To Forgive

The difficulty and possibilities of creating rituals for communal atonement online

In 1969, Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal published a memoir about the moral dilemma of individual culpability and forgiveness in the context of collective wrongdoing and suffering. The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness recounts an episode from Wiesenthal’s captivity at Janowska concentration camp in occupied Poland in 1943. A dying Nazi officer asks that a Jew — any Jew — be brought to his bedside. Wiesenthal is brought, and the Nazi confesses to his participation in herding several hundred Jewish people into a house and then burning them alive, shooting those who managed to jump out a window. “In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him,” the officer tells Wiesenthal. “I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.” The officer is 21. Wiesenthal says nothing. Instead, he stands up and leaves.

“Ought I to have forgiven him?” Wiesenthal writes. “Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong?” The book’s second half includes responses to this question from Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers; the most recent edition, from 1998, includes 53 of these responses, including meditations by the Dalai Lama, Primo Levi, Cynthia Ozick, and Desmond Tutu. “Without forgiveness there is no future,” wrote Tutu. “It is forgiveness that is relentless,” wrote Ozick. “The face of forgiveness is mild, but how stony to the slaughtered.”

Because digital spaces often function through being linked, guilt and victimhood can become both vivid and diffuse. Digital communities can amplify grievance

The Sunflower’s responses that fell on the side of refusing forgiveness often argued that it is simply impossible to forgive on behalf of other people — the individual, even one as closely aligned with the victims as was Wiesenthal in this case, cannot offer forgiveness for crimes against another. For all our empathy, we remain separate. Responses favoring forgiveness are often argued from a vision of humanity’s essential unity — a wrong visited on one is visited on all, therefore it is possible for meaningful forgiveness to come from someone other than one directly victimized.

The networked identity that arises out of inhabiting shared digital communities like Facebook and Twitter, in which our close friends overlap with acquaintances who overlap with strangers, can break us out of the silos of individual experience; the boundaries between self and other are loosened by the constant interplay between seeing and being seen, and the easy access to the thoughts and feelings of a wide variety of people can create a feeling of citizenship in a wider polity than our offline environments may offer. A networked personality feels more diffuse, with porous borders through which any number of feelings originating elsewhere may pass. When it comes to moral responsibility and moral authority, this enlarged sense of personal participation can mean a more vivid relationship with social problems on the macro scale.

Because digital spaces often function on the principle that an entity only exists through being linked with others — your experience of Facebook is the feed created by your friends, and existing on Twitter implies following and being followed — guilt and victimhood can become both vivid and diffuse. Digital communities can amplify grievance. Shared expressions of anger can bring common experiences into focus, and social media groups and online forums where users coalesce around issues they feel strongly about can foster a vital sense of belonging. Participating in communal anger becomes an expression of solidarity, a symbolic act with which users not directly experiencing the worst effects of a given injustice can affirm their allegiance to those who do. All of us are seen as having the authority and even the obligation to condemn injustice, and in digital cities built on notions of sharing, connecting, and collaborating, the necessity to repeat and expand on news of wrongdoing becomes a civic duty. The scale of pain expressed online can be overwhelming, and there are limits to the actions allowed by these forums themselves. What can digital platforms offer in allowing us new rituals for seeking or accepting atonement for larger social wrongs?

Unlike transgression, forgiveness is not inevitable. Yet forgiveness has long been considered a social good, for the relief it can offer victims as well as perpetrators, and for its function in restoring societal cohesion. Placing forgiveness within the horizon of the achievable may be a way to incentivize those wishing to make amends it can act as a carrot, encouraging those who might otherwise further distance themselves from those they have wronged to seek to repair the relationship. Initiatives like The Forgiveness Project curate stories of personal journeys towards forgiveness in the service of both individual well-being and restorative justice. “I want to thank the project for sharing … I am going through something very difficult in my life right now,” one visitor to the Forgiveness Project’s site wrote recently. “It’s as though I’m walking a mountain’s ridge; to one side lies the barren valley of anger, and to the other runs the river of forgiveness and inspiration.”

