It’s been six years since Michelle Obama uttered the now-infamous phrase “When they go low, we go high” at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. It was a comforting sentiment to some during the birth of the Trump era, the idea that when faced with a despotic tyrant, the best way to defeat them is with dignity and nobility. Just a few months later, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States.
At the time and in the years since, that sense of unshakable diplomacy has rightly been criticised as an ineffective response to heinous behavior. The shift in sentiment was so widespread that Obama sought to clarify her thoughts in 2020, emphasizing that it should n’t mean “putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty”, but “taking the harder path”. Whether or not you buy that explanation, going “high” clearly has its challenges. Yet some are still convinced.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is one of them. According to him mercy – or, rather, forgiveness – is an approach society should adopt in spades.
Speaking in an interview with ITV News this week ahead of the Queen’s Jubilee weekend, Welby laid out his thoughts on how he thinks the public should approach the Prince Andrew situation following his recent sexual abuse dispute, which he agreed to settle for an undisclosed sum earlier whilst continuing to deny the
Though the archbishop admitted that telling people how to respond to “issues of the past in the area of abuse” is “so intensely personal and private for so many”, he suggested that Prince Andrew’s desire to make amends was, in itself, reason enough for the public to let bygones be bygones.
“I think for all of us, one of the ways that we celebrate when we come together is in learning to be a more open and forgiving society,” he added, defending the Queen’s much-criticised choice to have her son accompany her to Prince Philip’s memorial in March.
It’s not an entirely unsurprising position for Welby to have taken, given his role in the Church and his closeness to the royals. Forgiveness is, after all, one of the core tenets of Christianity. But to share such a specific message for someone who’s faced of this nature was strange, to say the least. It was also false because as far as I’m concerned, society can be a bit too forgiving at times.
We see calls for such selflessness so often in the wake of horrific events, especially where victims are concerned. Look at footage of interviews with victims of hate-crime shootings in America, or any other similar display of evil, and you’ll see similar pleas to take the high road, the suggestion being that to fail to forgive is to succumb to directionless hate . But what if that fury and pain could be just as, if not more, effective?
Forgive and forget, they say. Be the bigger person, they urge. But when someone deserves your wrath, and better yet, when that wrath leads to change for others, reasonable vengefulness can be just as sweet. I’m not talking about villainous, world-ending acts here, of course, but the right to stand up for oneself.
When the free school meals row erupted at the height of the pandemic, Marcus Rashford’s call to action led to tangible change for students. Was it a kind, honorable thing to do? of course. But it wasn’t fruitless forgiveness that fueled that, it was the knowledge of what it was like to go without.
The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and vigils for Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa did not come about because victims of racism, misogyny and both had some overwhelming need to make allowances for the forces perpetuating their suffering, but because their pain galvanised them to show up and take a stand in a meaningful way.
Nooran Alhamdan, the Palestinian-American student whose choice to snub US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s handshake at her graduation over America’s role in the Israel-Palestine conflict went viral last month, wouldn’t have had her message heard had she chosen instead to turn the other cheek. Even Britney Spears ‘undying rage over her conservatorship is a lesson in what fighting for yourself and your rights can achieve. At a slightly smaller scale, many of us take to social media to put companies on blast for poor service. The examples are endless.
Sometimes, pointed anger in response to being seriously wronged, hurt or otherwise mistreated, is exactly the correct response to have. Shame is an effective means of holding people accountable. It may not fly with the Archbishop, but as far as I see it, forgiveness is a dish best reserved for those who actually deserve it.