This is a free edition of Deep Shtetl, a newsletter about the unexplored intersections of politics, culture, and religion. You can sign up to receive future free editions here. But to gain access to the full newsletter, including all paid content, subscribe to The Atlantic.
Last week, Whoopi Goldberg returned to ABC’s The View, following a two-week suspension for wrongly claiming that the Holocaust was not “about race.” Given my own coverage of this controversy, it probably won’t surprise you that I think The View was wrong to suspend Goldberg in the first place. As I wrote at the time, she made an understandable error for which she publicly apologized. And as I told MSNBC, by suspending her, the show cut short an important conversation about Jews and anti-Semitism, while effectively punishing Goldberg for doing the right thing and owning up to her mistake.
Penalizing people who express remorse creates all the wrong incentives, but it is emblematic of our unforgiving age. The late Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, once said that society has two ways to deal with transgression: forgetfulness and forgiveness. In a forgetfulness culture, we eventually move past the misdeed as it recedes in memory. In a forgiveness culture, we offer a path for rehabilitation through the demonstration of genuine contrition. But today, thanks to the internet’s permanent preservation of our offenses, we cannot forget. And thanks to the insatiable disciplinary demands of our censorious social media, we cannot forgive.
It’s understandable why forgiveness has fallen out of fashion. For years, powerful people have abused the idea, issuing insincere apologies that effectively replace accountability with cheap grace. But a society that cannot forget and cannot forgive is one that cannot function. A community in which people cannot set aside their grievances is one that will be forever hostage to them. And a person who is provided no path to growth and change is one who will never reach their potential.
My father, a synagogue rabbi and lifelong educator, likes to say that people expand to fill the moral space we expect of them. These days, though, we are doing the opposite. As a society, especially online, we increasingly expect less and less of each other, and compete to fulfill each other’s most mediocre expectations. So much of our online discourse revolves around assuming the worst of people, reducing them to their lowest moment or tweet, and foreclosing the possibility that anyone can become better. But ask yourself: Does anyone really want to live like this? Does anyone want to be treated like this?
What if we tried something different?
I am not an original thinker on this point. Many religious traditions grasped centuries ago that societies can’t run on constant consequences without the prospect of forgiveness. As the psalmist wrote in the Hebrew Bible: “If you keep account of sins, Lord, who will survive? Yours is the power to forgive, so that you may be held in awe.”
Ancient faith traditions also understood that true forgiveness is hard. If you’ve ever been legitimately wronged, you know how difficult it is to let go of the grievance, no matter the efforts at amends. To forgive, you must let the part of yourself that was wronged die. This is the foundational metaphor of Christianity: Part of God—Jesus—had to die so that God could forgive humanity’s sins.
Of course, you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the value of repentance and forgiveness. And you don’t have to possess a particular set of politics. You just have to be a human being who sometimes makes mistakes. When I went on MSNBC to talk about Goldberg’s remarks and argue that she should not have been suspended, the segment was written up by NewsBusters, a conservative watchdog group that critiques the mainstream media. This was not a sympathetic audience, to put it mildly, and they were not predisposed toward what they were watching. But they liked what they saw: “Rosenberg’s position seemed reasonable: that people should be given the opportunity to learn and grow and we as a society should not hold people’s worst moments over their heads indefinitely.”
This stance is not without its trade-offs. A more forgiving society risks occasionally rehabilitating those who take advantage of its forbearance. But I’d rather live in that world than in one that errs on the side of ostracism and excommunication. I suspect most of you—whether you’re an MSNBC watcher, a NewsBusters reader, a religious believer, or none of the above—would too.
If you are a rabbi and use this for your sermon but do not credit Deep Shtetl, I will not forgive you. As always, you can send me your questions, comments, and critiques by replying to this email in your inbox, or writing to email@example.com.
This was a free edition of Deep Shtetl, but we have upcoming editions for Atlantic subscribers only, so be sure to sign up for those here to gain access not just to Deep Shtetl, but to the entire Atlantic.