All the Bad Men and What to Do With Them

“What about forgiveness?” is the wrong question

This is Men Yell at Me, a newsletter that explores the intersection of politics and power in red-state America. If you like it, consider subscribing. If you hate it, you can subscribe too.

It had only been 12 hours since I learned what the man had done to my sister before I was told to forgive him.

“You cannot harbor anger in your heart,” my mom advised me. “You have to learn to forgive.”

The person who hurt my sister never apologized. Never acknowledged his harm. Years later, after I refused to see him and refused to communicate with him, he sent me an email, telling me that I was unchristian. That the Bible told me I had to forgive him. That God had forgiven David of that whole thing with Bathsheba, so who did I think I was? It was forgiveness as a cudgel, welded to beat me in line.

I have never forgiven him and I never will. 

Three weeks ago, I was in a bar talking with some people I had never met before. One of the men told me he loved my writing but didn’t always agree with me. 

“Oh, like what?” I said.

He referred to an article I wrote about Iowa Democrats rehabilitating an accused harasser and promoting him to leadership in the party. “We can’t just toss men out,” he said.

It reminded me of when I reported that story out. Of the hours I spent on the phone with various politicians and power-makers in Iowa politics. All of whom wrung their hands and said the same thing, “There has to be rehabilitation!” And I would reply, “Why is rehabilitation our work? Isn’t that the work of the abusers? And what about the victims?”

There is a huge difference between tossing people out and promoting them. There is a huge difference between forgiveness and restoration.

In the years since the fever pitch of #MeToo in 2017, many of the abusers have come slinking back one way or another. Their rehabilitation often aided with women by their side — daughters and wives, who act as virtue stand-ins, silent props to the morality play. 

Vox’s new podcast “Conversations” launched with a conversation about forgiveness prompted by the idea that as a society we have no path for forgiveness for shitty men. 

First of all, the entire foundational text of Western religion is about sin and forgiveness. And the most lauded person in Biblical narratives, King David, was a rapist. So the premise of the conversation is entirely misleading.

The reality is the majority of abusers walk free in America. Most rapists and people accused of sexual assault never face trial and when they do, they are rarely punished.

The podcast conversation discusses forgiveness as a virtue. A one-way street that liberals ought to walk down because we are abolitionists and therefore must give people forgiveness. This is a dangerous blurring of the systemic and moral issues. My abolitionist views have nothing to do with my sense of forgiveness. And the conflation of the two equates personal morality with systematic inequality.

How people square the personal morality in forgiveness is up to them. 

But the bigger picture is that, actually, we actually do have a cultural narrative of forgiveness. It’s the one that demands it from the victims so we can refuse to deal with the broader moral and systemic failures. It’s one that demands silence. That demands restoration without a full accounting of the harm. That puts the full responsibility for redemption on the victims, rather than the victimizer.

Moira Donegan, feminist writer and columnist for The Guardian, told me via DM, “It is not our job to rehabilitate them! It’s their job not to hurt us in the first place. Not to mention that so few sexually abusive men ever face professional repercussions or social sanction. The question of ‘how do they come back’ seems especially pointless when so few of them were ever asked to leave.”

Simply put, it is not my job to make the world better for abusive people. My job is to make the world better for the victims. Which is why, when people say, “What about forgiveness?” I say you are asking the wrong question. Why are we so worried about the future of this man, when his victims are still suffering? The question answers itself in uncomfortable silence.

In his book, Why Does He Do That?, Lundy Bancroft, a counselor for abusive men points out that often abusers rely on their victims tying themselves in emotional knots to come to terms with and explain the abusive behavior. When all the available emotional and physical energy is focused on the abuser and not the victim, the cycle still continues.

Roxane Gay wrote powerfully about forgiveness and race in 2015, after Dylann Roof murdered nine Black people in Charleston, noting:

The call for forgiveness is a painfully familiar refrain when black people suffer. White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is, and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present…. What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution. They want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins. They want absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of racism, great and small. They want to believe it is possible to heal from such profound and malingering trauma because to face the openness of the wounds racism has created in our society is too much. I, for one, am done forgiving.

Gay was pointing out how forgiveness is a cultural weapon in the fight for justice, used to beat down dissent and repress memory. And her analysis sits at the intersection of race and power. And she points out that forgiveness is demanded because we are uncomfortable with sitting with the trauma. So rarely do people want to fully grapple with the profound horror of their actions.

As a result, so many people work so hard for the redemption of men, who have no interest in working toward it themselves. And so many of our conversations are about what to do with these people, rather than how to help their victims.

Further Reading:

Also, there are a LOT of books/articles/conversations out there about justice, forgiveness, and what that looks like culturally. Because, as it turns out, WE DO HAVE A CULTURAL NARRATIVE ABOUT THIS. I always find it so disingenuous when people say we have no roadmap for bad men, because like, all of history has been a roadmap for bad men. But, I recommend reading about transitional justice. (I read Ruti G. Teitel’s foundational text about transitional justice in college. And I didn’t even go to a particularly good school. Just a normal one.) I also liked this long form story about whether the US needs a truth and reconciliation commission. And a text I return to often is Julia Kristeva’s work on hatred and forgiveness.

Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email, which includes interviews, essays, and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks, and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics, food, dogs, our bodies, and more.