On Forgiveness

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I’ve been thinking a little bit about forgiveness lately, since hearing Friday’s news that James Gunn had been removed from the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie due to some of his older, more awful statements resurfacing. I think that like a most people who took notice of this news story, I had a lot of feelings to unpack – it was deeply frustrating to know that while he was ostensibly fired for the offensive tweets, the real reason Disney got rid of him was to appease a group of people who were primarily mad because he became someone better and they want to silence people like that. But at the same time, I also felt guilty for wanting an exception to be made for someone I liked, someone I thought was funny and cool and interesting to listen to. Isn’t that what every abuser is like to their friends? Shouldn’t I be supporting the people he hurt?

And then I read James Gunn’s statement on the matter, which I’m going to reproduce in full here before I continue, simply because so much of it is relevant:

My words of nearly a decade ago were, at the time, totally failed and unfortunate efforts to be provocative. I have regretted them for many years since — not just because they were stupid, not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped, but also because they don’t reflect the person I am today or have been for some time.

Regardless of how much time has passed, I understand and accept the business decisions taken today. Even these many years later, I take full responsibility for the way I conducted myself then. All I can do now, beyond offering my sincere and heartfelt regret, is to be the best human being I can be: accepting, understanding, committed to equality, and far more thoughtful about my public statements and my obligations to our public discourse. To everyone inside my industry and beyond, I again offer my deepest apologies. Love to all.

That meant a lot to me. We live in a culture that is, fundamentally, very transactional; the exchange of goods and services is so deeply ingrained into the way we live that I don’t think we even realize how much of our outlook on existence is viewed through that lens of “A for B” until we find a situation where the model doesn’t apply. And even then, I think it’s difficult for many people to wrap their heads around the idea that you can’t earn some rewards or pay off some debts, that there are some things that can only be given freely. I think the truest sign of maturity is the understanding that you can’t do anything to make a person feel something. All you can do is give of yourself and allow them the opportunities to give back.

And forgiveness is like that. Forgiveness is never earned, it is not the repayment of a debt that you owe someone for harm done to them. Forgiveness is an act of grace. There is no timetable to it, there is no consensus under which it is ratified by society; you are forgiven when someone decides to forgive you. No sooner. This is hard to hear no matter who you are; we all want to imagine that we can ‘make things right’, that if we just put enough time and effort and sincerity into repairing the damage we’ve done, then sooner or later everyone has to forgive us. But it’s not so.

Nobody ever has to forgive you. You don’t ever have to forgive someone else. It doesn’t matter if it’s been years, it doesn’t matter if everyone else has made their peace with it, it doesn’t matter if the person has done every penance imaginable. If the hurt is still there, then it’s still there. True penitence is the acceptance of that. True penitence understands that there may be no hope of reward, no chance of redemption, that no matter what you do and who you’ve become you still must reckon with the pain you’ve caused. For as long as it takes, maybe a lifetime and beyond.

I’m not going to ask anyone to forgive James Gunn. I don’t honestly know if I forgive him, even though I think the man he is today is a good man and hearing Mike fucking Cernovich complain about him is like hearing Dracula call out a vegan for putting honey in their tea. But I will say that in a world where true penitence is rare, it’s important to recognize it when it happens. It is never easy to do the right thing without any hope of reward, and I admire that about James Gunn no matter what else happens.

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