This article has been written by Sakhi Shah (Batch of 2017).
I’ve been asking myself (and being asked by others) a lot lately: Am I allowed to forgive someone who I know has sexually harassed or assaulted someone?
I mean, we’ve all done it, haven’t we? Forgiven friends for doing questionable things. Remained friends with people when they said sexist things. Continued to enjoy Neruda’s poetry even when you know he’s written about raping an Indian woman.
All of these choices are easy to justify. After all, I’d never support someone sexually harassing someone but surely my forgiving a friend, or enjoying an author, is a personal choice?
However, the more I think about it the more difficult it becomes to justify. As a feminist woman responding to a person who has committed sexual assault or harassment (and for the purpose of simplifying an already complex issue, let’s assume that you are convinced that this happened and that it happened to someone other than you), your response comes with the following implications:
The first is, as unfair as it seems, that I am only too cognizant of the fact that my opinion is used to invalidate the opinion of other women and other feminists. Since this is a gendered crime, my forgiveness also takes gendered implications. I laughed, so it must be funny. I forgave him, so why don’t you? Why must you take it so seriously? Why must you be so unreasonable?
The second, as a friend pointed out, is the effect of such support or forgiveness, especially public, on the survivors of the sexual harassment or assault themselves. I feel betrayed when my close friends hang out with people I’ve had petty fights with and I can only imagine that a survivor of sexual assault in a system that is already very hostile to them feels this betrayal manifold. Can I reasonably and honestly say that any survivor of sexual assault should feel comfortable even talking to me about their experiences (let along expecting my support in any action that they choose to take) if at the same time they constantly see me hanging out, talking confidentially, or hugging the perpetrator?
The third is that I’m aware that forgiveness is colored strongly by my own biases. Who do I forgive, eventually? While I’d like to think there are several factors that motivate me to forgive based on the personal conduct of the person involved and the amount of responsibility they are taking for their actions and the remorse that they feel, at the end of the day I’m also aware that my forgiveness is colored by access. I forgive those that I cannot construct as ‘the other’. I’m more likely to forgive someone I talk to regularly, someone who is in my class or in my social circle, who is a ‘kid’ or a ‘mentee’, whose side of the story I have had a chance to hear.
This is especially important in the context of justice, whether through the criminal justice system or through an internal inquiry. There are a lot of people I wouldn’t like to see face year losses, or expulsion, or jail time. There are a lot of instances when I think to myself that that person has repented enough and should therefore not be subject to the consequences of their actions. I don’t believe in a retributive criminal justice system. I strongly believe that retributive criminal justice systems sometimes create a cycle of increasing violence and don’t always reduce the instance of the crime itself. However, I also feel deeply uncomfortable saying this on behalf of anyone else. Who am I to say that someone shouldn’t want retribution for what is a deeply personal violation? Who am I to say that it is unreasonable for a survivor to want the perpetrator to realize the consequences of their actions because they believe that if they do not face these consequences now they will believe that they can commit further crimes with impunity?
Who am I to forgive?
It is very easy for me to say that he’s always been so nice to me, but what kind of feminist am I if I feel no empathy for anyone else?
I’ll become a full feminist cliché: my personal is political, and so is my forgiveness.
Does this mean that I am condemned to being an angry feminist stereotype, unable and unwilling to forgive?
I’m not willing to live in a world where people are not allowed to forgive each other, but I also refuse to live in a world where someone is forced to forgive someone who has committed such a horrendous crime against them because of peer pressure. As feminists, we have to find places on this spectrum where we feel comfortable.
I’d like to believe that it is possible to ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’, to condemn specific actions even when they are done by the people that we love. I’d like to believe that it is possible for me to tell my friend, look, I adore you, but what you did was unconscionable. I want to believe that I can call out instances of sexism whether or not they’re by my friends. I want to believe that it is possible to say that he writes haunting poetry but is a horrible human being. I want to believe that there is a way to communicate to survivors of sexual assault that I’m on their side in this even if I cheer for the other person in a football game.
I realize that this may seem overly gray to a lot of you, a compromise that is not authentic to either my relationships or my politics. I also realize that this will require a constant tight rope of ensuring that my public stances come with caveats. It means never telling a survivor ‘but you will ruin his life’, no matter what I feel about the value of his life. It means never telling someone that he may have suffered enough or invalidating the suffering of the person who has been assaulted or harassed. It’s hard work and something that must inform every thought and action that you take.
In our defense, we never said feminism was easy.