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A society that forgives wins



Almost all public conversation quickly turns to transgressors. At the Olympic Games competitors growled about proven and suspect drug users. Many people believed that all Russian athletes should have been excluded from the games. They wanted people found to have used drugs named, shamed and shunned.

Russia's Yuliya Efimova looks on as America's Lilly King celebrates winning the women's 100m breaststrokeThis insistence that transgressors should definitively lose their good name and the right to participate is not confined to sport. It is found also in controversy about penal policy, and particularly in the populist cry to lock criminals up and throw away the key. The 'three strikes' policy, by which in some states of the USA offenders can be sent to prison for 25 years or life for a relatively minor offence, is a dramatic example.

In Australia it finds parallels in the introduction of mandatory and indefinite sentences, indefinite detention, the abolition of parole and the outrage when a prisoner who has served his sentence is found to be living in a residential neighbourhood.

In social media the loss of reputation is also definitive and irrecoverable. The same severity can be seen in the attitude to public reputation particularly as this is affected by social media. When people enter public life their past record, including the traces they leave on social media, will be held against them.

The burden this may later place on children whose natural imprudence will be forever on record can only be imagined. People's reputations may be frozen in words and actions that they may have later come to regret. They cannot, and others will not, take away the shame that their past lays upon them.

What are we to make of this unyielding severity? Arguments can certainly be made in favour of it. In sport the reluctance of governing bodies to risk their public standing or financial benefits by dealing firmly with drug use may justify the demand to make examples of athletes who are caught.

Two legitimate goals of penal policy, too, are to assure the security of the community and to show that violent and fraudulent actions are not acceptable.

So if lenient sentencing would result in public acceptance of violent behaviour, and so put people at risk, a case for harsh sentences for particular crimes could be made, even where they would make more difficult the offender's integration with society. The case would need to be based on evidence, however, not simply on assertion.


"If we identify people with the wrong they have done and hold it against them forever, we shall prevent them from making a contribution to society."


But if inflexibility and exclusion become the rule in dealing with aberrant speech or behaviour we find unacceptable, they will impose heavy burdens on individuals and society. The cartilage that allows agility and ease in individual and public relationships is our readiness to let go of our resentment at the wrongs we have suffered, and our confidence that others have let go of the wrongs we have done to them. It reassures us that we can start again without wearing the lead collar of our past.

We all know individuals who have become locked into hatred and resentment, with the result that all their other relationships are infected by their rancour. In family groups where the mistakes people make are never forgotten, children can grow into brittle and defensive adults, unable to sustain good personal or working relationships. To let go of what has happened, and to ask and receive forgiveness, nourish possibility and growth.

In the wider society these human costs are transmuted into the coin of inefficiency and of lost opportunity. When we exclude people you also exclude the contribution they can make to society. By multiplying indefinite incarceration, parole-free incarceration, fixed sentences and mandatory imprisonment, we must spend on prisons the resources that otherwise might build hospitals or schools. And we multiply the likelihood that people will reoffend and again be incarcerated. We will also make it much more likely that the people whom you have incarcerated will reoffend and be returned to prison.

If we identify people with the wrong they have done and hold it against them forever, too, we shall prevent them from making a contribution to society. The cost we shall bear as a community of their alienation and despair will be cashed in treatment for mental and physical illness and in encounters with the justice system.

These are the tangible costs on which policy makers focus. But even more costly will be the less tangible erosion of the qualities that make public life nourishing: the trust, the instinct for a fair go, the empathy that underlies voluntary work and care for the needy, and the civility on which politics relies. A culture which disdains forgiveness shoots itself in the foot.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Russia's Yuliya Efimova looks on as America's Lilly King celebrates winning the women's 100m breaststroke. King said Efimova should not have been at the Olympics after the Russian was banned in 2013.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Olympic Games, Rio 2016, forgiveness



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Existing comments

Great perception and well spoken. Without empathy and tolerance; walking a mile in other's shoes becomes unthinkable. Any redemptive processes become locked out as well. Ta!

Rein | 23 August 2016  

These are some of the best words I've read about forgiveness. It can be challenging and beyond reason to forgive. No wonder it is the supreme virtue.

Pam | 24 August 2016  

forgiveness is the second act a three part play called reconciliation - the first act is about confrontation and confession - dealing with truth; the second act is about forgiveness; the third act is about contrition - a changed life. they're all of a piece; separating out forgiveness, or lack thereof, doesn't carry the whole issue

Dave | 25 August 2016  

In some cases, such as serial sex offenders of various sorts, who claim they have been forgiven and 'redeemed' - redemption in fact being a lifelong series of interactions with God - we need to be generous but protective of the most vulnerable. Hence following the Cromwellian injunction: 'Trust in God but tie your horse first' could be the way to go. Stereotypes are destructive, but, sadly, many people live up to their and our worst expectations, thus reinforcing the negative stereotype. Of course we have had bad and destructive stereotypes historically of Jewish people, Catholics, Protestants, Whites, Asians, etc. Sometimes all of us need to grow up together and accept we are different.

