Challenging the ‘normalized’ theatricality of forgiveness

Graphic by Surya dev Yadav

The world is full of binaries and we, as humans, are conditioned to compartmentalize things in our heads. The demarcation of things in black and white in a concretized manner makes it difficult to analyze the grey part let alone trace it. I get curiously reminded of Hercule Poirot’s “little grey cells” as the essence of thinking truly begins in it. For example, one person betraying the other in a relationship leads to heartbreak and eventually the conflict is ‘resolved’ only when the one who betrayed apologizes. The acceptance of apology normally results in a “patch-up” owing to the act of forgiveness. This is where the idea of conditionality associated with forgiveness comes in which includes the involvement of two participants-the victim and the guilty as a result of the impact of the Abrahamic tradition. The deliberate use of the word participant makes the act of forgiving a performance and thus inculcates a theatricality to it without being sure of the sincerity and honesty in it. In certain cases, there is an involvement of the third party in this act which makes it look like an act of reconciliation, reparation and amnesty.

 The presence of the third party makes forgiveness look like a tiramisu in which the top layer is occupied by the victim which is supposedly the easiest layer to digest owing to the sovereignty in the entire discourse. It confirms its own freedom or assumes for itself the power of forgiving, be it as victim or in the name of the victim. The middle layer, however, consists of this ‘third part’ or an institution of sorts which works in accordance with the aim of reconciliation. This layer is slightly thicker than the first one and manages to escape our sight because of the constant attention that the first one enjoys. The third layer belongs to the ‘guilty’, the accused which in fact is the real reason for staging this act of forgiveness. It hits us with very difficult questions as the tiramisu analogy seems to signify the prioritizing of the victim over the perpetrators. The aforementioned enactment of forgiveness perhaps deviates from its true and pure meaning in what Derrida calls “the conditional logic of exchange”. When the victim says: “I forgive you”, the immediate translation is emblematic of the affirmation of sovereignty. The idea of sovereignty empowers because it leads to self-governance, self-determination, freedom wherein one is endowed with the power to take decisions which however leads to the limitations on the very sovereignty of weaker states. Hannah Arendt says: “this limitation of sovereignty is imposed only where it is ‘possible’, that is to say always imposed on small, relatively weaker states by powerful states. 

The uncovering of unconditional forgiveness would lead to the bifurcation of the idea of what is it that is forgiven-the forgivable and the unforgivable. The normativity accounts for forgiving a crime which is already forgivable. For example, I can forgive a friend for being rude and disrespectful to me because it falls under the arena of what is ‘forgivable’ according to me and here I possess the power to make a choice. But I cannot forgive my friend for cheating on me with my boyfriend because that would be the arena of  unforgivable for me. The essential line of argumentation to be followed here is that I forgave what was forgivable for me and if I use my agency to forgive what is already forgivable is where I will land in pool of contradictions. What is even the need to forgive the  forgivable and if I cannot forgive the unforgivable; how effectively have I been able to use the agency. This is where the realization of the limitations of the act comes in.

Forgiveness is confused and not only misrepresented but misinterpreted because of our assumptions about the word. The discourse around “crime against humanity” complicates the issue even more because it is the crime against the very human-ness of a human and if we begin punishing every human for their crimes, there would be no one who would not be guilty. This notion of crime against humanity leads to self-accusation on the part of human beings against their own self in an event of ‘punishing’ and ‘forgiving’ orchestrated with ritual, hypocrisy, calculation and mimicry as a part of it.

With the advent of the pandemic, the loss of lives have reduced the human beings to numbers rather than individuals which happened more so with the second wave in India.Arundhati Roy in an article published in The Guardian and The Wire used the term “ crime against humanity” to describe the intensity of the suffering of humans. The loss of innumerable lives happened due to the negligence of the state and ill-preparedness of the government hospitals along with the entire system of public health. This irreversibility of damage therefore turns individuals into legal subjects. The question of forgiveness will only come with the intersection of memory and justice along with a contextualization of the individual’s discourse. The complication lies in the fact that almost all the victims are not even alive and who closest to the victim seeks to forgive? Who will one forgive? Can forgiveness in this case be unconditional? Can there even be reparations by law or heads of State?

 The transcendent nature of forgiveness lends it an unconventional quality as it is something that can’t be put into a box and is something that is “indissociable yet irreconcilable”.Derrida says: “ Forgiveness is not, it should not be, normal, normative, normalising.It should remain exceptional and extraordinary, in the face of the impossible: as if it interrupted the ordinary course of temporal reality.”

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