At this point in our history, a serious conversation about the meaning of forgiveness would be welcome. I suspect that what Mrs Carroll may mean when she says she can’t forgive is that she is not ready to embrace the people who have taken her life partner away. Yet the most mature academic and psychological work on forgiveness suggests that it is a continuum rather than an act, and that popular perceptions of forgiveness are profoundly superficial. As with the fight or flight syndrome, the widely accepted notion is that a person victimised through violence or other oppression has two choices: forceful revenge or sentimental embrace. Some of the print and broadcast media appear to like both: total war for the tabloids, and tearful sentiment for the talk shows. They want people to express outrage, threaten retribution, and be hugging Oprah by sundown.
But I think it has to be said that embracing the person responsible for murder or grievous injury is not just too much to ask, especially in the early stages of grief, it’s actually psychologically damaging. A person needs to be able to grieve and begin to accept the loss or the wound before confronting the power that caused it – otherwise the danger of re-victimisation is all too real. On the other hand, revenge is supposed to be channeled or at least limited by an accountable criminal justice system.
Neither of these ideas accurately represents what happens in practice. For one thing, the public justice system often includes some form of retribution, and victims are invited – by the media, and other communal mavens – to seek vengeance. The idea of a system that allows for the possibility of rehabilitation, reducing repeat offences, and at the risk of sounding sentimental, restoration – what some people might call, with highly accurate simplicity ‘good coming out of a bad situation’ – is not exactly high on the list of political priorities.
There’s an obvious question at the heart of all of this: What is really going on when a tabloid-style newspaper asks a grieving widow, less than a month after her husband’s murder, whether not she forgives the people who killed him, when the tabloid vision of forgiveness is ultimately impossible?
Can’t we do better than this? How could we begin to have a public conversation that does all three of the following: humanises the parties involved, takes violence seriously, and doesn’t re-victimise people who are already suffering? How can a print and broadcast media obsessed with the idea that conflict pays be weaned toward writing front page articles that enhance the dignity of both the victim and the reader?