Can there be redemption for those who have behaved badly?

I believe that people can redeem themselves, that just because they have done something wrong at some point in their lives does not mean that they are beyond the pale and permanently unworthy of our regard and even friendship at some later point in their lives. Hence I try not to be too judgmental about others. Part of this is admittedly self-interest. In my own past, I have believed, said, and taken stands on issues such as race, gender, sexuality, and a whole host of other political and social issues that I now deeply regret and am ashamed of. All I can say in mitigation is that I did not know any better then. I like to think that over time I have grown, matured, and perhaps even become enlightened. I would hate to be thought of now as the person that I was then.

The comment by katkinkate on the post on hipster racism captures some of this feeling.

We are taught a lot of rubbish as children: family and society’s values of the time which will change as the decades mount up. I’ve come to consider growing up and striving for adult status involves learning which of those ‘innate’ values we’ve been programmed with are now obselete or are damaging to ourselves and/or the society and learning to act better despite how ‘natural’ they may feel. I’ve found for me it’s a continual battle.

The comment by robert79 seems to agree with this idea

I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone is racist (and sexist, and …ist). It’s just how our brains work, It tries to deal with the information overload of having to deal with billions of individual human beings by summarizing and compartmentalizing information based on easily distinguishable characteristics, a.k.a. stereotyping.

Like katkinkate, I too feel that I am in a continuous struggle with all those beliefs that I acquired informally growing up that I now wish I never had. But I did have them and that cannot be changed. My conscious mind has to continually police my thoughts to make sure that they remain repressed, but I cannot be sure of always succeeding.

I am deeply conscious that one cannot just wipe away old beliefs and attitudes. This is something that we can appreciate more with the development of neuroscience that tells us that all our knowledge and beliefs are represented in our brains by neural networks. Those networks are physical entities and cannot be eliminated just by wishing them away. This is something that I appreciated even more when teaching physics. Students informally acquire all manner of implicit and deeply held beliefs about the nature of the physical world around them long before they come into my physics classes and simply telling them which ones are wrong and should be discarded does not work. What needs to be done is create new neural networks that incorporate the knowledge that we want them to acquire. By repeatedly using these new networks, we can hope that the old networks atrophy over time and disappear through disuse. But that is a slow process and during that transition, one should not be surprised to have old beliefs come to the surface unexpectedly, sometimes in different guises. Changing one’s views, especially those that one has acquired unthinkingly and deeply at an early age is not easy. I see it like changing the direction of an ocean liner. It happens imperceptibly. You realize at some point that you are looking in a different direction but cannot tell when that happened or what caused that realization. It is rare that it takes the form of an epiphany.

The point is that there is no clear and bright line that separates (say) racists from non-racists. Few of us can claim to be really pure. Those of us who like to think that we are not racist have to appreciate that we all lie on a continuum depending on the degree of self-awareness that we have about the tenacity of old beliefs and our determination to rid ourselves of them. The same comment by robert79 provides a useful set of markers along that continuum to distinguish various stages. It was given in the context of racism but is valid for all other forms of regrettable beliefs and (with apologies to robert79) I have slightly modified the wording and rearranged the order.

There are three kinds of people in the world:

1) The ones who realize that they have racist beliefs and are okay with it (white supremacists, etc…)
2) The ones who are not okay with racism but don’t realize that they themselves have such unconscious beliefs (hipster racists, and many others)
3) The ones who realize that they have racist beliefs and are not okay with it, and try to minimize their innate racist/sexist/whatever… tendencies (sometimes decent people).

Why is making such distinctions important? The widespread nature of the revelations of sexual abuse has confronted us with so many people that we may not know personally but whose presence we cannot ignore because they represent us in legislative bodies and produce creative works such as films, music, books, and articles that deal with important issues.. What should we do about them? Some of them may have completely lost their former platforms and faded from public life so the issue becomes moot. But what of those who are still around? Should we shun them completely in an effort to drive them too out of the public sphere?

The issue is to what extent we should still engage, not with the people themselves since we do not know them, but with the things they have produced and may continue to produce.

This is a complicated issue. When it comes to the issues of sexual abuse (though it could apply to racism or homophobia or any other form of discrimination) should we adopt a form of the zero-tolerance policies, where we set a threshold for what is acceptable and anyone who exceeds it should be completely shunned, along with all their work? If so, what should be that threshold?

Or should we view this on a graded scale where we take into account the egregiousness of the offense, the number of times it was committed and the number of victims, the age and vulnerability of the victims, the age of the perpetrator when these occurred, and whether the perpetrator has expressed genuine contrition and tried to make amends by their words and actions afterwards, and then weigh all these factors before deciding if we want to deal with them.

