Steubenville & the Cult of Consequence-Free Forgiveness

The verdict is finally in: guilty (or, at least, the juvenile court’s version of guilty).

There are some implications of the Steubenville trial that are abundantly clear to those who were paying attention: that the hero-worship of high school football players is out of hand, that rape culture exists, that rape apologists are depressingly common, that I’ll never watch or link to CNN ever again.

Other facets of the reactions to the verdict reveal an odd sense of unease surrounding the punishment of sexual assault. Steubenville is not the first context in which a conviction of sexual assault has been met with lamentations over the “ruining” of the rapists’ lives, or where communities have rallied in support not of the victim(s) of sexual assault, but of the rapist(s). In this case, the main factors in this galling outpouring of sympathy include the youth, grade point average, and sports participation of the perpetrators.

Do we really live in a society where being young, earning As, and possessing physical prowess exonerates all manner of crimes?


The answer is not so simple as that. We live in a society where rape culture teaches the myth that rape is easy to accidentally commit, that it’s a mistake anyone could make. Pair that with the over-emphasis on forgiveness in American society, a clear result of its Christian legacy, and you get people uncomfortable with the idea of anything approximating consequences for perpetrators of sexual assault. In their minds, since forgiveness is better than limiting the perceived potential of the rapists, why not have them simply confess and be absolved — and, as just anyone could do something similar, that rape is a crime is questionable in the first place.

This unholy marriage of rape culture with the cult of forgiveness means that some people forget that actions should, and do, have consequences for very good reason. Certainly, there are issues with the American criminal justice system (alternatively, the prison-industrial complex). No doubt, forgiveness on the part of victims of horrendous crimes is sometimes helpful to them in their healing process. None of that erases the need to hold people accountable for their actions, and in the case of Steubenville, there is no dearth of documentation proving that a great wrong did not simply occur, but was actively committed by people sure that their actions would never be taken to task. How else to explain the lack of shame, the creation and sharing of evidence proving the crime, the sheer arrogance expressed in said evidence?

Though punishment is not always a deterrent at all, let alone the best deterrent, allowing for the forgiveness narrative to allow people who commit staggeringly heinous crimes to walk away does not exactly send the right message to those who believe themselves to be above the law, or even basic respect for others’ humanity, agency, and bodily autonomy. Most people behave with common decency because they are commonly decent, but they’re not the ones about whom we have to worry.

Here’s hoping that the difference in outcome between similar cases in the past and what happened last night will send a clear message: that violating others’ bodily autonomy is not okay no matter who you might be.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. Yeah, I don’t know that we really have a culture that emphasizes forgiveness. We certainly don’t believe in forgiveness for other crimes. I doubt we’ll be too quick to forgive a rape victim that has reported her attacker, either.

    1. Which is not to suggest that I disagree with the articles about forgiveness, they are a very good read an accurately describe real things. I do notice that the idea of forgiveness is not universal, and it seems that forgiveness seems to only flow up, not down.

      1. That is an incredibly good point that you’ve made re where the direction of forgiveness. I will definitely keep that in mind for when I write something exclusively exploring the cult of forgiveness.

      2. That is a great point! It almost always the oppressed or underprivileged person being asked to forgive, likely because such forgiveness maintains the status quo.

  2. Great post. It also never ceases to bug me that “forgiveness” has so many meanings as to be a completely useless word. “Forgiveness,” to my mind, should actually mean a complete wiping clean of the slate, a positive embrace of the person who has wronged you and an acceptance of them as a valuable and worthwhile human being. By this definition, there are relatively few situations where this is actually a good thing, but some examples might be a person who was very homophobic, has since learned the error of zir ways and has thoughtfully and thoroughly apologized to those ze wronged and has tried to repair whatever damage could be repaired. I could easily imagine a situation where a former victim of this previously-homophobic person could come to embrace this person and see them as a trusted friend thereafter (not that they should be required or pressured to do so, of course). Or, if some hurt were caused by a misunderstanding, both/all parties could resolve the misunderstanding and still see each other as good people, and therefore forgive each other. Fine.