While virtual engagement of social and political problems offers the possibility of meaningful discussion between victims, perpetrators, and those struggling to locate themselves on this gradient, I wonder how social media platforms could be used to engage the tricky concept of forgiveness as a stepping stone to greater change. An expectation of forgiveness that does not involve concrete reparations is simply burdening victims with misplaced responsibility for ending a process that has barely begun. As part of the Race Card Project, an ongoing Peabody-winning initiative begun in 2010 which asks people to write a six-word sentence distilling a thought they’re having about race (and then elaborate if they like), a woman called Carol wrote in, “As a white woman, I’ve been learning, relating, and waking up to an understanding that I’ve been complacent in my ignorance of white privilege. I seek transformation in repentance, forgiveness, and relationship building. My current questions are: What else don’t I know? What else should I do? Is forgiveness possible?” In the aftermath of the Charleston shootings in 2015, Kiese Laymon wrote in the Guardian: “Everything about this country told Grandma, a black woman born in Central Mississippi in the 1920s, to love, honor and forgive white folks. And this country still tells me, a black boy born in Mississippi in the 1970s, to titillate and tend to the emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of white people in my work.”

Many of the white people writing in to the Race Card make comments along the lines of “I am not my ancestors.” There is a desire to be exonerated, which is very different from being forgiven. From the victim’s standpoint, the possible value of forgiveness — in the case of collective wrongs like slavery or genocide of indigenous peoples — is that a genuine, agreed-upon forgiveness process would require dominant-culture individuals to arrive at a place of admission and recognition of present-day complicity in upholding or benefitting from these wrongs. A meaningful concept of forgiveness for people who didn’t initiate these systems would require the eradication of the exoneration impulse, and an obligation to the ongoing work of reparations. This goes for individual actions representative of greater social evils as well — the art pieces or editorials that replicate historical structures of persecution. If someone believes they can be forgiven for doing wrong, they may be more able to admit to having done wrong, and to change — rather than doubling down on their errors.

Religious visions of forgiveness offer ritualized formulas for moving past episodes of the physical and emotional violence inherent in communal life. Jewish approaches to forgiveness identify three levels of what the English word covers: mechilah, the cancelling of moral or material debt; selichah, reaching a place of empathy for the guilty party; and kapparah, a total cleansing of sin that no human being can offer. The canceling of debt, in which one acknowledges that the transgressor has done their best to make restitution for wrongdoing, does not imply emotional reconciliation — even the deeper level of forgiveness, a recognition of why the transgressor acted as they did, does not necessarily mean that the injured party is required to feel any love for the offender. Rabbi David Blumenthal, writing for the journal Crosscurrents, takes the example of a woman beaten or abused by a husband or father. Selichah, he writes, may be beyond a victimized woman’s capacity in this instance: “A woman abused by a man may never reach this level of forgiveness; she is not obliged, nor is it morally necessary for her to do so.” Even mechilah is only a moral obligation if the man has completed the necessary rituals of atonement to the woman’s satisfaction: “first, desisted from all abusive activity; second, reformed his character through analysis of sin, remorse, restitution, and confession; and third, actually asked for forgiveness several times.” If the woman is not satisfied that genuine atonement has taken place, she should feel no moral obligation to forgive. Blumenthal calls this “the great Jewish ‘No’ to easy forgiveness.”

An expectation of forgiveness that does not involve reparations simply burdens victims with responsibility for ending a process that has barely begun

Christianity, which is generally quicker to regard forgiveness as a moral duty than is Judaism, offers a mechanism for official second-party forgiveness, in which a priest can extend absolution for confessed sins. Putting the recognition of wrongdoing into words is understood as a significant act in its own right, one demonstrating that the penitent has already achieved a certain remove from the person they were when committing the offense — confession is a testament to the inner growth that atonement requires. I live on unceded Mohawk territory, where indigenous rituals for individual and communal healing were long suppressed by colonial church and state authorities. In the 2010 book Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement, Akwesasne-born writer Douglas M. George-Kanentiio traces the songs, ritual acts, and ceremonies of the Haudenosaunee to a 12th-century agreement — Kaiienerekowa, or the Great Law of Peace. For lesser crimes — excluding rape, murder, and the abuse of children — atonement requires the transgressor to issue a formal apology before a public assembly, and to complete whatever tasks are necessary to restore order and balance. “All victims have a right to determine the degree of punishment,” he writes, “but they must not remove offenders from their normal duties and are required to restore them to good standing.”

