Anger and Forgiveness
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 17 2017
Events in Charlottesville (and more low-key events closer to my home affecting me personally) have led me to think about the subject of anger and its consequences. I was moved to revisit Martha C Nussbaum’s book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice. Nussbaum looks at the efficacy of forgiveness rather than anger as a response to wrongdoing. She gives many examples of anger and forgiveness ranging over the personal and the political.
Some people live in anger – one might almost say some people love anger, it seems to give them sustenance. As well as looking back in anger they look forward in anger. I am lucky in that I never really get angry – I have short bursts of sometimes intense irritation but these are not sustained enough to lead to me taking any practical retribution or revenge. Nussbaum calls this Transition Anger and concedes that it “lacks a wish for ill”. She writes: “Though short-term anger is understandable and human, it is rarely helpful, and it certainly should not dictate the course of the future”.
Anger and Self-Respect
Anger is often a result of feeling disrespected. The scenes in Charlottesville happened because a group of people were angry that their standing was not appreciated and their social status was being undermined by “the other”. Trump became president by feeding this anger against elites, minorities, nations that were not the USA. He fomented anger about his country’s alleged loss of influence and power (even though the USA is still the sole superpower). “Make America great again” was his slogan. Respect us or we will be angry and punish you. Anger can be narcissistic. “Sympathy steers anger in the direction of a balanced focus on harm and correction of harm, rather than on personal downranking, with its connection to revenge.”
Nussbaum recognises that most of us are helpless against many of the contingencies of life but we can console ourselves with projects that express our anger. “It feels a lot better if we can form a payback project and get busy executing it (suing the bad doctor, depriving one’s ex of child custody) than to accept loss and the real condition of helplessness in which life has left us. Payback, thus, often has a psychic function.”
Revenge is a dish best eaten cold, the saying goes. Marcus Aurelius wrote: “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”. Francis Bacon did not think revenge therapeutic: “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green.”
Many cultures are corrupted by blood feuds and ‘honour’ killings. The US has a false foundation myth which places it beyond such crudity but American culture spreads a brutal and infantile message to the rest of the world. The film critic Mark Cousins has noted the current prevalence of vengeance as a theme in Hollywood movies. One of the questions of our time is how a tribe that has been harmed finds peace. Movies which show returning harm to those who harmed seem to give comfort by ventilating an audience’s feelings of impotence. Blog-warriors get some satisfaction by keeping anger alive and espousing vengeance as if life were a movie.
Nussbaum writes, “people in modern American society continue to think anger is good, powerful, and manly. They encourage it in their children (especially boys), and they indulge it in both self and others.” Anger is followed by retribution which derives from “deep-rooted
but misleading ideas of cosmic balance, and from people’s attempt to recover control in situations of helplessness. But the wrongdoer’s suffering does not bring back the person or valued item”. It is psychologically damaging for me to want payback, to return pain to one who has caused me pain. “Obsessive focusing on the future suffering of the perpetrator just implicates me in the perpetrator’s hostile and degrading conduct”.
We should not ignore bad acts but the recognition of their wrongness should contribute to good in the future. The formula for reconciliation is for offender, victim, and friends to act as though the wrong act and the perpetrator are separate. Nussbaum writes: “the crime is outrageous, but we can see the offender, with sympathy, as someone who is more and better than the crime, capable of good in future”. Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, South Africa and many other countries, involved a lot of forgetting. It was not easy. “The apparatus of abasement, confession, contrition, and eventual forgiveness, by contrast, often impedes reconciliation by producing humiliation rather than mutual respect, and it frequently acts as a covert form of punishment, discharging a hidden (or, often, not so hidden) resentment.”
Nussbaum gives the name Transactional Forgiveness to a process described by another philosopher, Charles Griswold. Forgiveness, Griswold argues, is a two-person process involving a moderation of anger and a rejection of revenge. Griswold lists six conditions for the forgiveness process:
Acknowledge responsibility for the wrong
Repudiate the wrong deed and acknowledge the wrongness
Express regret to the injured party
Through deeds and words become the sort of person who does not inflict injury
Show an understanding from the injured person’s perspective of the damage done
Offer an account of how the wrong was done
My school in Gloucester was close to 25 Cromwell Street where Fred and Rosemary West perpetrated countless grisly murders. Lucy Partington, the cousin of writer Martin Amis, was waiting for a bus in Cheltenham when Fred and Rose West offered her a lift. She was never seen again. Lucy’s sister, Marian, forgave the Wests and wrote movingly about Rosemary West: “Her story seems to be about the impoverishment of a soul that knew no other way to live than through terrible cruelty. A life deprived of truth, beauty or love. I imagine that the deviant ignorance that fed her sadistic, egotistical crimes was rooted in her ruined, crooked childhood.” I don’t know if I could be forgiving in such circumstances.
I wonder how forgiving I would be if I lost loved ones to terrorists. My friend the Reverend Harold Good witnessed the horrors of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. “I wasn’t isolated in an ivory tower. I know the pain inflicted by terrorists.” In spite of this, he has referred, in a personal e-mail to me, to his “friend Martin McGuinness”.
McGuinness helped bring peace to Northern Ireland and worked with former enemies as part of the devolved government of the six counties. Many found it impossible to forgive the atrocities committed by the IRA when McGuinness was IRA Derry Commandant. Harold worked closely with both Republican and Loyalist prisoners with a view to their resettlement. He was the Director in the 1970s of the Corrymeela community, a centre for reconciliation between the communities. He was chair of NIACRO (Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Prisoners) and part-time prison chaplain at Crumlin Road prison. A key part of the Good Friday agreement was the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners. Harold still comes under criticism as well as praise for his part in the peace process.
Some find it hard to cope with the fact that men who committed evil deeds are free and forgiven. In Sri Lanka, some find it disgusting that Karuna and KP are free.
On a visit to Northern Ireland, the Dalai Lama said: “Some differences, some conflicts will always be there. But we should use the differences in a positive way to try to get energy from different views. Try to minimize violence, not by force, but by awareness and respect. Through dialogue, taking others’ interests and sharing one’s own, there is a way to solve the problems”. He put his arms around a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister and tugged their beards.
There is a good deal of research which shows that forgiving is good for the health. When people think about forgiving an offender, it leads to improved functioning in their cardiovascular and nervous systems. The research of Dr Fred Luskin of Stanford University shows that forgiveness can be learned. In Northern Ireland, Luskin found that people who are taught how to forgive, become less angry, more optimistic, self-confident. His studies show a reduction in the experience and physical manifestations of stress, and an increase in vitality.