    HOWEVER, “forgiveness” is also used in a much more mushy way to mean “letting go,” “moving on,” “making peace,” “coming to terms with,” and so on. Now, these can be very healthy things (with the disclaimer that they become unhealthy when others are pressuring someone to do them for the others’ convenience!), but they are very, very different from “forgiveness” as defined above. I feel a lot of this comes from having it drilled into people’s heads that Forgiveness is such a Very Important Thing, that they feel obligated to do or otherwise they’re petty, selfish Bad People (as opposed to, I dunno, mature adults with self-respect and boundaries!), so they give their generally-healthy goals of letting go or moving on the name of Forgiveness so that they can soothe their self-image of themselves as kind, society-approved people.

    This has several problems: one, calling these two very different things “forgiveness” gets into some very sticky wickets where consequences are involved. If you’ve really forgiven someone, by definition you wouldn’t want them to face consequences…but in the latter case, maybe you wouldn’t wish additional harm on them, but maybe you still think they have to pay the rest of that fine/serve out their prison sentence/not be memorialized in a marble statue in the town park/please replace your fishtank/whatever. And that’s fine. It is good and necessary that people experience consequences when they harm people, especially when those consequences provide material remuneration to those wronged or keep others safe from a potentially dangerous person. Instead, by focusing on “forgiveness,” these two meanings get badly conflated, so people can pretend to appeal to others’ “better natures” and actually just be trying to avoid consequences. This conflation can even go the other way, too: like when the Russian Orthodox Church claimed the moral high ground in saying that they “forgave” Pussy Riot—buuuut, still insisted that they serve out their prison term!

    The conflation of “forgiveness” and “moving on” also means that society (or a subculture or clique) can avoid the general social responsibility to hold its members responsible (e.g., by carrying out a trial of a rapist or Wall Street fraudster, or just having that difficult conversation of No, You Can’t Come To This Party and This is Why and forgoing the great microbrewery beer the wronging party generally brings) by casting the desire for justice or even just deterrence of future wrongdoing as a character flaw on the part of the one seeking fairness.

    This focus on “forgiveness” can also mean that the person who was wronged might be pressured out of making decisions in their best interest–for instance, someone might have “moved on” after someone stole from them–but by conflating this with “forgiveness” they can be guilted out of taking precautions not to let them be vulnerable to theft from that person again. And then the conflation goes the other way too–when someone in the social circle implies that the wronged person is unhealthy and hasn’t “moved on” enough when they take reasonable precautions having learned from being wronged.

    Another huge problem is that this focus on “forgiveness” makes people incredibly self-conscious about seeking justice, and as Greta Christina says, anger can be an extremely powerful motivator in seeking justice. Instead of focusing on the injustice to be solved, by focusing on the presumed obligation of the individual to forgive, the larger group can remain comfortable since no systemic changes are being pushed (or, those opposed to change can throw in some mental-health ableism about the victim not having coped enough or being “too damaged” or whatever).

    Finally, the conflation of “letting go” with “forgiveness” means it can be extremely difficult for the recovering person to set boundaries, because most acknowledgments of the wrongness of the original action will fall afoul of the more rigorous definition of forgiveness (and they should, because real forgiveness is a special thing, not something to be slapped over every situation), someone will always be there to concern troll the victim about how they shouldn’t set that boundary because it doesn’t seem very forgiving (def #1), and forgiving is so liberating for the victim (def #2), so wouldn’t it really be better for you (def #2) to do what is better for the person who wronged you (def #1)? As such, an abusive person can simply wave our cultural imperative about forgiveness and continue the cycle of abuse, all the while enablers are insisting that the wronged person is actually more “empowered” by “forgiving” and remaining vulnerable.

    1. This post really nails the issue for me on “forgiveness”. There’s “letting go”, where you stop obsessing over something that made you unhappy, vs “forgiving” which is saying that you’re cool with that person again. No. No one should be told that they need to be cool with their rapists.

      1. This, and what LFP said above. Plus letting go, like the process of grief, is something that can only happen on the individual time table of the person who has been hurt or wronged, and not something that can happen on command, not something that someone can just do because it was demanded of them without first working through the pain they feel. Adding pressure to a hurting person for forgiveness is piling on.

  3. I wish I could start boycotting CNN with you all, but I did that last year because their copy editing is so shitty. I haven’t been to the site in at least 6 months and don’t watch network TV anyway.

  4. Isn’t the point of holding a grudge to (almost) guarantee the perpetrator that society will never let him repay his debt? Will society really let the perp “rebuild” the life he had prior to August 2012? Is there anything he could do that would ensure his complete reintegration into society after he’s done his time? If he foiled a sexual assault like Ethan Hawke’s character did in the movie “Training Day” , would people quit calling him a monster?

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