We have a well-worn script for how to behave when a public figure does something wrong. What we don’t have is a script for what to do if they make amends.

First comes the outrage, then the sharing, then the public condemnation, where the force of thousands of indignant wills declare that the wrongdoer is no longer a member of our moral community. Then we cancel.  

This script is powerful. It is predictable. It helps remove a perceived threat. But it doesn’t heal the moral wound. It doesn’t rebalance the scales. It doesn’t include lines for rehabilitation, re-education or rebuilding moral capital. The script only tells us how to push people out. 

What we need is another script, one we can use if they make amends. If the wrongdoer owns what they’ve done, if they express genuine contrition and issue a heartfelt apology, if they demonstrate a lasting change to their behaviour for the better, what do we do?  

The missing script

The first thing to decide is whether we’re in a position to forgive at all. There are a couple of reasons why we might not be. For a start, we might not even be the right person to judge in the first place. 

Many of us are quick to judge these days. The media and internet have opened us up to a world of outrages that call out for condemnation, and the frantic pace of modern discourse makes us feel like we must have an opinion on every issue. We are also often motivated to show solidarity with our in-group by sharing outrage over the same subjects, even if we know little about them. And the logic of second-order punishment – where we punish those who refuse to punish wrongdoers – means we fear retribution from our own team if we don’t jump on the outrage train. 

But none of these are good reasons to jump to a hasty conclusion, based on a news headline, a couple of tweets and a few second-hand hot takes. Many of the issues we face are more complex than can be understood, let alone judged, without careful consideration. Many of the details are hidden from our view or veiled by the hasty or biased interpretations of others. 

The second reason as individuals we might not be in a position to forgive is that sometimes the only person who can forgive is the individual who was harmed. I can’t unilaterally forgive a thief for stealing from you, or a celebrity for cheating on their partner. I simply lack the standing to speak on behalf of the person who was harmed.  

However, there are cases where we, as members of a moral community, can be in a position to judge – and forgive an act of wrongdoing. Acts of stealing or infidelity don’t just harm the victims, they violate the norms of our community. That’s why we still get outraged at things that don’t impact us directly or offensive acts that have no apparent victim.  

This is a different kind of forgiveness. It’s not speaking on behalf of the victim, it’s speaking on behalf of the moral community. If the wrongdoer apologises and makes amends to those they’ve harmed, the community can accept that apology, drop the enmity towards them and welcome them back into the fold.

This kind of “public forgiveness” is an important part of a healthy moral community. Without it, the community pursues a purity culture that only knows how to push people out.

Set the bar

The next thing we should ask ourselves: what would the wrongdoer need to do to justify our forgiveness? 

For some wrongdoers, the answer will be “there’s nothing they can do”. There are such things like terrorist attacks, mass shootings, genocide and violent sexual assault that we might not reasonably expect anyone to forgive, especially those directly affected.  

However, we need to think carefully about what is considered unforgiveable, and not allow that category to grow too large.

Only the most serious moral transgressions should be considered unforgiveable. For everything else, we need to set the bar high enough that wrongdoers must earn their forgiveness, but not so high that the pariahs will one day outnumber the pure.

Similarly, when it comes to character there may be people whose behaviour is so consistently bad that we can conclude that they are beyond redemption. But we must be very cautious about inferring too much about character from only one example of wrongdoing.    

There has been a trend in recent years of leaping from outrage at a particular act – say a poorly worded tweet or an off-colour joke – to condemnation of the individual’s entire moral fibre. It’s a tendency to see the slightest slip as revealing deeper moral corruption, proving they are and unworthy of forgiveness or rehabilitation. 

While it’s tempting to see others as having an immutable moral fibre and painting them as either virtuous or wicked, we must remember our moral fibre is malleable. Throughout the course of our lives, our own moral views evolve with changes in our circumstances and the influence others have on us. We must believe the same of others too. This means setting a very high bar before judging character. 

Open the door

Once we have set an appropriately high bar, we should invite people clear it. We should look for signs that they are aware that what they did was wrong. They should own their actions and show they can articulate how they harmed others. This involves them recognising how their act was received, even if they didn’t intend for it to be received that way. 

We should also look for signs of genuine remorse, which suggests that the wrongdoer shares our negative judgement of what they did. It shows their moral standards are aligned with ours.  

When assessing a public apology, we can look for “costly” gestures that make that apology more likely to be authentic. A murmured apology in private, or delivered at a curated press conference may be less authentic than an unscripted public statement. Emotion matters too, but we should recognise that not all people feel or express emotion in the same way; just because someone isn’t in tears doesn’t mean they are not sincere. 

Ultimately, what is most deserving of forgiveness is not words but actions. If someone changes how they behave in an enduring way, then that’s the most reliable sign that they have realigned their values to accord with those of the community. At that point, we should be inclined to invite them back into the moral community. 

The final stage of the new script for public forgiveness mirrors the script for sharing outrage. Public forgiveness needs to be expressed in public. And those witnessing public forgiveness should read that as an opportunity to re-evaluate their own judgements of the wrongdoer and decide if they, too, are ready to forgive. 

There are times when condemnation is justified. There are times when people ought to be cancelled. But if it’s a one-way street, we risk living in a culture where the circle of what – or who – is acceptable is forever shrinking. We need to have a pathway to redemption and forgiveness, and that pathway needs to become a script that we can all apply. 

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