Edward Fido | 25 August 2016  

Society steps in in the form of laws etc. when faced with bad behaviour, because psychologists will tell you that people will continue a behaviour when they are rewarded for it. If bad behaviour is rewarded by not being sanctioned, it encourages the perpetrator to repeat the behaviour. I agree with Pam that sometimes it calls for a superhuman effort to forgive. Even Corrie ten Boom in her book The Hiding Place said she herself could not forgive the terrible wrongs done to her family and herself by German functionaries in WW2; she called on God to step in and do it on her behalf. I always think of Scripture when this subject is brought up: "Has no-one condemned you? Neither do I. Go and sin no more". The last sentence is no less important than the first two.

Frank S | 25 August 2016  

Just wondering how the academic exploration fits with the real experience. What would be the outcome for the people involved in the Port Arthur massacre? What contribution can the perpetrator make to our society? What was the 'growth' for those families who lost their loved ones? Are there events that are too awful for the victims to recover from in their life time? Should the families and victims of pedophile clergy and religious stop pursuing justice? From statements made by the victims and their families the 'wrong' they have experienced affects the victims and their relationships for a long time at least. Should the perpetrators be held in prison until victims have been rehabilitated? Is it a reason that many people are asking for the death penalty to be an option for crimes that the legal system at present cant find a suitable way to balance justice and forgiveness for the victims, let alone those that committed the crimes?

Laurie | 25 August 2016  

We have become a nation of goalers not only because it is steeped in the roots of our convict origins, but because our society idolizes individuals and companies that "make it". That are economically successful. we also have bunch of "successful" politicians that think its safer to incarcerate the unworthy, here or offshore than to create real gainful employment and opportunities that are creative and sustainable. Australia has sold off the farm. Our manufacturing is a shambles. Why do we eat oranges from California? Why is 27 percent of the prison population aboriginal? Why do the greens slag every mining proposal or sensitive subdivision that is ever proposed? The balance in Australia has tipped us fairly and squarely into the position of being tenants at will to China, US multinationals, Japan and even Indonesia. The poor bastards rotting in our goals and detention centres will surely die fulfilled and at peace knowing that they contributed to making the states number plates.

Francis Armstrong | 25 August 2016  

Forgiveness walks hand in hand with contrition.......some expression of responsibility.

Gaj | 25 August 2016  

Andrew you have a number of issues in your article lumped together to highlight the power of forgiveness. When Horton pointed to his second place competitor and called him a drug cheat I thought it was very bad grace. There is a time and place for calling someone to account for improper drug use in sport. Forgiveness by its nature means that two parties are moved to think differently about a wrong that's been done. Forgiveness means a new start from a new viewpoint; both parties find new understanding about how the wrong action came about. There must be recognition of the harm done, and new awareness of the need for personal accountability. Your thoughts on prison sentences and parole time is problematic, I think you should remember the murder of Jill Meagher by a serial rapist who was on parole at the time.

Trish Martin | 25 August 2016  

Thanks for your thoughtful, measured reflection on an important topic. I found myself troubled by some of the hostile comments aimed at 'drug cheats' during in the recent Olympics. Without condoning fraud, forgiveness and compassion could be shown. I agree that where there is contrition/remorse and efforts to change, the response should be compassion and forgiveness. Former wrongdoer, whether released prisoners or former cheats should not be exposed and punished indefinitely. Rehabilitation should be facilitated, people should be given the chance to change and regain social acceptance, even at the risk of us sometimes getting it wrong.

Myrna | 25 August 2016  

Elites move society, whether or not they originate new ideas themselves or run with or block ideas coming from the subordinate strata. And where the issue is not within but between societies? To quote another contributor: "forgiveness is the second act a three part play called reconciliation - the first act is about confrontation and confession - dealing with truth; the second act is about forgiveness; the third act is about contrition - a changed life. they're all of a piece; separating out forgiveness, or lack thereof, doesn't carry the whole issue", forgiveness in the elites of Israel has been waiting since 1947 for contrition in the elites of what is now Gaza and the West Bank. Just as faith without works is dead, contrition without reparation is a vanity. A system of restorative justice would work out what reparation is reasonable for a Gazan/West Bank elite, prisoner in a cell or an Olympic competitor who was a drug cheat.

Roy Chen Yee | 26 August 2016  

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