A Culture Without the Possibility of Redemption Is a Toxic Culture

Real progress has to allow for self-discovery, forgiveness and growth.

An execution by guillotine.
An execution by guillotine.

The paradox of social media, and so much of our technology, is that it keeps us locked in an eternal present, while at the same time creating an eternal archive that never fades away. The result isn’t just higher levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness, it also makes it harder for us to grow and evolve — which is, after all, our essential purpose at the heart of every spiritual and philosophical tradition. Evolution did not stop when we evolved from the apes. There is an instinct embedded in us, our fourth instinct, beyond the more recognized instincts of survival, sex and power, that drives us to evolve and to grow through our mistakes, through pain, and through self-discovery.

But we’ve reached a dangerous moment in our culture where we assume a frozen ideal, a state of arrested development, from which no growth or improvement are assumed possible. Because growth cannot happen without the necessary ingredients of redemption, forgiveness and self-forgiveness. If we’re not allowed to learn from our mistakes, atone for them, become better people, then we can grow neither individually nor collectively. After all, the great documents we live by assume a progression — whether it’s the never-ending journey toward “a more perfect union” or Martin Luther King’s “arc of the moral universe” bending toward justice — and even our Constitution had amendments.

But true change at the systemic level has to be accompanied by change at the personal level. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart.” Dr. King knew that, which is why he had made it clear that to change society, “you’ve got to change the heart.”  

The word “redemption” comes from the Latin redemptionem one of its meanings is releasing. Redemption allows us to thrive by being released from our worst moments. And that’s exactly what our modern technology and our current culture make it increasingly difficult to do. By keeping our worst moments in the foreground forever, by keeping all wounds fresh and preventing them from healing over, we’re never able to be released from them, to evolve and make ourselves and our world better. In business, we extol the growth mindset, but a world without redemption enshrines its opposite: the much-despised fixed mindset.

Another way our technology makes this harder is because of what’s known as “context collapse.” This is what happens when not only the original context of when and where an offending incident occurred is stripped away, but also the entire context of the offender’s life leading up to that moment. “These algorithms can’t distinguish between outrage and shaming that is proportionate and outrage and shaming that is disproportionate to the original transgression,” says Molly Crockett, a Yale assistant psychology professor who studies moral outrage online. The result is what University of North Carolina professor Alice Marwick calls “morally motivated networked harassment,” when the multitude descend on whomever has been chosen as the Twitter Target of the Day. 

“Social media is like an accelerant to an arson,” says Bard College President Leon Botstein. “Everything moves rapidly and out of control. So, the slightest spark creates an avalanche of retribution. There’s no room for error. And the response is not to start a conversation or a dialogue, but to shut the person out in some way.”

We’ve all seen it happen. An offensive tweet is sent out, or one is found from a decade ago, and the algorithms fire up a storm — one that will live forever, come to define someone for life and limit their possibility for growth. It happens every day on social media. It’s happening to someone right now as you read this. And it has to stop. We can choose to be a society in which we widen the circle of our concern, or we can become a circular firing squad. It won’t be the first time in history. During the French Revolution, prominent revolutionaries who had worked together to bring down the French aristocracy started accusing and even killing each other. Maximilien Robespierre introduced the reign of virtue, which became a Reign of Terror — virtue signaling becoming cancel culture in the extreme. In April 1794, one of the revolutionaries, Georges Danton, was led to the guillotine for urging moderation. “Robespierre will follow me,” he prophesied to his executioner, and indeed three months later it was Robespierre who was led to the guillotine. In a reign of virtuous terror no one is virtuous enough!

Forgiveness doesn’t suspend judgment, it doesn’t mean not holding people accountable or ignoring injustices or forgetting the past. It simply allows the offender the possibility of atonement and progress. Of course, forgiveness is not easy, but who wants to live in a world where there is no forgiveness, no compassion and no love?  

