Can we forgive people like Harvey Weinstein?

NOVEMBER 20 — The recent allegations of sexual assaults committed by Hollywood celebrities like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, etc. have left many people shocked, furious and, well, screaming for the blood of the perpetrators. 

This rage will likely proceed for a while as practically every week there’s another famous name brought down to earth by yet another accusation. If 2016 was the year celebrities died, 2017 is the one stars fall.

This is why Bryan Cranston’s (the star of the hit series Breaking Bad) comments last week about “being open to forgiving Weinstein and Spacey” (see note 1) came across as both a) a breath of fresh air b) utterly inappropriate. 

The former because it sang a different tune to what 110 per cent of people were singing and the latter because, well, Cranston’s been getting a lotta heat for it.

“Forgive these perverts?! What’s wrong with you?!” 

“No f-ing way! Only the victims have the right to forgive them!” 

“We don’t get to decide, we don’t get to ‘accept’ any apologies by rapists, we don’t get to forgive!”

You get the picture. 

Essentially, it appears that all talk about forgiveness (in this particular context) is either irrelevant or in bad taste. But I’m gonna take a stab at another perspective, the one Cranston was trying to get at. To get started, let’s talk about an amazing pair of silver candlesticks…

An avalanche of claims of sexual harassment, assault and rape by hugely influential Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have surfaced. — AFP pic
An avalanche of claims of sexual harassment, assault and rape by hugely influential Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have surfaced. — AFP pic

The redemption of Jean Valjean

I’m not the only one who’s moved by that critical early scene in Les Misérables, am I?

Remember when Jean Valjean stole the bishop’s silverware but was caught? And then the police asked the bishop the no-brainer question of whether or not the culprit was Valjean, and what did the bishop do? He said the silverware was a gift, and that Valjean forgot to take the candlesticks, too.

What just happened? What was that, other than a scene without which we’d have no world-class musical, no tear-jerking “I Dreamed A Dream That I Would Die” and no, uh, Academy Award Nominee for Best Actor Hugh Jackman? 

What was the bishop doing? Why didn’t he turn Valjean in, a criminal who repaid the bishop’s hospitality with theft and even assault? 

Here’s one guess: The bishop saw that the power of “pay it forward”-forgiveness was WAY more powerful than cold retribution. 

The bishop saw an opportunity to exploit that crazy little thing called “unconditional love”; he guessed (rightly) that Valjean had much potential good in him, good that has been suffocated by circumstances, by JV’s own hate and suffering. 

The bishop saw what many couldn’t see, that the good inside Valjean was nascent and waiting for the firewall imprisoning it to, uh, be melted?

Melted by what? By an act of self-sacrificial forgiveness. 

And here’s the twist which should make hasty would-be Bryan Cranstons hesitate: Forgiveness is never painless, it’s never cheap, it’s never trivial. 

“Oh, just forgive him” — true forgiveness is never like that. It always involves a voluntary and heart-broken act of sacrifice.

If I forgive someone who wronged me deeply, I am in some awry yet beautiful sense allowing him to “hurt” me again in order that both of us may find new freedom. Him? Freedom from curses and judgment. Me? The same.

That takes guts. That takes a warrior. That takes a lot more than what it takes to tell Kevin Spacey to rot in hell.

It takes a special person to “wait” for chances like the one Valjean was given. We all know that haters gonna hate; now we also know that haters ain’t gonna wait. Haters can’t wait for that one chance to spark a mini-revolution in a “bad person’s” heart because, well, haters are too busy hating, aren’t they? (see note 2)

But isn’t forgiveness up to the victims?

Of course it is. Certainly, when it comes to crimes as heinous as what Spacey, Weinstein et al have done, the victims’ needs and healing come first. In fact, I don’t feel entirely nice even talking about forgiveness. We non-victims should STFU.

But wait — how come non-victims are okay screaming and shouting about condemnation? How come we non-victims, who supposedly shouldn’t talk about “being open to forgiving sex offenders”, are nevertheless perfectly fine with judging and swearing at the guilty forever and ever? How does that help the victims? How does that help society?

Someone even asked me the other day, “But why would you want to think about forgiving Kevin Spacey?”

I’m like, duh. Where’s the mirror? If YOU had done something offensive, hurtful, even scandalous, wouldn’t YOU want people to forgive you? What are we all? Saints?

Are we saying that all of us have never acted in selfish and cruel ways which led to the diminishing of another person’s humanity? Have we not endangered others? Have we not done things for which we would be utterly ashamed should they be made public? And should these see the light of day (or, worse, the blaze of media) wouldn’t we hope people forgive us?

Newsflash: Forgiveness isn’t about rejecting accountability or refusing justice. It’s about releasing one’s self from the hate and retribution that turn into obsessions; and about giving redemption a chance. 

From the perspective of non-victims, guess which stance is better for your heart and soul: Telling Louis CK to go to hell or discussing the possibility that he may be a better person after his confession?

Sexual assault is a terrible crime. I pray and hope that the victims will find healing, justice and closure somehow; and they need every amount of support their friends, their community and the legal system can offer.

Folks like Weinstein and Spacey? They need some serious jail time, during which (hopefully) they can reflect on the damage they’ve inflicted on innocent people. With some luck/grace, they’ll come out and help the very people they’ve hurt. It’s not a dream.

And the rest of us? Maybe we should just help victims we know, help to prevent these things from recurring and, if nothing else, stop being hateful and self-righteous. Refusing to forgive is one thing; it may even be fully understandable. 

But glorying in non-forgiveness? That’s, wow, something else.

Note 1: If you haven’t read Cranston’s full comments, it may help to just google and read them. It’s nuanced and you need to be careful of what he’s NOT saying, but the gist is there i.e. with time and with repentance by these sex offenders, we should be open to forgiving them.

Note 2: Maybe some folks are saying: “What an idiot! This dude compared Harvey Weinstein to Jean Valjean! Weinstein was a rich celeb who groped and raped a few dozen women — Valjean was a victim of poverty who stole stuff because he was hungry! Totally apples and oranges, dude!”

Wrong. Jean Valjean was someone who was shown extraordinary graciousness and repaid it with hostility and theft. Don’t bulls*** me and say that this crime is “easier” to forgive than sexual assault. With that kind of logic, people like Weinstein could then claim that since he helped so many people move up in their careers, he should be easily pardoned too? 

A crime is a crime, a vice a vice. And in all cases there are victims; and thus in all cases, forgiveness can be chosen or refused.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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