From the focused perspective of individual psychology to the larger view of global politics, the question of whether to forgive someone who has wounded you and under what circumstances is replayed and replayed. The major world religions have all addressed this complex issue and laid out different paths to forgiveness, from which secular approaches have borrowed freely. They all consider forgiveness an important aspect of individual and cultural healing of wounds, but is it and, if so, under what conditions is it useful?
In the chaos of the election season in the United States, former vice president Joe Biden has taken this issue center stage, as he felt that an apology was in order for the treatment of Anita Hill by a Senate committee that he chaired years ago and that unquestioningly treated her and by extension, all women, disrespectfully and dismissively. Composed of all white and privileged men, they summarily dismissed her testimony and did not allow that of two other women whose statements would have corroborated those of Professor Hill. They did not question their own values and perspectives for the racism and misogyny so obvious to those whose lives have been lived as targets of these American values. They were blinded by their own privileged beliefs and life experiences.
Make no mistake. The United States was founded on bias, warfare and rape, on the murder of Mexicans and Native Americans, on the enslavement of Blacks, on the refusal of foreigners seeking refuge from regimes prepared to murder them, on turning away ships of Jews to be burned to death in Nazi ovens. The contemporary struggles have their roots in the very history of the nation and have never been resolved. They are in our blood and our bones. The damage they continue to bring to certain people and certain groups are not as visible to those who have the luxury not to see them.
In the eyes of supporters of the current occupant of the White House, a white man apologizing to a Black woman would look like weakness. Can anyone imagine President Trump apologizing to anyone for anything? If he were to do so, it would only be a ploy to reach some greater goal and probably a lie at that.
Is an apology any more sincere coming from the other side of the aisle? Mr. Biden is quoted as saying that he expressed “his regret for what she endured” (NY Times, April 26) in that long ago Senate Judiciary hearing. He did not apparently deem it necessary to question his own complicity or to demonstrate any real understanding of the damage to Professor Hill, the Supreme Court or the women of this country. Why did it take him 28 years and the declaration of his candidacy to make even this tepid attempt at regret?
Professor Hill has said “No” loudly and clearly and I, for one, support that refusal to accept a superficial apology. The Senate Judiciary Committee publicly shamed Professor Hill and damaged her personally and professionally in ways that cannot be undone by even the most sincere apology. They appointed a man who obviously sexually harassed her and other women to the highest court for life. There he still sits for the rest of his life, rarely, if ever saying a word, his vote already cast based on ideology rather than careful constitutional analysis, which is the mandate of the court. In my opinion, she would have made a much better judge than he, but that is not the issue in question here.
The issue is instead: “Should Anita Hill forgive Joe Biden and for what transgressions?” That is her decision to make and she is not taking her responsibility to herself and all women lightly. What she decides is not just in her own name, but in that of all Black women and all women who have been abused by individual men and by the structure of privilege that defines patriarchy.
Former Vice President Biden has shown very slight remorse and only when it is important to his candidacy. This might be called pragmatic remorse. He has revealed in the superficiality of his words that he does not yet understand the many ramifications of what he has done. He made no statements that reflected deep soul searching or an attempt to understand what it is to be a Black woman in a room full of white men, entitled to judge her veracity and integrity. He has not considered that justice may need to be restorative in some manner or stated what he would do about such blind discrimination if he were elected to even more power than he has already exercised. He does not even understand that who touches and who is touched is also a function of power. Saying: “I get it”, says nothing.
His apology fails to meet any standard of acceptability except the most pragmatic and political. In that regard, he is still exercising his privilege and Anita Hill is, in my opinion, not only right to reject the apology, but continues to have more integrity and more courage than any of the male politicians involved. I hope and trust that she will not forgive easily this instance of racism and misogyny under which we have lived too long. Mr. Biden has an opportunity to show real remorse and potentially the power to bring real change to these issues. Will he have the courage that Anita Hill does?