Sunday 17 February 2019

Comment: An unforgiving society fails to see the flaws in our humanity

The fate of Patrick Jackson and Stuart Olding points to another more insidious problem in society, writes Niamh Horan

Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

In 2015, the world press photography awards featured an image from Tehran of a young man identified only as Balal. Sentenced to death for stabbing his best friend, he was standing on a chair, blindfolded, with a noose around his neck waiting for his execution.

In front of him stood the dead boy's mother. By Iranian law she could kick the chair from beneath him. But in her grief she slapped the boy across the face and told his executioners to let him go.

This demonstrated incredible humanity. In western society, we would never allow something as inhumane as a public execution. But our hands aren't clean.

The fate of Patrick Jackson and Stuart Olding has highlighted something seriously amiss. After three months of public lashings, a not-guilty verdict and a subsequent apology for their behaviour on the night, the men were met with another wave of judgment, vitriol and indignation before they were run out of the country.

Many have attributed the Irish Rugby Football Union's ruling to pressures from corporate sponsorship. In truth the public rage left no other realistic option.

The trial, the evidence and the verdict are all behind us. Nothing can change what happened. But a greater issue remains and this is that we have become an unforgiving society.

Let's be clear what forgiveness means. It is different from condoning (where we fail to see the action as wrong), excusing (not holding the person responsible) and forgetting.

It is recognition of our flawed humanity, in all its ugliness and glory. It is allowing for the fact that a person can change. It is understanding that each of us has transgressed. Think of the worst thing you have ever done. At some point you needed someone to forgive your actions, even if it was only yourself.

Perhaps you could never imagine doing anything as bad as the behaviour you are judging. That may be true. But we all still do things we are not proud of or later regret. If you are going to buy into a system in which some acts are 'forgiveable' then you have to allow for all of them. Otherwise who gets to decide the cut-off point?

Philosopher Alain de Botton describes how adopting a forgiving attitude involves going beyond the 'neat' belief in purely 'evil' motives. In his groundbreaking work for the School of Life, a global organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence, he says: "Empathy towards the perpetrator doesn't entail that one has for even a moment forgotten the victim, simply that one is committed to doing justice to psychological reality."

When a child grows to an adult they have gone through a whole life experience. Their past, their environment, their mature advancement (or lack of) in emotional, social development are all factors we have no way of knowing or understanding from the outside. And they can't be captured or examined in a tweet.

There is a reason the American Indian proverb "don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes" has been handed down through the centuries. Yet instead of walking in another's shoes, we use labels. We cast out the perpetrator as 'other' because we think that will protect civilised society. But to protect society we have to face our darkest sides, while allowing for more open discourse and less judgment.

In another world, Patrick Jackson and Stuart Olding would have stayed on the Irish team. They would have spoken openly about what they had learned from their experience. They would have been involved in the new personal development training which will be brought in by the IRFU.

Perhaps they would have spoken to the other men on their team about the mistakes they had made and the things their teammates could learn.

Their presence would be a constant reminder of what can happen when, in Jackson's words regarding his WhatsApp messages, you betray values such as "respect" and engage in "degrading and offensive" behaviour.

Instead we have taught the youth we purport to be concerned about that there is no redemption, no second chances, no coming back.

If you think asking the pair to counsel others on their bad behaviour is unimaginable, then consider Shaka Senghor, an American man who committed second-degree murder. Today, he lectures at universities, is a leading voice on criminal justice reform, and is an inspiration to thousands.

At his lowest point, Senghor found the road to redemption after he received a letter from a relative of the man he had murdered, saying that she forgave him.

Admission, forgiveness, rehabilitation and redemption can be incredibly powerful. As de Botton says, we need to "recognise that forgiveness is not just the recourse of the weak. It reaches its most admirable and moving form precisely when it manifests itself in the strong, when it is recognised as a sign of maturity and inner confidence, a symptom of greatness of heart and sanity of mind".

"It constitutes," he says, "the true victory over the bad and is the ultimate marker of strength and courage."

Rabbi William Hamilton, tells an old story about a wealthy landowner who went to court seeking restitution after one of his workers dropped some valuable crates, destroying their contents.

Having listened to both sides, the judge ruled that the law was on his side and that his employee owed him a lot of money. But he added: "Although the law dictates that your worker fully repay you, it is a large sum for him and meeting his obligation will put him through much hardship. I recommend, on the basis of Hesed [a Hebrew word for 'pure kindness'], that you release him from his obligation. In so doing, you might hope that someday in the future someone else might extend to you the same Hesed when you're in a similarly difficult position."

The landowner took the advice and forgave his worker. That is forgiveness in motion.

Sunday Independent

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