Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
11Jun/122

The Alternative to Forgiveness

"The alternative to forgiveness, but by no means its opposite, is punishment, and both have in common that they attempt to put an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly. It is therefore quite significant, a structural element in the realm of human affairs, that men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable."

- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

George Zimmerman returned to jail last week, two days after his bond was revoked for intentionally deceiving the court about his financial situation. The speed and promptness of this re-incarceration stands in marked contrast to the six weeks that passed between Zimmerman's lethal shooting of  Trayvon Martin, and his arrest and arraignment on charges of second-degree murder.

During these six weeks, it was astonishing to many people that given the Sanford Police department’s astonishing failure to investigate the case properly, and the application of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” defense, Zimmerman was apparently immune to prosecution (even as similar cases produced vastly different outcomes). Troubled by not simply this fact, but also the explicitly and implicitly racialized context of the case, I found myself deeply invested in seeing Zimmerman arrested, tried, and ultimately punished.

And yet at the same time, as a scholar of punishment in the United States, I hold a deep distrust in a broken criminal justice system that has historically been an instrument in the foundation and maintenance of white supremacy as a political system. As put eloquently at the blog, Low End Theory, "[I]n appealing to the power of the police to arrest, and to the power of the courts to sentence Zimmerman, we also make heard a message that we might otherwise hesitate to send: namely, that we believe that these institutions—the police, the courts, the law—are institutions capable of delivering the justice we want."

Even if we assume that these are institutions capable of delivering such justice, they are nevertheless predicated on the idea that justice can be delivered through punishing. If we are to "think what we are doing" in terms of punishment and our desire to achieve justice through it, we might do well to revisit Arendt's account of the relationship between punishment and forgiveness.

In The Human Condition, Arendt positions punishment as an alternative to forgiveness, which in turn is defined as similar to promising and the opposite of vengeance. All actions, Arendt argues, are necessarily unpredictable and irreversible. We cannot know with certainty what will happen as a result of our actions, nor can we undo them. These two uncomfortable facts about action might otherwise paralyze us from doing anything, but thankfully we have the ability to make promises about the uncertain future and to both seek and grant forgiveness, absolving past harms. Were it not for these faculties we would be unable to reconcile our own finite existence with the fundamental plurality of the human condition. Without forgiveness in particular, we would be forever "confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer's apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell" (237). 

Forgiveness can resolve the fact of irreversibility because, Arendt succinctly notes, it is able to put "an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly" (241). This is what distinguishes forgiveness from vengeance. Vengeance is nothing more than the "re-acting against an original trespassing" (240). It is predictable and certain, a “natural” and “automatic reaction.” It cannot be a new action, but only the continuation of the original transgression. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is an action par excellence, done freely rather than necessarily. Forgiveness is unpredictable and uncertain. If forgiveness is forced, it doesn't really count. One can only ask for forgiveness; one can never demand it. As such, forgiveness can allow us to begin anew in the face of a transgression because it is "the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven" (241).

But what does it mean for punishment to be “the alternative” to this? Can punishment possibly do the same transcendent work for us? If we seek justice through punishment, can such punitive justice ever be the grounds for natality and freedom?

While we typically affirm the justness of punishment by its distinction from vengeance, it nevertheless must be intimately tied to the specific transgression if it is to be justified. Just punishments must "fit" the specific transgression and excessive, cruel, or unusual punishments are thought to be transgressions themselves. Unlike forgiveness, just punishment must be predictable and certain, applied automatically and universally if it is to be effective and non-arbitrary.  Moreover, if our desire for punishment itself becomes automatic and mechanical, this too marks punishment as reactive rather than free. When we find ourselves automatically turning to punishment in response to transgressions, we not only signal a belief that some set of punitive institutions can render justice, but we also reveal a desire similar to the desire for vengeance: a continuation of the transgression.

For punishment to do the same work as forgiveness–stepping outside and beyond the logic of the original transgression and starting something new–it would seemingly have to be arbitrary rather than regular, and therefore lose a key part of its character as just punishment. For punishment to be both predictable and also capable of starting something new, it would have to be as difficult to embrace as forgiveness, such that it, like forgiveness, might be able to free both the punished and the punisher from the past transgression.

The heart of the difficulty is that we remain caught between the act and the actor, of the task of responding to the unpredictability and irreversibility of actions, when the subject of either forgiveness or punishment is the actor. In this sense, forgiving and punishing both publicly declare that some particular action belongs to a particular actor. For Arendt, we must remember that there is nothing self-evident or automatic about the authorship of actions. In so far as an action "reveals" an agent, Arendt writes, "this agent is not an author or a producer" in isolation from others (184). Punishing and forgiving do not simply "hold" a person responsible for their actions, but rather, in concert with their actions, they produce them as responsible subjects for those actions. Forgiveness, Arendt insists, is thus "always an eminently personal ... affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it" (241). If forgiveness is able to bring an end to the transgression and free both the forgiver and the forgiven by beginning something new, it is because it establishes a new relationship between those persons.

But forgiveness is only able to "undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing," because of this translation from action to agent. When a specific agent is assigned responsibility (or takes responsibility for an action that has turned out badly), one need not forgive the bad act, but rather the person. Forgiveness produces responsible subjects on both sides of the exchange. But when punishment makes this same translation, as Michel Foucault demonstrates, it has historically done so through producing a kind of criminal subjectivity that on the one hand treats the agent as a free subject (responsible for their bad acts) and on the other hand, as a pathological object (irresponsible and thus in need of incarceration and discipline). The relationship established between persons through punishment is neither symmetrical, novel, nor personal. Instead, it purchases the punisher’s freedom through condemning the other to unfreedom. Where forgiveness is a productive success, punishment is a productive failure.

What Arendt seems to recognize in the paradoxical relationship between punishment and forgiveness is that even if punishment is an "alternative" to forgiveness, it nevertheless cannot be a substitute for it. What does it mean, then, that we find ourselves unable to forgive that which we cannot punish, and that we cannot punish that which is unforgivable? In part, it means that we might require institutions of punishment if we have any hope of being able to choose forgiveness. And our desire for punishment might be, in part, a desire for the possibility of forgiveness. Punishment, even as it might fail to resolve the predicament of action, might be the condition of possibility of that resolution. But to exercise it would be fall into the trap of vengeance and unfreedom.

That George Zimmerman appeared, for six long weeks, to be not simply unpunished but immune from punishment carries the mark of a kind of immunity from responsibility that serves as the "hallmark" of "radical evil" (241). In the face of such immunity for the killing of another human–to find ourselves powerless to act–is to be confronted not simply with a bad action, but with an offense that "transcends the realm of human affairs" (241). As Robert Gooding-Williams notes, the evil of this automatic immunity afforded to Zimmerman is neither accidental or novel in the U.S., but is deeply connected to who Trayvon Martin was: a young black man living in a nation that historically deputized all non-black persons as executors of the federal fugitive slave law. For Zimmerman to be automatically deputized to kill Trayvon Martin–to be unpunishable for Martin’s death–would affirm the persistence of the radical evil of chattel slavery in a new form.

But even if our desire for punishment reflects a desire toward forgiveness, the danger of punishment as vengeance follows as well. The same punitive institutions, in order to be just, push us toward the logic of simple reaction, rather than action, of predictability and necessity, rather than natality and freedom. It is worth noting that there are currently more black men supervised by the criminal justice system than were held in slavery in 1850. Our regular and automated reliance on punishment to do the work of justice might itself be both necessary for justice, and yet also itself a radical evil, masked by the notion that it can do the same work as forgiveness.

-Andrew T. Dilts