Intent and Forgiveness


Forgiveness is a topic I've thought about a lot; even written about. I came across an interesting piece today by Bari Weiss (who quit the New York Times recently). She was writing about Gina Carano, recently fired by Disney from The Mandalorian for "hateful" social media content. Bari Weiss points out that it sure looks like Carano was fired for being a conservative. As a practicing Jew, Weiss cannot see that Carano's posts alluding to the Holocaust or other topics were anti-semitic at all. And Carano's refusal to pick her "pronouns" is of course a free choice for every American to make.

Weiss makes a point worth considering; let me have her speak for herself:

"The bottom line here is that intent matters. It doesn’t just matter a little bit: our entire culture, our entire justice system hinges on it.

"There is a difference between saying something false and lying. There is a difference between hurling the n-word and quoting “Huckleberry Finn.” There is a “difference between murder and manslaughter,” writes my former colleague Bret Stephens in a column that The New York Times publisher spiked, but which ended up running in The New York Post.

"Cancel culture necessarily erases intent. It relies on taking someone’s worst moment out of context, on elevating a moment of ignorance, on exaggerating a misstep and using that error to destroy someone’s life.

"We live in a time when almost everything is posted, recorded and shared — that’s the reality. It’s not changing. The forgiveness a neighborhood used to give to a kid who said something stupid at a bar now has to be granted to him by everyone with a phone. Yes, I agree, it’s terrible. But we can’t unplug the Internet.

"Living in this world is going to require a deep and generous ethic of forgiveness. That isn’t possible without insisting that intent matters." [emphasis mine]

I agree with that. And it's also true that part of intent is the state of your knowledge. The 20 year old who has never heard of the gulag system in the old Soviet Union and then says something dumb as a result of that ignorance should be forgiven, though also kindly educated. Those who unintentionally offend others, having no feeling of malice in one's heart, should be frankly forgiven. And it's useful and important to ask someone about their intent.

And no one need even be forgiven for simply holding a different point of view. When Carano did not want to choose pronouns, some who cherish pronoun-picking felt offended. They did not have grounds for taking offense, in my view. The entire concept of "dignity harm" occurring if someone fails to validate your worldview is pernicious. Harm is material or physical harm. Sorry to be old-fashioned, but the sticks and stones adage pertains; sticks and stones cause material harm, and material harm is always justified grounds for offense. Refusing to affirm the worldview of pronoun-choosers is not.

Unfortunately, of course, forgiveness is in very short supply in our current culture. But I honestly don't know anyone who is happy with where things are going. Weiss' first step off that path is a very good one: before you cancel, ask intent. Intent matters; it always has and it always will.