It may be that we oppose giving offenders awards and prizes and other honors. We may decide that we cannot vote for such people or fund their work. But beyond that things become murky. Is watching a film by Roman Polanski something that can be done in good conscience? Is every film in which Kevin Spacey has acted no longer to be watched, even if he no longer gets any new roles? How about any of the films produced by Harvey Weinstein’s companies? Some of these are collective endeavors and apart from the offending principals, most of the other people involved may be innocent of any offense. Should they be punished for the sins of those who happened to be among them?

In the case of music and books and articles, these are often mainly the product of single individuals. But here too things get tricky and this is not a new issue. It has come up repeatedly, most famously in the case with Richard Wagner’s music. Should they not be purchased, played, or listened to because of the anti-Semitism of some of his writings that may have influenced the Nazis? Some critics have claimed that his operas also contain hidden anti-Semitic tropes. Although Wagner’s works are performed over Israeli radio and TV, proposals to stage live public performances have met with protests and controversy to this day, showing that the controversy is still alive even though Wagner himself died in 1883.

There is also the long-standing controversy over whether Joseph Conrad was a racist or promoting racist beliefs or whether he was merely portraying racist attitudes in Heart of Darkness. If we decide that Conrad was racist, does mean that we should not read his books and engage with the ideas presented there? The case has been made that creative works such as books, music, paintings, sculptures cease to be the possessions of the authors once they release them but become what the consumer makes them to be, that our interpretation is a s valid as that of the authors. In this view, Heart of Darkness now stands by itself, apart from Conrad. His own interpretation of what the book and its ideas mean have no greater authority than anyone else’s. Should the ideas expressed in books and articles to be ignored because of the character failings of the authors?

There will be no easy answers to these questions and definitely no consensus. I think that this is something that each person must decide for themselves and it is likely to be done on a case-by-case basis. Some may decide that the offenses are so egregious that they do not want to have anything to do with anything that the offender is associated with. Others may feel that time, contrition, and attempts at rectification and restitution are sufficient to allow some people back into the public fold. In doing so, there is the danger that people will also throw in partisan allegiances as a factor and be more willing to allow back those whom they feel are on ‘their’ side and less so with those who are seen as on the ‘other’ side. Lizzie Crocker discusses this dilemma.

When there’s no consensus about what standards of behavior warrant redemption, the court of public opinion may look to confessed offenders’ apologies (non-denial denials don’t count) to determine if they deserve to be reintegrated into a community.

“In the current environment, I think the accused would have to convince the public that their remorse is genuine,” said Karen Stohr, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University.

Making a convincing case for remorse may require outlining a plan to make amends for the harm that’s been done in a very direct way.

“We would expect to see [the offender] genuinely working on behalf of civil rights–specifically women’s rights,” Stohr said, noting that this could ostensibly apply to Franken and other public figures.

“They would need to show that they’ve had genuine conversions,” she added. “The best example of this in recent history is probably politicians in the ‘60s and ‘70s who initially advocated against the civil rights movement but actively rejected racism later.”

For the fervent #MeToo adherents, publicly shaming someone’s “creepy” behavior on a Shitty Media Men may seem like an effective tactic for bringing about change. And redemption narratives shouldn’t be entertained because they detract from the alleged abuse. “Why do we allow terrible men redemption?” Jezebel’s Stassa Edwards asked back in September, focusing on Bill O’Reilly.

But as the flood of allegations has shown, not all cases of alleged harassment and abuse are on the same playing field. And lumping them together doesn’t do the #MeToo movement any favors.

“Examining the nuances and detail of these cases is crucial if we want to see change,” said Janet Radcliffe Richards, Professor of Practical Philosophy at the University of Oxford.

“We need to be able to call out the offense quickly so that the offenders can’t make excuses for their behavior or credibly undermine their accusers,” she said, “and that requires identifying the context in which the offense occurred. It’s amazingly complicated, because some of it is a matter of not extending basic courtesy to women. So we also need a huge campaign against everyday sexism.”

It should be emphasized that what is being discussed is not forgiveness or absolution. It is not the place of those of us who are not actual victims of abuse to bestow such things on the perpetrators. That is something that only the victims can do. What is being discussed is whether despite their actions they can rehabilitate themselves through appropriate actions and words, allowing us to have at least some engagement with their works.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Consider the case of Matt Taibbi, officially declared a Terrible Person™ by the experts at Pharyngula (& elsewhere), whose “art” also includes useful information not so easily gained from other sources.

    Does reading Taibbi make me an even worse human than previously?

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Is/was the artist/author/scientist a horrible person with egregious views? I don’t care, unless those views are integral to their work.

    If one is serious about avoiding the work of awful people, does one only do so after the news of their awfulness becomes public? Before playing your CD of the Goldberg Variations, shouldn’t you do some research to find out if Bach was “OK”? Or is it enough that you haven’t heard anything bad?

