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How the concept of forgiveness perpetuates a culture where men aren't held accountable for their actions

Posted on 17 September 2018

I’m not anti-forgiveness but I’ve often been on the receiving end of men using forgiveness as a tool to avoid accountability for doing wrong. I’ve been guilt tripped and manipulated to “get over” what they’d done, under the guise of “forgiving” them. They twist seemingly harmless popular wisdom “I’m only human, we all make mistakes” into excuses.

Popular wisdom tells us that “forgiveness is for you, not them, it’s not about condoning what they did wrong”. Which might be true in some cases but in my experience, the concept of forgiveness is often weaponised to excuse the perpetrator’s actions, at the expense of the victims healing and justice. Especially when the perpetrator is male and when the victim is female or from another oppressed group.

People put the onus on women to forgive men for mistreating them, whilst normalising what they’d done wrong in the same breath, by making excuses, justifications and minimisations.

“Give them a second chance… they’re only human/ we all make mistakes/ no one’s perfect.”

I have an issue when forgiveness is used in this way, when excuses are attached to it. When we’re told to forgive and sent the message that how they’d mistreated us was acceptable. It teaches perpetrator’s that they’re not fully responsible for their actions, that they can demand forgiveness and can just dismiss what they’ve done. In this context, the concept of forgiveness perpetuates a culture where men don’t take accountability for their actions.

When people say things like “everyone makes mistakes. If you can’t forgive others, don’t expect other to forgive you”, they’re trying to deflect blame by counter-accusing others of making “mistakes” too. It’s a threat to victims to think twice before they speak out.

It’s weaponising forgiveness, it’s saying we’re obliged to forgive others because we’re all guilty of making “mistakes” too, that we’re no better than them, so we better “let it go” or face punishment too.

When people say things like “we all make mistakes, forgive them”, they’re using forgiveness as a form of manipulation, to excuse and counter-attack, so we “go easy” on the perpetrator, sympathise with them and pressure victims into keeping quiet.

Men be like: I know I ruined the lives of countless women, wasn’t sorry until I was found out but everyone make’s mistakes… give me a second chance.

People also pull the “but everyone does it” card, to excuse their wrongdoings. That everyone makes the same “mistakes” as them, so it’s ok. Which is easier than taking individual responsibility for their personal choices.

Another excuse people make, is that “no one is perfect”, which is a common counter-attack placed on victims. And they’re right, “no one is perfect” but is that a reason to excuse our wrongdoings? No. Does that mean we don’t have to take accountability for our actions? No. Does that mean we’re entitled to be forgiven? No.

People also use the fact we’re “only human” to minimise personal responsibility for their wrongdoings. They’re not in control of their actions, their biology is. They try to normalise their behaviour as “just the way people are”. Being human is not an excuse to remove accountability from people’s actions and normalise bad behaviour. 

The problem is people use excuses like “we’re only human, we all make mistakes, no one’s perfect” to minimise things like sexual assault, cheating and so on. Stop teaching people that such things are justified, that’s how people give themselves permission to do it in the first place. It might be the norm (currently) to do such things but that doesn’t make it ok.

Why do we use the “people can change, everyone deserves a second chance” argument to persuade women into forgiving men for mistreating them but in every other area of our life, we would never apply this type of logic?

If a mechanic had a history of scamming customers, would we just say “people change, give them a second chance”, to encourage people into trusting them with their car? Doubt it, unless we had an ulterior motive.

So why are people so quick to tell women to forgive men for hurting them? The “people can change” narrative seems to specifically serve men who’ve mistreated women.

For example, the “people can change, everyone deserves a second chance” narrative, is used to deflect blame onto women. When women give men “a second chance” but said men wrong them, the woman is blamed because “what did they expect”. Women are blamed for “giving a second chance” to shady men, instead of blaming men for being shady.

Saying “everyone make’s mistakes, they’re only human, no one’s perfect… forgive them”, to victims is adding insult to injury. Not only are you minimising what the perpetrator did to them, you’re invalidating their feelings by implying it wasn’t “that bad”.

We've been forgiving men for centuries and what good has that done anyone? If forgiveness as a concept challenged the status quo, do you really think those in power would be telling oppressed groups they have to do it?

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