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The Impossibility of Forgiveness

By Reed E. McConnell

CNN’s coverage of the Steubeville rape case was, in a word, embarrassing. Without acknowledging the trauma of the victim, multiple reporters spoke sadly about how the rapists’ bright futures had been ruined by being found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl, without seeming to grasp the simple concept that the rapists had ruined their own futures by raping someone. But CNN and other news outlets were not alone in lamenting the fates of these young men, and, in fact, seemed to be giving voice to what an uncomfortably large slice of America was thinking. The obvious explanation of victim-blaming and valuation of perpetrators over their victims does have some hold here, but a full understanding of the situation needs to be more nuanced. So my question is: What, exactly, are the social mores and the mechanisms within rape culture that brought about this phenomenon?

The answer seems to lie in the concept of “positive futurity,” which is most simply defined as the valuing of a possible positive future over present realities. Positive futurity says that although the perpetrators in the Steubenville case made a “mistake,” there is still a possibility that they could leave that mistake in the past and not let it ruin their prospects for the future. Furthermore, it automatically sets the onus for creating these possible futures on the survivor. This is the heart of the matter. Yes, rape culture leads people to blame survivors for being assaulted, but the cultural insistence on women showing forgiveness leads to a different yet complementary set of problems.

Even if no one explicitly admits, even to themselves, that they believe the victim in a rape case should forgive their perpetrator(s), a deep attachment to the possibility of forgiveness on the victim’s part is implicit in the preoccupation with idea that the perpetrators could, conceivably, live full and meaningful lives in the future. If the victim had been killed, she would be unable to show forgiveness, and the futures of the perpetrators would be seen as sealed. But as long as she is alive (and not only alive, but not visibly physically damaged), there is a perceived possibility of everyone moving past what happened, of the damage being fixable, of the whole situation being a matter of forgiveness, as difficult as that forgiveness might be.

However, what none of this reasoning takes into account is the fact that these young men made a choice of their own free will, and not only that, but also made a choice to commit an unfathomably violent crime. Thus, we are imagining these possible positive futures while failing to see that they are no longer possibilities. These young men ruined the possibilities for those futures, relinquished their feasibility, the second they chose to rape this young woman—long before the trial began.

Furthermore, positive futurity and this narrative of forgiveness also perpetuate the idea that the victim, too, can look toward a positive future, that she can grow from what happened, that “what doesn’t kill her makes her stronger,” and this is just as harmful. As long as we portray sexual violence as something that not only inherently can be moved past, but also as something that necessarily makes the survivor a better, stronger, and more nuanced person when she is able to move on, we are discrediting the lasting damage that sexual violence often does to survivors. And what’s more, this narrative of self-growth further contributes to creating a situation in which a desire for justice is instead read as bitterness, as the victim is seen as holding onto something that she can, and should, instead let go of.

How, then, do we reconcile this disappointment with continued prosecution, this sadness at the perceived ruination of these imagined futures, with our attraction as a society to the concept of revenge? With our appreciation of Lisbeth Salander’s revenge against her rapist in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for instance? I would argue that we understand vigilante justice and legal justice in two very different ways: we appreciate the former because it transcends the very system that the latter relies upon. The law holds a special, foundational sort of place in our society, and the idea of victims relying on this system to achieve justice conjures up all sorts of social expectations and desires for “normal” and “positive” behavior. Legal justice functions within a framework of social norms, whereas vigilante revenge fantasies deliberately transcend those social norms, which is precisely why we find them so thrilling.

This comparison is helpful in understanding just how deeply the idea of forgiveness is rooted in social norms, rather than in any sort of objective reasoning: we either understand the proper outcome for a case of sexual violence as an eye for an eye, done outside of society, or as the opposite, forgiveness, which is appropriate within society. And though I am not advocating for a move toward vigilante justice, I am suggesting that we need to see a sea change in the way that we think about sexual violence and forgiveness, and start moving toward a place where we actually understand and accept, as a society, the consequences of the decision to commit acts of sexual violence.

Reed E. McConnell ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social anthropology concentrator in Quincy House.

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