    A hypothetical: A brilliant scientist may have come up with a Theory of Everything. It’s not going to cure cancer or affect the price of tea. And the scientist is a truly horrible person. Should their theory be published/disseminated/read at all?

    Anyway, I’ll happily keep playing Miles Davis while condemning his behaviour as a human being. And I’ll keep reading Taibbi as well.

  3. stumble says

    When looking at manuscripts or art of people it simply cannot be the case that we must dispense with anything that comes from someone even if they had some despicable beliefs. The works must stand alone, or at least separate in the vast majority of cases because all of human expression is to some extent a function of a time past.

    Do we dispense with Shakespeare for his anti-semitism? Mark Twain for anti-semitism (later repentant), or MLK Jr (sexual assault), what about Ghandi (racism)? Even great men have failings, and if it is true that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice then it is also true that those who preceded us do not have our advantages. It is both fair to criticize them for their failings, and to laud them for the changes they fought for.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    If I can consume a work of art without directly benefiting the creator financially (because they’re dead or because it’s publicly available or I’ve got a pirate copy) I can’t see anything wrong with enjoying it, whatever else the creator might have done with their time before, during or after its creation. This of course assumes the work itself isn’t an example of their problematic attitudes, in the manner of, say, Ayn Rand. I’d turn down a free copy of “Atlas Shrugged”. But that’s not really what’s at issue.

    The issue is whether such people can work again. The most visible example we’re working on right now is Mel Gibson, and the answer appears to be a tentative “yes, eventually, if they say sorry and work hard and lay low long enough”.

    As I see it the the kind of people we’re talking about are at a level of wealth where by any normal person’s standards they have no defensible need to work again, or certainly don’t need to be paid any more. If Mel Gibson never earned another cent he’d die a multi-millionaire. Want to convince me you’re contrite, but still want to work in the film industry? Fine. Donate ALL your future income to a Holocaust memorial or something. You can afford it.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    --Does reading Taibbi make me an even worse human than previously?

    Care to try that with different examples and judge for yourself ?

    Ooh, I’ll have a go. Does watching “Macbeth” (directed by Roman Polanski and written by that bloke who wrote the arguably anti-Semitic “Merchant of Venice” make me a worse human?

    No. The answer is no. Obviously.

    Does listening to “Ride of the Valkyries” make me a worse human?

    No. Definitely no. Obviously.

    Does watching “What Women Want”, starring Mel Gibson make me… no hang on, let me think for a minute…

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    deepak shetty @ # 5 -- Do sonofrojblake’s examples @ # 6 answer your question?

    If not, please clarify.

    sonofrojblake @ # 6 -- Did you know that Merchant of Venice, for its first century and a half, was performed as a comedy (and probably did make its audience worse humans)? According to a book I no longer have, some brilliant actor in the mid-1700s (IIRC) had the insight to play it as a tragedy, and thereby made it impossible ever since for others to mine laughs from the cruelty that so many before then had enjoyed so much. (Which may help to answer the question in the title to this post…)

  7. says

    Redemption is necessary because without it, what incentive to the unpleasant people of the world have to change? And redemption doesn’t have to require forgiveness, it only requires admission of error, change of behaviour and accountability (social or legal) for their actions.

    But beyond that things become murky. … Some of these are collective endeavors and apart from the offending principals, most of the other people involved may be innocent of any offense. Should they be punished for the sins of those who happened to be among them?

    The TV show “Seventh Heaven” was taken out of syndication when Stephen Collins was exposed as a pedophile. The other cast members lost significant income, but what alternative was there? Who would want to watch a show featuring a known pedophile other than Roy Moore supporters?

    Hypothetically, what if David Bowie were still alive and being held accountable for the statutory rape he committed, and radio and TV ceased playing songs written by him to prevent him from earning royalties. The bands who recorded those songs (e.g. Mott The Hoople, “All The Young Dudes”) would not be able to earn revenue or high profile from their recordings. What about movies that feature those songs in the soundtrack (e.g. Guardians of the Galaxy)? Would or could those songs be replaced?

    There are many good reasons to cease reading, listening to or watching created artworks. It’s not just sexism or white supremacy. I steadfastly refuse to consume anything involving $cientologists (e.g. pop musician Beck, John Travolta, Nancy Cartwright of The Simpsons) because part of their income will go to the cult.

  8. lanir says

    I think references to time in this are a bit off the mark. It’s not just about how much time has passed. It’s about how dangerous these ideas are in the current climate. It’s not okay to revisit the wrong side in a debate before the debate is generally accepted to be over. That tends to function as a revival of the wrong idea, not a recap or a summary.

    So while it takes time to resolve this sort of cultural debate, it isn’t a function of time. It’s a function of whether one risks spreading an idea or simply education about how wrong it was by bringing it up.

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