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Breaking and Imposing Silence through Forgiveness

Joie Rose's picture

Breaking and Imposing Silence through Forgiveness


Each person, by virtue of existing in a world that disallows for complete autonomy, has experienced transgressions, either directed towards themselves, or others. And so each person, by virtue of having, at one time or another, felt wronged in some way, is imbued with the capacity and agency to forgive. But because forgiveness is so inextricably linked with the abstract and often subjective definition of wrongness, forgiveness then also becomes inextricably linked with the personal and with power.

Hannah Arendt philosophizes on the merit and function of forgiveness, giving credence to the act of forgiveness as a freedom for both the offender and the offended. She asserts, first of all, that forgiveness, as a concept is a product of existing in global and local communities, and our inherent interconnectedness makes it impossible for a person to live completely autonomously, despite the autonomy that Kant so fervently built his principles upon. Because we form relationships, to varying degrees with each person in our life, we are bound by a social contract that renders forgiving oneself of an offence committed against the self, obsolete and irrelevant. However, according to Arendt, we are bound by that same social contract to release an individual other than ourselves, who has wronged us, through forgiveness, in order that they may reintegrate into the social fabric of our society and move forward. This is, as Arendt puts it, “so that our capacity to act would, as it were, [not] be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; [and so we do not]… remain the victims of its consequences forever”., and to silence both the deed and those involved permanently. To forever be defined by a single wrong one has committed against another, would most likely produce be an inescapable ensnarement of fear driven society not unlike the dystopian nation in George Orwell’s 1985, always under watch, and always wary of a misstep.

Arendt argues however, that more than the perpetrator is to be freed via the act of forgiveness. Forgiveness allows for each agent, both perpetrator and victim to begin anew, while emphasizing her claim by suggesting that forgiveness also allows both agents to free themselves from their past; “forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past”, Arendt claims. On this point I disagree. I posit that instead of absolving the actions of the past, forgiveness forces all individuals involved to acknowledge the past, to concede that a wrong has been done and there is something to forgive. This is how forgiveness can work in the favor of ahistorical bodies and give voice to both the offence and the offended. It breaks the silence so many offences impose.

Socially, there are oppressive structures that exist to suppress the history of certain bodies, namely bodies of color, and most often, black bodies. The dominant narrative of white supremacy that drowns out all other narratives actively denies black bodies the right hold a history and to acknowledge that history, particularly if it is a history of transgressions committed against their black bodies, wittingly or unwittingly, by white bodies. This denies these bodies both any attempt at dignified resistance, because one cannot possibly de dignified if they are resisting something that is deemed imaginary, as well as the ability to move on. Forgiveness, as Arendt argues, allows for power to be placed in the hands of the wronged, because only the wronged can release the perpetrator from their actions through forgiveness while, I posit, simultaneously pointing out that a wrong has been done and reversing the silence imposed on ahistorical bodies.

This neat and tidy argument however, cannot be taken as a universal prescription of forgiveness. There are certain cases of constriction, where forgiveness is complicated by other social structures and narratives that confine the act of forgiveness to extremely narrow definitions. Additionally, forgiveness is also often complicated by the idea of an ‘unforgivable’ wrong.

I will address first, the narrow definitions of forgiveness that society clutches so relentlessly. Angela Carter, in her essay regarding the merit and indeed necessity of trigger warnings for survivors of trauma, also touches on the idea that bound in our misconceptions about trigger warnings and trauma, is the notion that “People who have experienced trauma are culturally expected to turn their pain into a narrative of inspiration for others.” This misguided cultural expectation silences any variant modes of healing and coping, squeezing all experiences of trauma into a narrow trope of culturally accepted forgiveness and comfortable narrative that suits the needs of others, just not the traumatized individual. This also restricts the idea of forgiveness. It is an incredibly personal and subjective process for a traumatized individual to forgive those that caused trauma, and it is made nearly impossible by this false, imposed process of releasing both the traumatized and the traumateur from the shackles of rage and regret only if it is deemed dignified by the dominant cultural narrative. So the traumatized is trading one prison for another, while the traumateur is never fully released from their deed because it is an artificial freedom.

