When someone says they’re sorry, how do you decide whether or not to accept their apology? Some are easier than others. If someone uses your toothbrush by mistake, it’s not a big deal for them to say they’re sorry, buy you a new one, and move on with your lives. It’s only when someone does something that’s really egregious that we find out how forgiving we truly are.
When it comes to egregious behavior, though, sexual assault and sexual harassment are near the top of the list. Recent news surrounding celebrity sex scandals have only solidified that sentiment. Just being a dick to someone is bad enough. Being a dick in a way that makes someone feel violated, used, and abused takes it ten steps further.
As bad as those lurid misdeeds can be, should we still accept their apologies when they express remorse? It’s a hard question to ask and one I’m sure evokes a lot of difficult emotions, especially for those who have been victims. However, forgiveness is a powerful force, more so than most people realize.
I’m not saying that everyone should forget about someone’s crime or overlook how awful it was, but it’s still a question that’s worth asking. Our ability to answer it will reveal a lot about our society and the kind of people we are. Knowing those risks, I’ll say it outright.
Should we forgive those accused of sexual misconduct if they apologize?
I ask that question with the understanding that some people will never forgive someone for their misdeeds and for entirely understandable reasons. I don’t blame animal lovers for refusing to forgive Michael Vick for what he did to innocent dogs. I certainly wouldn’t blame victims of sexual assault to forgive the likes of Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby if they ever came out and offered a heartfelt apology.
However, even if certain people can’t forgive, that doesn’t mean that we, as a society, shouldn’t make the effort. Human beings are flawed creatures. They make mistakes. They do bad things, some worse than others. They may not think of their actions as bad. They may just see what they do as their own twisted version of “normal.”
It’s only when the breadth of their crimes are shoved in their faces that they stop making excuses. For those with power and influence, those excuses can be pretty egregious, as I’ve mentioned in my discussions on excuse banking. Despite those factors, these people are still human, at the end of the day. Provided they’re not sociopaths, they do have feelings and they do experience remorse.
Even if we, as a society, hate what they’ve done, should we give them the benefit of the doubt when they apologize? That may be harder to do for certain celebrities, but I still believe it’s worth doing.
It reflects a sentiment I expressed a while back on our growing lack of faith in people, as a whole. We’ve become so jaded, so cynical about the world that as soon as we see a public figure’s name trending, we instinctively assume the worst. I admit that whenever I see someone on the top trends of Twitter, I brace myself for news that’s going to churn my stomach.
It’s that kind of cynicism that really poisons our perceptions, leading us to assume the worst in people. Beyond making us miserable like extra in an old grunge music video, it numbs us to the possibility that someone can be capable of redemption. If we’re just too cynical, we don’t even bother giving them a chance.
That’s a tragedy, in and of itself, because if we don’t at least try to forgive people for their crimes, then what reason do they have to apologize in the first place? It just gives people more reasons to make more excuses, as Kevin Spacey tried and failed to do when his scandal broke.
Those excuses just leave us more jaded, thereby making those accused more defensive. It’s a brutal cycle that ensures people will become more focused on not getting caught for their misdeeds rather than rectifying them. That’s not a healthy mentality for any society, be it one that exists online or one from our caveman days.
I don’t deny that forgiveness is a challenge, especially as we’ve become more sensitive to certain types of crimes. It’s also a two-way street in that the celebrity and/or public figure has to actually apologize in the first place. That doesn’t always happen. Some people are incapable of such humility.
Some, however, do make the effort. Shortly after news of his scandal broke, Louis CK issued a statement admitting the allegations were true and expressed remorse for them. He didn’t file a lawsuit or go on a PR blitz to quash the story. He confronted it directly and owned up to it. That’s something even non-celebrities struggle to do and for that, he deserves some credit.
Again, that’s not to say that the things Louis CK did weren’t egregious. If possible, he should face the same penalties that any non-celebrity would face if they were in his position, whether that be a hefty fine, a restraining order, or jail time.
However, once he pays his price and admits his guilt, the ball is then in our court. It’s up to us to give him another chance to make amends. Yes, it’s a risk because if he does it again, then there will be another victim that suffers. We still have to ask ourselves, though, what good can possibly come by punishing someone like Louis CK until the day he dies?
Excessive shaming can have some pretty debilitating effects on people, some of which can inspire even more misdeeds. Think back to what I described with learned helplessness and Al Bundy Syndrome. At some point, a person subjected to too much punishment just stops trying to avoid it and does nothing to change their behavior. That too can lead to more victims and more crimes.
That’s why, in the grand scheme of things, it’s in our best interests as decent human beings to give those who express remorse for their sexual misdeeds a chance. First, give them a chance to confront and apologize for their actions. Then, once convinced of their sincerity, give them a chance to be good again.
That means not belaboring or hounding them for their past crimes. That doesn’t mean ignoring them either. What happened in the past is bad, but it should remain in the past. The focus should be on the present and the future. If both sides are on the same page, in that respect, then that’ll do much more to improve our sate of affairs. Let’s not lie to ourselves. We kind of need that right now.