Social media brands often advertise themselves as communities. This metaphor, however, fails to describe the way a site like Twitter operates — as a corporate-owned utility whose users may have nothing in common, not even proximity. In codifying rituals for healing communal wounds, platforms like Facebook or Twitter are hampered by the lack of significant investment their members may have in one another. Religious or kinship communities may be defined by shared belief systems, sense of peoplehood, or shared land use, and disputes or offenses requiring forgiveness can be regulated within the context of a shared project that has rewards for all who participate — whether a place in heaven or a share in the harvest. While corners of social media platforms foster and make space for genuine communities, their often public nature can make any formal application of a shared ethic difficult; so can their often porous boundaries, even though, paradoxically, this porousness is part of what makes a sense of collective conscience possible.

The architects of these sites are not primarily concerned with promoting cohesion per se — the “rules” established for how we may conduct ourselves on social media sites consist in responding to consumer complaints (when an account or post is reported) and in designing features that encourage us to share content. Facebook and Twitter want us to talk to each other as much as possible on their platforms, but they are not moderating our discussions with a particular eye to helping us work towards a common goal, as a church or a neighborhood association might do. The formlessness can be freeing, but the absence of a shared vision or responsiveness to a shared set of values can work against resolving conflict. Indeed, the physical remove from one another that accompanies interaction on these sites can free up our darker impulses and lead to the trolling and harassment that punish women, people of color, and others for claiming an equal right to speak and be heard.

Digital forums in which users can comment on each others’ posts are significant moral spaces. In the recently released book @ Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds, professor Teresa Berger notes the popularity of anonymous confession sites like PostSecret. “Digitally mediated confessions allow one to explore problematic edges of the self and to test their limits in the ongoing search for one’s authentic core,” she writes. The German website Beichthaus (House of Confession) envisions a higher power that reads the confessions, and when users post their confessions they click a button labelled “Lord, I have sinned. Please forgive me!” Beichthaus takes the idea of a listening God seriously, but in the absence of divine response, the site allows readers to grade the confessions of others with one to five stars.

In a 2016 article on JSTOR, writer Alexandra Samuel proposes a more active culture of establishing forgiveness rituals online. After conflict emerges on social media or online forums, she writes, “we often struggle to recover, reconnect, and move forward.” She proposes modelling digital forgiveness behavior on the Islamic rituals of sulh and musalaha, in which retribution is formally renounced in favor of “just and symbolic compensation.” Samuel writes, “I think we could look for virtual opportunities to offer compensation when we’ve done someone wrong (perhaps with a link to their site, or a Facebook shout-out), to demonstrate forgiveness (maybe by writing a kind tweet or email), and most importantly, to share online experience as part of the reconciliation process (by collaborating on a blog post, setting up a Google hangout, playing an online game).” She suggests the acronym CFS for Compensate/Forgive/Share to provide a blueprint for online reconciliations.

On Facebook, simply sending and accepting friend requests can be a way of testing the limits of forgiveness. In 2011, a blogger on BitRebels posted about a request from someone who had hurt her in the past, “My initial reaction was to ignore that person’s friend request. Somewhere deep down I suppose I was still holding a grudge. After a few weeks, I decided I was being silly, and I accepted that person as a Facebook friend. Strangely, the moment I clicked that button, I felt all the icky feelings go away. Suddenly none of that mattered anymore. I wonder if that person felt the same sense of release when noticing that I accepted the request.” The small ritual of clicking “Send Friend Request” when approaching someone we’ve hurt in our lives can be nerve-wracking in part because the gesture is ambiguous — perhaps we aren’t sure what we’re apologizing for.

Beyond interpersonal conflict, a desire for atonement for one’s complicity in greater social problems and injustices can also find subtle expression in the accounts we choose to follow and the people we choose to request as friends. If atonement begins in educating oneself, following accounts by commentators who address these injustices means choosing to engage daily with the fact of one’s complicity. The rituals of following, liking, and retweeting may become conduits for atonement as methods of public acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Of course, the great difficulty in making or accepting rituals of online atonement is the difficulty in conveying intention and judging sincerity. A like and retweet can be done quickly and with little thought, and it can be impossible for the person or people the ritual is meant to address to tell the difference between someone who is ticking a box and someone who is genuinely hoping to be part of creating positive change.