Furthering the idea of trauma and the inherent subjective nature of it, there are often occasions that render an action unforgivable by the traumatized individual. If we take Arendt’s assertion that the person who has been wronged holds the power to forgive and release both subjects from its damaging cycle, then they also hold the power to deny forgiveness and bind the perpetrator forever to their singular action or actions. However, this idea is complicated by circumstance and false narratives. The false narrative that Carter speaks to, halves the power that individual holds and prohibits forgiveness from being fully realized. While other victims of wrongfulness  simply do not have the agency to forgive. A murdered individual has no agency to forgive, and therefore neither wronged nor perpetrator can ever be fully released from the offence. Others, who are survivors of trauma may remain so traumatized that forgiveness is simply not an option that the individual has the capacity for. These complications breed the question, are there some deeds that are unforgivable? I will not attempt to answer this question as I have yet to answer it for myself. But Arendt claims a category for these deeds, one that both she and Kant define as a ‘radical evil’ that “transcend[s] the realm of human affairs and the potentialities of human power, both of which they radically destroy wherever they make their appearance.” An act so inhumane that forgiveness is no longer an option because it obliterates every notion of forgiveness that yields power. Neither party can agree to move forward because there is simply no precedent for it and release from such a deed, for either party, is therefore no longer an option. These are the deeds that traumatized individuals and their loved ones must grapple with. The inhuman, the inexplicable and un-prescribed. And these are the cases where silence is both remedy and result. Both imposed, and decided on.

So while forgiveness renders an agent of its ideal powerful and even influential, there are still actions that neither forgiveness, nor the perpetrator or the victim can mend. Arendt deems these actions beyond the realm of humanity, I assert that these actions are forever within the realm of humanity because they are enacted and experienced by members of humanity every moment of every day. The question that I leave you with is this; forgiveness is not an absolute answer. So for those deeds that we have no answer for, where neither punishment nor forgiveness is adequate or possible, do we continue to design a course of action for coping with these occurrences, or do we, like Arendt, accept that it is a part of human existence that we can never fully address while still finding merit in the questioning?



Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition / Hannah Arendt. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1958.


Carter, Angela. "Teaching with Trauma: Disability Pedagogy, Feminism, and the

Trigger Warnings Debate | Carter | Disability Studies Quarterly." Teaching with Trauma: Disability Pedagogy, Feminism, and the Trigger Warnings Debate | Carter | Disability Studies Quarterly. Disability Studies Quarterly, 2015. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.


Anne Dalke's picture

your first version of this paper was visually very powerful, as you blacked out what you could and would not say. This one steps into public view by drawing on the work of both Carter and Arendt to pursue the possibility of forgiveness. You do a very nice job both of explaining and challenging Arendt’s argument. First, that we are bound to forgive others their trespasses, in order that they may reintegrate into society: freed from the past, both victim and perpetrator are thus freed to “begin anew.” You describe the process differently: not undoing past deeds, but actually the reverse: acknowledging them. Secondly, you refuse her claim that some actions are “beyond the realm of humanity,” by asserting that anything enacted and experienced by humans is, by definition, human.

Are you familiar with the Restorative Justice movement? They tackle directly the question of the unforgiveable, emphasizing both accountability and making amends within-and-around the limits of the criminal justice system.

I also think that you will be very interested to read (when it comes out; it’s not circulating yet) an essay-now-in-process by Fred Moten called “Refuse, Refuge,” which is an analysis of Arendt’s anti-black racism—as constitutive to her thinking, if also not personal to her. When Fred visited Haverford last month, and met with a group of faculty for dinner and then a workshop on this emerging work, he said that he had had to learn to “stop hating” Hannah Arendt. Remind me to tell you the story of how this happened…

P.S. I had not before seen the word “traumateur.” Thank you for this.