WASHINGTON – The longer that the #MeToo movement continues, the more important these questions will become: When should offenders be rehabilitated, allowed to resume their careers and readmitted to polite society? Whether we like it or not, as the list of wrongdoers grows, questions of forgiveness will begin to outnumber questions of punishment. The thing is, questions of forgiveness are never entirely easy.
Much Christian doctrine, and especially Catholicism, emphasizes the value of confession, forgiveness and redemption. Thus it is not hard to convince many Americans that sinners should be given a second chance. This impulse occasionally finds its way into policy; just last month, a prison-reform bill became law, reflecting notions that criminals can indeed be rehabilitated. In her book “The Up Side of Down,” Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle stresses how many features of American life, including bankruptcy law and startup culture, depend on second, third or even more chances.
And indeed second chances are being doled out. Very recently, Louis C.K. has started doing stand-up comedy again. Conductor Charles Dutoit is back on the podium.
The more delicate truth is that, in the context of the #MeToo movement, forgiveness carries great dangers. I am not referring to those asking for it; rather, I am talking about those in a position to offer it. The survivors of such abuse often feel shame, guilt and a loss of confidence and self-esteem. It is very costly, both psychologically and practically, for such individuals to step forward and levy charges. An emphasis on forgiveness could reinforce victims’ tendencies to bury the crimes and wrongdoings.
Even now, #MeToo victims are unlikely to do or say anything in response to their troubles. They are already looking for reasons to move on. They may forgive prematurely, before taking appropriate action, either at the personal or public level. Forgiveness cannot be complete if it does not come from those who have been wronged. Yet forgiveness is not entirely up to them, either.
The result is a set of conflicting and probably irreconcilable values. America believes in equal treatment before the law. But America’s increasingly powerful system of social pressures and sanctions does not provide for equal treatment.
Some of the accused have received second chances, but not all: Former Sen. Al Franken probably will not be welcomed back to Congress, and Washington-based restaurateur Mike Isabella saw his empire crash and does not seem on the verge of rehabilitation. It is unsettling how much judgments of harassment, and of when redemption or at least tolerance will be offered, depend on context.
There is relatively little outrage at John Lennon, for example, even though he was a confessed woman-beater and wrote the Beatles song “Run for Your Life,” which coldly presents violence against women and perhaps glorifies it. The song is still played regularly on satellite radio, even though it is not a particularly distinguished piece of music. Yet “Baby It’s Cold Outside” became a national controversy. Maybe it is easier to attack a stodgy song from the 1940s. Or maybe it’s that Lennon and the Beatles have long had massive “street cred” with the American left.
Spotify stopped promoting the music of R. Kelly, but plenty of misogynistic and violent songs remain in rap music and other genres. Racial slurs, not always used ironically, are common. It is difficult to outline a coherent principle for differentiating what is targeted for boycott or reprobation and what is not.
Morgan Freeman is returning to his television work with National Geographic (though not his Visa commercials), even after CNN reported #MeToo accusations from eight women. (Freeman denies the allegations.) Is it irrelevant that he has a kindly face and voice and has played God in the movies? Should it matter that he is more than 80 years old?
Louis C.K.’s return to comedy has occasioned controversy, in part because his new routine made fun of people with intellectual disabilities and more generally did not show exquisite sensitivity. But the crude and rude have long been a staple of comedy shows, including his (dare we forget, he used a racial slur on HBO in 2011). Should edginess or outright offensiveness matter more for the previously guilty?
In standard law and economics theory, the argument goes like this: When offenders are hard to catch, it is both efficient and in the public interest to make punishments especially harsh, so as to deter appropriately. In the current environment, private social pressures are producing some effective and overdue punishments. Yet there is still a place for forgiveness, a need to be humane and, sometimes, a case for rehabilitation, even (or especially?) for those who have helped to make the world a richer place (Picasso anyone?). Realistically, of course, these second chances will be applied selectively. This muddled mix may very well be the best that we can do.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg columnist and a professor of economics at George Mason University. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”
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