If lengthy public confession of complicity in collective sin seems problematic for its self-indulgent hand-wringing, a quieter, private ritual of building a feed that will keep personal change at the forefront of one’s mind could be part of a meaningful move towards atonement facilitated by digital space. While forgiveness may be a lure that attracts people to atonement, and moral restitution may allow for the most powerful changes when it reaches the public sphere, atonement for some may be a personal goal that does not come attached to any public act. For most, it certainly starts out that way.

Sojourners magazine, which examines news and issues of the day from a Christian perspective, recently hosted a Twitter discussion with the hashtag #IForgive, on which their staff posed questions like, “What does repentance/forgiveness for communal sin look like online?” Kate Ott, an assistant professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey, tweeted a link to an open letter from Auburn Seminary, a theological college in New York state. “Dear friends, family, members of our churches and neighborhoods,” the letter begins. “We are reaching out to you as white Christians. We would like to ask you for a few minutes of your attention. We believe America is in deep trouble and we believe that trouble has a lot to do with us.” The letter urges a collective assumption of responsibility for the election of Donald Trump. Its authors — a senior member of the seminary’s staff along with eight other Christian social justice activists and writers — want to confess and to help others like them confess to how whiteness has harmed people of color. Members of communities that have caused and are continuing to cause harm, they suggest, can use digital forums to work towards collective recognition of and atonement for the wrongs they do. “Forgetting = ctrl–z, closing an account, scrubbing history settings. Forgiveness = taking responsibility & changed future actions,” Kate Ott tweeted.

A quiet ritual of building a feed that keeps personal change at the forefront could be part of a meaningful move towards atonement facilitated by digital space

One thread that emerged from the Sojourner discussion was that condemning injustice was not of value in and of itself; the hope was that drawing attention to wrong being done would help all of us to achieve an as yet unknown state, somewhere on the other side. Several users participating in Sojourners’ discussion remarked on how the speed of online interaction worked in favor of anger and against forgiveness in the service of transformation. But anger is among the things that can make humanity better; where social situations offline often don’t seem to offer a “correct” context for foregrounding problems of inequality, on social media everyone creates their own context — everything is its own sequitur. As we become better adapted to participating in the very broad discussions that can happen in large online communities, perhaps we will be able to receive the inevitable expressions of anger in a more productive manner. Anger seems to be a permanent feature of digital space, and can be a useful signal to pay attention to for those not directly affected by a particular issue; it’s hard to imagine how defensiveness can make humanity better. Learning how to direct our response to the anger of others seems like a valuable skill for the digital age.

One of the questions posed in the discussion was: “Christians make a distinction between forgiving and forgetting. What does that distinction look like on the internet?” Biblical notions of forgiveness can include the idea that once atonement is complete, past wrongdoing should not be mentioned again. Contemporary values have swung towards emphasizing the need to keep past wrong in the public view, in part because in larger societies it can be hard to gauge when atonement has truly occurred. The internet’s machinic memory can mean that the public conversation has a long tail as information is shared in waves. As Ott wrote in Sojourners, “How do we live in a world that increasingly does not forget?”

In a formal assembly before which a public attempt at atonement and reconciliation were being made, the moment would have a clear definition, like a theater performance that draws the audience’s catharsis and then comes to an end. Online, users are in different stages of suffering and catharsis, and as intertwined components of a networked identity, we are always responsible for giving expression to or responding to someone’s pain. Injury happens not once but many times, in waves, the original offense becoming overlaid with layers of recrimination and, even with apology, always with the potential to be shared afresh. It is not possible to reach forgiveness in a united way, or to drag the unwilling to a forced closure.

If absolution seems to extend the possibility of making offenses disappear, the internet’s magic is for making things appear. The great digital “No” to easy forgiveness can be frightening — we are learning to live more publicly and visibly with our society’s mistakes. The increased visibility of harm offers an opportunity for realistic engagement with responsibility, both personal and collective. When we look for reflections of our collective moral state online, we see a realistic complexity — a multiplicitous face from which suffering is never wholly absent.

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, the Globe & Mail, and Enroute, and aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Montreal.