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Mutuality and Group Forgiveness

This leads us to another key aspect of forgiveness that is not a feature of many other operative concepts in our moral lives. It is very often the case with some offence that has been committed that individual identification not only of victims and thus potential forgivers, but also perpetrators and thus potential candidates for forgiveness is difficult, impossible or simply not appropriate. Not only is the committing of an offence against any given individual likely to have consequences that extend to his family, friends and other close associates - and perhaps a community as a whole, contributing to the general level of crime or antagonism that pervades in a workplace, village or group of a small enough size that a single offence can affect it - but, in the real world, a crime less obviously definable and out of the ordinary is likely to be perpetrated in some sense by a group of people. Some of these people will bear more guilt than others, but the group of candidates for forgiveness, which does not operate strictly by such degrees, is likely to number more than one.

For example, we might think of a woman who faces sexual discrimination in the workplace. On her return from maternity leave, she is confronted with a changed attitude from a number of her immediate superiors. She is given less interesting assignments, less work that constitutes useful experience for career progression, and as a result her career and general working life suffers. There is no active conspiracy that results in this state of affairs, no ringleader who suggests that the woman should be treated differently on her return. What happens to her, that is, the offence, is simply a result of lazy and unthinking stereotypes and reactions on the part of a group of people, and a failure on the part of others who might have been able to effectively challenge this behaviour to do so. The woman, quite rightly and correctly, feels wronged, and that she has been the victim of some offence. If she is to forgive the perpetrators, where could she even start? Would it be necessary to forgive each and every person who went along with the discriminating behaviour, as if there were no real connection between the actions of each one, and then the same with everyone who had a good chance to change the way things were developing, but did not? Even if it were practical to do so, this does not seem to capture what would be happening if the woman were to forgive her (former) workmates and superiors. At the same time, by saying that she forgives them we do not want to suggest that she merely accepts that they were acting from some kind of inevitable social prejudice or stereotype which they had all, to varying degrees, internalized. To forgive someone is something quite far beyond simply understanding why they behaved as they did, and that their bad behaviour merely reflected a social norm which is or was more or less prevalent.

What is involved in the forgiveness of a group of people in a case like the one detailed above ? If there is to be a confrontation of some kind, what would it consist in, and how could it be public ? These are important questions, particularly because these cases of offence and injustice are likely to be at least as common as the more individual, personal ones like that of the malicious gossiper, where the offence can be clearly defined, pinpointed in time and space and isolated from the general social life of a community. Here is one place where recognition meets social justice, and recognition of a potential forgiver as a victim is seen as part of a healing process. This is not the direct concern here, but it shows how forgiveness as recognition has a bearing on the wider moral and political issues. Can we speak of some kind of group responsibility, of, in the terms of the collective intentionality debate, there being a sense in which we are responsible over and above you being responsible and me being responsible ? Can there, by extension, be a sense in which we are candidates for forgiveness over and above you being a candidate for forgiveness and me being a candidate for forgiveness?

If our everyday moral lives are a guide, then we will want to accept that there is some sense in which groups can be candidates for forgiveness, and not in some kind of extended historical sense as in the family or ethnic case outlined above, but in a case like that of the workplace discrimination. (I am not ruling out family or ethnic groups as candidates for forgiveness, but they could not practically function as such in the context of confrontation and public recognition, and I am thus leaving such cases aside). Referring again to the case of the malicious gossip, the various colleagues involved in the workplace discrimination case have all committed the same or broadly the same offence against their female colleague, and out of broadly the same kind of motivation (prejudiced thoughts, a desire to gain an advantage over a colleague, an unwillingness to ‘rock the boat’). It would certainly be eccentric if she were to forgive some of her colleagues or former colleagues, whilst refusing to forgive those who had behaved in a similar way for similar sorts of reasons. These, of course, are tests, rather than definitive indicators, of a kind of group responsibility. Nevertheless, they are clear demonstrations of how these concepts operate in our actual moral lives.

We can accept the possibility of forgiveness of groups (that is, with the candidates for forgiveness forming a group) both because of some sense in which the offence was committed as a group, and because there is a sense in which they can, as a group, be forgiven in a way that goes over and above each of them individually being forgiven. Of course, the latter is dependent to a great extent on the former, although the former is not a sufficient (or even a necessary) condition for the latter. There is a question over how forgiveness is to be sought when it is a group that is to be forgiven - although, as discussed above, this is not an absolute requirement for a process of recognition as forgiveness to take place. We can surely, however, imagine a situation where a small number of members of a group, with the public support and acceptance of a good number of other members of the group, seeks reconciliation with the victim once they acknowledge and realise that an offence has been committed. It is then very much up to the potential forgiver how she finds a way to forgive a group in a sense that goes beyond forgiving each of its members. The broader social context is likely to be particularly relevant here. In the case of the workplace discrimination, the actions of the workmates were at least partly based on social attitudes in general. Forgiveness is clearly something far above and beyond an understanding of the reasons an offence was committed, but nevertheless the recognition and understanding of the circumstances surrounding the behaviour is part of the confrontation - when seeking, or even accepting forgiveness, one typically offers reasons for, or an explanation of, the offending behaviour, not generally in order to excuse oneself, but to help the potential forgiver to understand the circumstances surrounding the offence. Indeed, were this step in the granting and accepting of forgiveness to be left out, it would be questionable as to whether forgiveness would count as such. Just as the social context is likely to be particularly relevant to the committing of the offence, so it is likely to be particularly relevant to its forgiveness.

All of these considerations about forgiveness, considered together, demonstrate a number of factors which the phenomenon has in common with a particular type of love as ethical partnership. The relevant factors about forgiveness are, from this discussion, as follows. First, and perhaps most importantly, mutuality. It is not possible, certainly in the sense that we are discussing forgiveness here, to forgive someone who does not accept that forgiveness in the sense of not seeing themselves as a candidate for it due to not having committed an offence, or not recognising the person doing the forgiving as a suitable person to do this. Forgiveness, in the non-mutual cases detailed above, fails. Secondly, this mutuality must work in a particular way - there are a range of reasons why recognition as forgiveness fails, some more catastrophic for that recognition than others. As with all of these phenomena concerning difficult human relationships, success and failure is not simply binary. There are some facts about an attitude or situation that will form an absolute obstacle to recognition and forgiveness, and some which will mean that the process goes only so far, and no further, failing to complete, but not, perhaps, without any value at all (although this is a separate question from whether something is properly seen as recognition). Whether the right kind of mutuality can be said to exist is a matter, as discussed above, of the precise relationship and stance the potential forgiver and the candidate for forgiveness adopt towards each other and towards their past behaviour. Thus, the recognitive process of forgiveness can be said to develop in consultation. This is underlines by the demonstrated importance of confrontation in the process of reconciliation. The third and fourth factors I discussed as important for the forgiveness relevant as a recognitive process were the public and social aspects of the forgiving process. Private forgiveness might well count as recognition, but this effect is greatly enhanced if the confrontation that leads to the forgiveness is played out, to some extent, in public. Linked to this, as demonstrated by the case of the workplace discrimination, an understanding of the social context in which the original act or offence was committed might also said to be critical for recognition, since a sufficiently detailed understanding of motivation and how this is socially influenced is crucial for forgiveness and recognition. I discuss in the following chapter how these four features - mutuality, consultation, and the public and social aspects - apply to love as ethical partnership.4

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