasping, spiritual openings, etc. And that’s a pity.

    Finally, and just a side-comment, there is some anecdotal evidence that forgiving oneself as victim leads to a turn-around in the mind-set of the other as victimiser. But that’s beyond Berry’s and psychology’s conceptual remit I think. And “social” consequences of forgiveness don’t seem to be fully relevant to any of the models on offer here, despite “consequentalist” fidgeting. Berry somewhat rightly says, “forgiveness” heralds the new from the old, or the future out of the past, but then, ultimately, she is talking about individuals, not society. All in all I think Berry’s position expands on psychology’s idea of forgiveness while failing to challenge its physicalist, often antithetical approach to individual healing.

  2. That’s interesting John, particularly the suggestion (if I understand you right) that psychology leaves the core of the experience untouched in the interests of some wider drive towards normalization (which some would not doubt argue reflects the only concept psychology has of the “general good”).

    I’m going to add a second post to this soon which explores another point of view on this.

    Do you think Gobodo-Madikizela’s account of forgiveness deals more adequately with the kinds of issues you mention in your final two paragraphs?

  3. There are at least three ideas here on forgiveness and society, it seems to me. Call me an old sceptic but Berry’s account is irrelevant, Gobodo-Madikizelae’s is confused, and psychology’s is dishonest. Here’s why I say this.

    Berry’s account of the social benefits occasioned by individual forgiveness is fine as it stands, but there is no necessary connection between them. She could just as easily have assessed the benefits of forgiveness on climate change, on life-span, or on the world price of oranges, etc. In other words, addressing the social dimension of forgiveness is a digression or a separate topic to the notion of forgiveness per se. That is why I said that Berry’s discussion is ultimately irrelevant to the core topic (forgiveness).

    Gobodo-Madikizela’s (no spell check available) account is confused because, as a “consequentalist”, he (or was it she?) necessarily holds two contrary positions. Gobodo-Madikizela asserts that social forgiveness is forgiveness proper and yet retains the idea of individual forgiveness. That looks like an equivocation – taking a word as having one meaning when two are on offer. It also looks like Gobodo-Madikizelao has sunk deeper into confusion when, in attempting to resolve the equivocation AND retain the ideas of social and individual forgiveness, he privileges one term (social forgiveness) over the other (individual forgiveness), hoping, we suppose, that the least significant term will drop out of consideration. But this only serves to establish a relationship between them, yet a relationship is denied on the basis that social forgiveness IS forgiveness proper. Yes, it looks complicated, and there may be a more succinct way of putting it..

    Psychology’s “consequentalism” is necessarily dishonest because it is a reductionism, and reductionisms are necessarily dishonest. Why do I say this? To say that forgiveness IS social forgiveness denies individual forgiveness, and is a reductionist program. Yet, and this is the dishonest part, like any reductionism, the only means of identifying the object of reduction is through the object that is being reduced. For example, if mind IS brain, then there is no means of identifying brain as a significant object or an object at all, let alone an object of mental preparedness – except by the identifier “mind”.

    So, what we have on offer here is a triad of grammatical curio’s that arise from three ways of taking a word (forgiveness) out of one context or domain and grafting it into another domain (social):

    1) Double meanings and equivocations arise from the assumption that a word is independent of contexts and can move between them, and that the possibility of such movement forges a relationship between contexts(contextualism/Gobodo-Madikizela).
    2) On the other hand, the claim that no word movement was ever occasioned amounts to dishonesty when the new position cannot be determined except by considering the old position (reductionism/psychology).
    3) Finally, the tacit assumption that talking of two different meanings in the same breath amounts to a relationship between them tries to make the irrelevant appear relevant (Berry).


    Regarding the point about psychology thwarting public awareness of the significance of the healing power of the individual psyche in favour of a program of normalization (and whose normalization, we might ask) is another big topic. Also I acknowledge that Berry does havea notion of positive healing, but this seems mucked up a little by psychological caveats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *