To Forgive and Forget: Is It Even Possible in the Internet Age?
As a young boy, my mother always told me to forgive and forget; but then that was the 1970's when things were much different. She was strict, or so I thought at the time, but she was also fair. My mother raised three children on a shoestring budget and despite the hand-me-downs and casseroles for dinner every night, we all ended up as productive citizens; although there are days I wonder about my sister, who still seems lost at 47. But, I digress. Mom believed that the concept of right and wrong was something all people had “built-in” and because of that we were expected to look to our own moral compasses and measure our speech against those values. She would rightly point out that we “knew” when we were crossing the line; me especially since I just happened to be that troublesome “middle child” who always pushed the envelope. Yet even so, at the time, deep down inside I knew when I was speaking out of turn or making a wrong play, so to speak.
When I crossed that invisible line, I was summarily punished. Now remember that this was the 1970’s and spankings were still an acceptable form of discipline. Back in those days, children nationwide seemed to fear the phrase “wait until your father gets home” more than death itself. If one of us offended someone, my mother would try to teach us and my father would make sure we regretted it. It was a tag-team of sorts in “character building.” Plus we'd be expected to make amends (or catch a second whooping); likewise, if we did physical damage to something that wasn’t ours, we'd be paying for it somehow. You can probably guess that I didn’t have much allowance available to spend on what I wanted. Seems I was always in debt for something. Yet usually, it was my mouth that got me into trouble rather than my rambunctiousness. I had a tendency to speak before thinking and dropped many-a cuss word at inappropriate times and used “descriptive” words that I’m still embarrassed by to this day. I was young and still learning about right and wrong.
But, over the years, I learned that respecting people would get me further ahead rather than demeaning them. I discovered that we’re all different and that denigrating someone for their religion, heritage, sex, or race was a no-win approach. Trust me on this, as I have made many mistakes and have insulted many people over my lifetime. Sometimes I didn’t even realize it, but other times it was done with malice. In the on-purpose times, I usually knew immediately that I’d said something wrong; something which violated the rules of my inner compass. Yet, I said them anyway. I also admit that there were times I said terrible things and refused to apologize. Looking back, I believe the root cause of my obstinacy was a young man’s ego, which is a fragile thing, especially when combined with peer pressure. But, eventually I matured and moved on, leaving my old group of friends, my hometown, until I was far away and on my own. The days of my youth were packaged up into a neat bundle and shelved in my memory banks.
I never thought much about right and wrong issues as a young adult; mostly because I just didn’t have the time. It’s not that I was a hateful or angry person; I was just tired and busy working two jobs while going to college. I desperately wanted to get ahead in life and was full of energy. College did shape my life in many ways; some good and some not so much. I experienced many things while living alone in a big city as a student; some from an observational standpoint and others as an unwilling participant. I was assaulted and robbed by three teenagers in broad daylight because I was a white person “in the wrong part of town.” Another time, I came home to find my apartment robbed and most of my possessions taken, including some sentimental things. I watched people being bullied, especially foreign-born students, saw many girls being coerced into compromising positions at dorm parties, and even witnessed handicapped people being taunted. Looking back, I wish I had been a better person and tried to help or alleviate a bad situation, but I was a victim of my own timetable. I was too busy to be bothered with the rest of the world because my little piece of it was filled to capacity.
Seeing the Big Picture
It wasn’t until my late 20’s when I finally started to see “the big picture” and try to treat everyone with more respect. Notice I said tried. There were also a lot of failures along the way. This was driven mainly by a having a job which required dealing with a very diverse group of people on a daily basis; a job which I needed and couldn’t afford to lose due to artificial walls being built between me and my coworkers, or any other reason.. It was in that environment that I learned the value of communication. Not just talking, but real live, down to earth communication; a two-way or three-way conversation with ideas and options being exchanged on an balanced playing field. There were moments when things became heated and arguments ensued, but at the end of the day, everyone would proverbially shake hands and we’d move on; forgive and forget. Each time that happened, a vision of my mother would appear in my head; and yes, she was always smiling. Still to this day I’m not sure if the smile was her being proud of me (it was in my own mind, so it’s hard to say) or her just letting me know that she was right and I was once again “caught in the act.” In talking to others, I’ve found many of my peers had similar experiences in their own childhood and also had parents “give them the business” when they crossed the line.
The Internet and Anonymity
But that period of innocence seems so long ago. Our world has changed in so many ways over the last few decades. Technology has permeated into every activity and we’re always “on the clock” trying to get things accomplished quicker and more efficiently. We are overly-connected and the insta-snap-google-face-tweeting-blogging-websurfing-fakenews-suffocation by the volume of available media is the central focus of life in today. Communication has a different meaning; we type rather than speak; we text rather than engage in conversation. Phone calls are almost an annoyance and voicemail is passé. Even the term friend has a new meaning, as does the term follower. There are new languages popping up almost daily, consisting of abbreviations, memes, and emoji’s combined with video and photographs, all courtesy of the world wide web of connectivity we call the internet.
The internet is responsible for a global shift in the way we do business, the way we shop, and especially the way we communicate. It’s a level playing field, so to speak, where everyone can know your name or no one at all. Users can be anonymous or have an entire different persona that their real life. There is one part make-believe, one part technology, and one part imagination all rolled up into a fast-moving freight train of advancement with no engineer or brakeman. It has empowered free speech, even if some of that speech is filled with vitriol and hate. It has created bomb-throwing trolls who get pleasure in attacking others; sometimes just for fun, other times to support an agenda. It’s brought out a new level of vulgarity, crudeness, and lack of candor. It has emboldened many people to type things that their moral compass would have stopped if they wanted to actually speak it. Yet, that same moral compass doesn’t stop them from typing it. What’s worse is that it seems to have erased or seriously blurred both the concepts of apologizing and also forgiving those who’ve offended us in some way or another. The inflammatory rhetoric and retaliation that often follows is a growing cancerous tumor that’s threatening the fabric of our humanity. It sounds dramatic when written down, but unfortunately it’s firmly rooted in fact; the internet has released the nasty side of many people.
Humanity is Changing
Humanity, a word we often take for granted, is quite simplistic; it’s the condition of being human; as opposed to being an animal or a plant perhaps. There really isn’t a word which defines the opposite of humanity, but most people seem to understand the concept. When we allow ourselves to sink lower and lower in how we treat our fellow human being, it’s said to be a collective act of dehumanizing society. Apologies and forgiveness, are two things which can help to bring us into balance, yet from observations, it appears we have lost our will to do either. Now some readers may interject at this point and cite sincerity as another important aspect of both apology and forgiveness and I’d have to agree that it does play a significant role. Also, if people were nicer to one another and not say harmful things to others in the first place could be considered a key thing, but that’s an entirely different topic and one that would require several volumes to prepare a valid storyline for.
In trying to analyze different opinions on whether forgive and forget is a still a valid concept I came across multiple lines of thinking. I read numerous articles on-line and even asked some of the people I work with how they viewed things. The most commonly cited responses were connected to religion and especially had ties to Christianity and the Christian Bible. In summary, I was informed that those who follow Christianity taught to follow in the footsteps of their Deity, a man who supposedly always saw the good in people and was said to have forgiven even those who crucified him. I don’t know how many people living in the world today could mimic that level of forgiveness. So, I don’t really put much faith in Christians or any other religious group to always act in a forgiving way. Another viewpoint would interpret forgiveness as nothing more than a romanticized sentiment expressed only to “smooth things over” and not to really correct any wrong doing. In many instances, keeping the peace, rises to a higher level of importance than anyone’s actual feelings.
Still others focus on the forget part rather than the forgiveness part. This belief appears to run strong in the world today, as can be seen day after day on any random internet chat room. Statements made more than a decade ago are dredged up and injected into the narrative; often being used as a proverbial “kill shot” for someone trying to defend themselves. One example of this is Joy-Ann Reid, a MSNBC host, who is under attack daily for things she posted on her blog more than ten years ago. The internet doesn’t forget and neither do people who feel they have been scorned or damaged. There are countless numbers of additionally theories, but when aggregated, they seem to all point towards an unexpected outcome. The world really doesn’t care about forgiving or forgetting but sees apologies as a necessary but also inconsequential thing. The mob rules mentality of social media is much more concerned with taking scalps and getting people silenced than it does with getting an actual sincere apology. And if we spend some time in deep thought, maybe this is the way it’s always been and we failed to pay attention to them. Maybe the entire premise of even trying to apologize is a waste of time, since the offended party isn’t likely to forgive or forget. The following list contains 6 different areas where theoretical walls are built where neither forgiveness nor forgetting comes easy, or at all.
1. Sometimes people just don’t want to forgive or forget a transgression because it hurt them to their core. In time, people can change, but in some cases they can’t. I’ve read about children who were abused by their parents, or people sexually assaulted, and many more incidents detailing atrocities or acts of depravity committed against them; things that they absolutely will never forgive or forget. It’s hard to argue this point of view, especially when we have no experience with it. These extreme examples aren’t the whole story either. The Millennial generation is much different than the generations which preceded them. They are more sensitive to words and things they label as hate speech, and those sensitivities translate to more walls being erected; think safe spaces. What might sound trivial to older people is often seen as tragic and cataclysmic to someone with delicate feelings.
2. Today we see many cases where people thrive off of misery, especially when it’s their own sad story. This subgroup won’t forgive or forget because they need the misery of some emotional scar for self-actualization. They become so addicted to victim-hood that they can’t live without it, and will go to great lengths to keep themselves in a sorry-state. Sometimes we see this with people who weren’t even themselves part of an issue; they champion a cause or ride on the coattails of an event in the past. Slavery in America is one of the most common subjects that fall under this group. No one alive today was held in slavery in America, but that doesn’t stop people from using it as a permanent source of their own misery. Also this tactic is exploited for attention. There is a definite pattern emerging in the world today where more people than ever need to be “in the spotlight,” regardless if it’s for good or bad.
3. There are people without a moral compass who truly hate others for a myriad of reasons. Maybe they had a bad childhood, maybe grew up without parents, or maybe they were just ignored. This group is considered the most dangerous on-line, because they strike without concern and are relentless in their attacks. When they make racist remarks, or denigrate others or worse, it’s because they are filled with hatred. Understanding that hatred is another topic altogether. One that would require me to type until my hands became arthritic and my brain mush. This subgroup rarely has forgiveness on their mind. Like the permanent victims, they also feed on this negativity.
4. Some people have tried forgiveness in their past and were rewarded with additional pain and suffering. When someone extends an olive branch only to have it snatched away and broken into tiny pieces, they tend to get fearful about forgiving in the future. Some are likely to redirect the rejection and become haters themselves. They turn on those who hurt them and enter the darkness.
5. There are people who feel forgiveness makes them appear weak. This group is insecure about their own emotions. They perceive things much differently than the rest of us. It’s a common trait among Dictators and high-ranking business leaders, especially if they are followed by multitudes of other people. We’re seeing this type of behavior emerge with internet stars and social media icons today; they feel that people should just accept what they say regardless of how harmful it comes out. And even if they are backed into a corner and forced to apologize, it’s not a sincere apology.
6. A corollary to the previous bullet point arises from time to time, but it really is a separate topic. There are people who believe that forgiveness is something the offender must ask the victim for. They convince themselves that things are fine because no one is asking them for forgiveness, and that they didn’t do anything that bad. They’ll never apologize unless forced to. Take any of the high-profile celebrities who have tweeted something inappropriate as examples. Usually they don’t issue an apology until the court of public opinion demands it. Often times, that apology is rejected anyway.
When we are hurt by someone else’s words or actions, it’s never easy to simply ignore the pain and rise above the feelings we have brewing inside. It’s not always possible to forget, even if by the rare chance we are able to forgive. We hold grudges. We want vengeance, we want to make the person who hurt us feel the same pain we are feeling. We are angry, sad, and hostile because of a name someone called us or a meme in which they ridiculed us. After all, an apology doesn’t right a wrong, especially if the wrong was in public. Usually the only exception for this is when something comes between partners or spouses. And even in those cases, there may be forgiveness and a sincere apology, but the transgression isn’t forgotten; it’s only mothballed for another day.
In summary, after the lengthy review of forgive and forget, it’s obvious that we just don’t care anymore. We’d rather see justice; often to a greater degree than the hurt that was perceived. It’s permanently ingrained in the internet world we live in. It goes from the freshman high school student all the way to the President of the United States. Bombs are thrown, troll attacks are rampant, and vengeance is swift and merciless. My mother did her best to instill good values in her children, but it’s hard to resist the lure of the on-line mob and the “win at all costs” environment that has arisen. I’d like to think that I can still apologize sincerely and forgive with a similar level of commitment, but forgetting seems near impossible. Especially when technology is always waiting to remind us of everything we’ve ever done wrong.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Ralph Schwartz