Political Forgiveness

For proponents of forgiveness, the benefits of forgiving are clear for victims and perpetrators of wrongs alike. Focusing on the psychological impact of anger and resentment, Baumeister, Exline, and Sommer suggest that embracing ‘suffering, weakness and distress as part of one’s identity’ leads individuals to ‘relinquish important possibilities for happiness’ (1998: 98). Second, proponents of forgiveness argue that where revenge potentially commits both victims and perpetrators to iterated cycles of violent retaliation, forgiveness ‘attempts to put an end to something that without interference could do on endlessly’ (Arendt 1998: 241). Revenge, it is commonly assumed ‘can generate a never-ending violent cycle, trapping both sides in a dynamic of blow and response, eventually destroying all those involved’ (Eisikovits 2004: 33). Although studies have suggested that revenge may but need not always generate an ongoing cycle of violence (Boehm 1986), some interpretations of international history afford the desire for revenge a ‘small but indispensable role in spawning two world wars’ and countless other conflicts (McCullough 2008: 36-37). Forgiveness thus makes it possible for transgressors and those to whom their actions are directed to escape from what Arendt called the ‘predicament of irreversibility’ (Arendt 1998: 237). That is, forgiveness allows both victims and perpetrators a means of addressing wrongs, even where the injustice committed cannot be undone.

It is for this reason that Hannah Arendt argued that forgiveness is a necessity in politics. ‘Without being forgiven,’ she wrote, ‘released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences for ever’ (Arendt 1998: 237). Forgiveness thus allows both individuals and societies to avoid revenge, overcome resentment and rebuild fractured relationships (Shriver 2003: 31; Bole et al. 2004: 76). For this reason, proponents of political forgiveness state that there simply is ‘no future without forgiveness.’

Yet political forgiveness is not an exclusively good, wholly unproblematic practice. In addition to concerns regarding the religious foundations and therapeutic benefits of forgiveness,3 it is in the transposition of the interpersonal practice of forgiveness into politics that many of its most significant problems lie. First, on a fundamental level is the question of whether or nor states and other collective entities are actually capable of forgiving. Devoid of emotions, states cannot resent or overcome resentment (Griswold 2007: 179).4 Of course, states and their representatives ask for and offer forgiveness on a relatively routine basis. But, when states offer forgiveness, are they doing the same thing as individuals? At best we can argue that the sort of forgiveness offered by states on behalf of their communities is of a different character to that granted by individual victims. Political forgiveness will, as Charles Griswold notes, ‘share some characteristics but not others with interpersonal forgiveness’ (Griswold 2007: 138). In particular, political forgiveness is not necessarily tied to ‘any specific sentiment’ nor does it ‘require the giving up of resentment on the part of the injured’ (Griswold 137). Thus, when states ‘forgive,’ what they are actually doing is making a commitment to cease behaving towards an offender on the basis of the negative judgement that followed their unjust act. In practical terms, this often amounts to the granting of amnesties, a further problematic aspect of the practice of political forgiveness to be discussed shortly.

What states thus engage in when they offer forgiveness is thus a form of ‘partial forgiveness’ that does not necessarily imply any sort of emotional change on the part of the victim of a wrong. For some critics of political forgiveness, this disjuncture is the source of a second controversy surrounding the transposition of interpersonal forgiveness to the social realm. In particular, underpinning their complaint is the widely held principle that ‘only the victim of a crime has the right to forgive the perpetrator’ (Schimmel 2004: 8; Wiesenthal 1998).5 Where wrongs have been committed on a purely interpersonal level, upholding this principle is relatively straightforward. In post-conflict contexts, however, where individuals, families, communities, societies, and even states have been damaged by wrongdoing, it is less so: after all, each of these entities may legitimately claim to be a victim of the injustice committed. While individual victims of human rights violations may claim to be the primary victims of the crime in question, acts of abuse may also harm the primary victims’ families (secondary victims) and communities (tertiary victims). In this sense, proponents of political forgiveness argue that societies and even states may have ‘something to “forgive”—on behalf of the national community’ (Biggar 2003: 316). Yet, as we will see in the case of South Africa, redefining who counts as a victim does not eliminate the sense of disenfranchisement that the primary victims of serious harms and their families experience when states and institutions pressure them to forgive or offer forgiveness on their behalf.

Finally, the transposition of the interpersonal practice of forgiveness to the realm of politics raises controversies surrounding the sorts of actions that states perform when they forgive. This is particularly the case where the granting of amnesties to the perpetrators of serious wrongs is concerned. Despite the protestations of many proponents of forgiveness (who argue that amnesty and forgiveness are unrelated concepts), amnesty is commonly portrayed as an act of ‘political forgiveness’ or as the public expression of forgiveness (Mallinder 2008: 4 & 37). In particular, several recent amnesty laws have been defined and even explicitly justified in terms of forgiveness. For example, Annex 6 of the 1994 Lusaka Protocol which sought to bring an end to civil conflict in Angola, called upon ‘all Angolans’ to ‘forgive and forget offenses resulting from the Angolan conflict’ while, on a state level, granting immunity from prosecution commonly associated with amnesty (in Mallinder 2008: 56). At stake, when states offer forgiveness-as-amnesty, is the sense that wrongdoers are ‘let off the hook’ and that their victims must relinquish the pursuit of justice in response to their suffering.

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