The Broken Social Contract

Sometimes they would even command, “you are friends again.”

When I was a kid, if you got into a fight, if you hit someone, or they hit you, one of the earliest things that adults in authority positions over the kids did was make them say “I’m sorry” to each other, then demand they forgive each other and put aside their anger. Sometimes they would even command, “you are friends again.”

It didn’t matter who had struck who, for what reason. It didn’t matter if they retaliated or not. It didn’t matter if one of them was bullying the other in a continued campaign of aggression.

“I’m sorry.”
Good now shake hands. Or worse: good, now hug each other.
Now do you both forgive each other?
“Yes”
Good, now go play as friends.

Does this, in all honestly, sound like a healthy model for explaining the concepts of apology, forgiveness, absolution and reconciliation?

To me it sounds like a recipe for teaching resentment, emotional repression, outrage, injustice, and deception. It teaches predators and bullies that they simply must follow a scripted dialogue, and it teaches the bullied that they must absolve their abusers if the script is followed.

What that’s really about is the pattern of behaviors we learn from it, that has persisted—that exists now—and we see imposed time and again without reason or adequate judgement. Furthermore, we are taught that to follow this pattern is a part of regular and unquestionable social etiquette, and to deny it is impolite, and worth social ostracization.

What this teaches us is a broken social contract.

It teaches us that if you harm someone, and get caught doing so you should apologize. Alright, I’m down with that. It’s a good start.

But then — and this is where it’s insidious — we have been taught that an apology, once offered, must be accepted, and that acceptance must be accompanied by forgiveness, absolution, and reconciliation.

You are required by the social contract to accept an apology, even if you do not want to, even if the apology does not seem genuine, even if it is offered in a dismissive way or without owning the actual act of harm. It is expected, socially, that you accept an apology, or you are judged as being a heartless bitch.

Let’s kick that one to the curb:

1. You are not required at any time to accept anyone’s apology.

The acceptance of the apology is an act of validation of the terms in which it’s presented; a binding social agreement where you accept the version of events as presented by the individual apologizing, about their identity, their behavior, and state of mind during the incident.

If any of these conditions are unacceptable, you should not accept the apology.

If their speaking to you continues to do you harm due to trauma, you should not accept the apology. If the version of events they describe is littered with false truths or excuses without accountability for their actions, you should not accept the apology. Because then the apology is not about the harm they’ve caused, and owning that, it’s about getting you to give up the power of your own version of the narrative, by forcing you accept theirs.

You are not required, as an adult, to accept a bullshit apology. So don’t.

But let’s say that you do accept their apology. Let’s say it all matches up, and they express genuine regret for the harm they caused you. Let’s say their reason for harming you actually makes sense, and as far as excuses go, you understand it and can see how from their perspective it was unavoidable.

2. You are not required, even then, to grant them forgiveness. Though you may wish to, for peace of mind.

Forgiveness as its been taught to many of us as children is conjoined with absolution. The ideas are intertwined in a way that suggests they are identical, and some very bright people have argued for or against forgiveness because they see the two as one. I am generally loathe to use sources like dictionaries or encyclopedia, but wikipedia nails this one:

Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well. Forgiveness is different from condoning (failing to see the action as wrong and in need of forgiveness), excusing (not holding the offender as responsible for the action), forgetting (removing awareness of the offense from consciousness), pardoning (granted by a representative of society, such as a judge), and reconciliation (restoration of a relationship).

Forgiveness is not absolution. Forgiveness is for the person harmed to use as a way of reclaiming emotional resilience and rising out of victimhood. Forgiveness is one of several tools that can do this (another very cruel one is pity) and is a process by which you release the person who harmed you from anger or hate, freeing you from being jailed by those emotions.

So you aren’t required to grant forgiveness, especially if the person is still harming you or others through their actions. You are not required to give up your feelings of anger. You are not required to wish them well, even if it’s just personally without telling them.

Conversely, you can forgive someone who has wronged you without accepting their apology. You can believe they were wrong, that they have failed to account for the things they have done that are wrong, and refuse to accept their account of it, and decide to release them from hate, and wish that their lives improve so they don’t harm others. It’s really hard to do so. It’s much easier to be angry.

Forgiveness is a virtue not because it is a willingness to absolve, but because it is a font of strength to choose to accept the harm that has been done to you, and refuse to be bound by or to it. Forgiveness frees one from the constraints of emotional violence, which could impair judgment or cause one to act rashly; and allow the person doing the forgiving to see things more clearly as they move past those destructive feelings.

That said, you are not required to forgive others. You are not required to wish someone who has harmed you peace, or give up your hate or anger against them.

Those who demand forgiveness, like the adults in the story at the start of this writing, fundamentally misunderstand that forgiveness must be freely given, it cannot be coerced or demanded. To do so will simply create resentments that will continue to exist under the surface until they explode.

3. You are not required to absolve the person who harmed you.

When someone harms you, even if you grant them forgiveness, that is not absolution; it does not magically dissolve the harm that has been done and “make good” their standing with you or others. In fact, to do so is heedlessly reckless since if they learn that harming you is socially acceptable, and they are a predator, they will do so again because they’ve just learned that you will absolve them if they follow a specific script.

What they should be seeking is not absolution, the dismissal or annulment of wrongs they’ve done. What they should be seeking is redemption; overcoming the harm they’ve done others by changing their patterns of behavior.

Redemption also cannot be just a set of reparative good-acts to offset the bad; it is not using a scale of actions where one is trying to reach an equilibrium between good and bad acts (another tool predators/abusers use) so they can continue to be abusive or harmful. Reparations as an act of redemption must be given without the expectation of reward, absolution, or reconciliation, but because they are the right thing to do; if they can be accepted and don’t cause the person more harm.

Redemption is achieved through having changed so thoroughly that the harm cannot happen again, reparations are made for the sake of their own necessary utilitarian value, that the dysfunctional abusive and destructive behaviors are nullified, or at the very least, held in check by acts of habitual attention. It does not require perfection, but there is no shortcut to it, or even a guarantee that it will or should be granted.

4. You are not required to reconcile with the person who harmed you.

Hoo boy, dang are you not required to do this. You absolutely, 100%, are not required to go back to the way things were before the incident of harm, whatever it was, occurred.

You are especially not required to give them any kind of access to you or those you hold in trust, after they have betrayed the trust you had originally given them. You are not required to in any way place yourself in a position where, if they had the opportunity again, they could cause you any kind of harm. You are especially not required to give them access to the same circumstances in which they harmed you the first time.

You are not even required to reconcile with them even a little bit. You can choose to write them off forever, and that is completely fine, and in some cases should be done in order to protect oneself from further abuse. Burn that bridge completely if you must, and refuse contact, get a restraining order, get your friends to form a wall between you, or simply disappear off their radar forever.

They do not have a right to have access to you.

The bottom line is:

When someone harms you, you are not at fault, the person who harmed you is.

To make demands that you release your abuser from fault as a measure of social etiquette ranks your personal health and safety below being polite. It tells you that anyone making that claim, that you are being impolite or bitchy by not accepting an apology, etc., values a broken social contract more than the wellness of others, and should probably be avoided, especially if they hold a measure of authority.