And there are powerful examples of forgiveness that we can learn from. Like Nelson Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison and chose to forgive his captors instead of exacting revenge. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,” he said, “I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” 

We can see a particularly powerful example in the life and legacy of the late Congressman John Lewis. He was arrested some 40 times while protesting for civil rights in the 1960s, and another half-dozen times protesting for various causes as a congressman. In 1961, Lewis was beaten and bloodied by a mob for entering a “whites only” bus station waiting room in South Carolina. Half a century later, in 2009, Elwin Wilson, a former Ku Klux Klan member who had been in that mob, came to Washington to seek Lewis’ forgiveness. 

“Without a moment of hesitation, I looked back at him and said, ‘I accept your apology,’” Lewis wrote in his book Across That Bridge. After which, Lewis continued, “the man’s son started crying, he started crying and they hugged me and I hugged them both back and I started crying too, they started calling me brother and I called them brother.” The two met several more times after that. “This was a great testament to the power of love to overcome hatred,” wrote Lewis. And it’s why historian Sean Wilentz calls Lewis “a steady force for America’s redemption.”

The reason we forgive isn’t just to release the offender, it’s to release ourselves as well. As The Rev. J.C. Austin of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York says, “We do not do it to let the perpetrators off the hook. We do it to preserve our own humanity.”

Forgiveness is not just essential for our spiritual health. Studies have shown that forgiveness is also good for our mental and physical health. In a study by researchers from Hope College, participants were asked to think about someone who had mistreated them. While they ruminated on past slights, their stress responses went up — with increased blood pressure, heart rate, facial tension and sweating. When the same participants were asked to think about forgiving their transgressors, their physical arousal subsided. Forgiveness has also been found to lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression, decrease heart attack risk, improve our sleep and even lower cholesterol levels.

We can also see the pull of revenge vs. redemption in our criminal justice system. Most sentences aren’t for life without the possibility of parole. The fact that there’s an end date is an implicit acknowledgment that offenders can move past their worst moment and rejoin society. 

One of my favorite shows of the last few years is Van Jones’ CNN series, “The Redemption Project,” which brings criminal offenders face-to-face with their victims. It’s incredibly powerful, and illustrates the possibilities of a system based not on retribution but on redemption. It’s a show that answers the question bell hooks once posed: “how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” As Van Jones explains it, the goal of restorative justice is “for all parties — and the community itself — to be restored to whatever degree of wellness and wholeness is possible. It seeks accountability from the trespasser, but ultimately healing for everyone involved.”

This brings us back to technology’s role. What we need, to allow for both individual and collective redemption, is to use technology in ways that augment our fundamental need to grow and evolve, instead of working against it. Just because our technology encourages context collapse and the call-out culture that ensues doesn’t mean we have to participate in it. 

There are, of course, times for calling out, but as Loretta J. Ross, a professor at Smith College, has written, there are also times for calling in — meant not to shame, but to create connection and allow for growth. “What I’m really impatient with is calling people out for something they said when they were a teenager when they’re now 55,” Ross said. “I mean, we all at some point did some unbelievably stupid stuff as teenagers, right?… The calling-in practice means you always keep a seat at the table for them if they come back.” 

Another example of improving our use of technology are laws enshrining the right to be forgotten, which provides a way for people to have private information about them removed from internet search engines. The rule is in effect in the European Union and several other countries. While it hasn’t yet come to the U.S., a recent Pew Research poll found that 74% of Americans support the idea. And some news outlets have begun their own efforts. Earlier this year, The Boston Globe launched its “Fresh Start” program, which allows people named in stories to apply to have the information updated or removed. “It was never our intent to have a short and relatively inconsequential Globe story affect the futures of the ordinary people who might be the subjects,” Globe editor Brian McGrory said. “Our sense, given the criminal justice system, is that this has had a disproportionate impact on people of color.”

We all want change, both for ourselves and for our society. And for that to happen, we have to create a culture in which we’re allowed to be forgiven and learn from our mistakes. That means forgiving others, and forgiving ourselves. Our purpose in life isn’t to be perfect, but to always strive and work toward becoming better. When our technology works against this fundamental drive, we need to re-evaluate our relationship with technology and ask ourselves if we are allowing it to create a dystopian world no one would want to live in, fueling conflict and hate and shrinking our humanity.  As theologian Barbara Holmes put it, “Love is the greatest mystery of all. Not love as a warm and fuzzy feeling, but love as the animating force that holds us together.” 

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