Wednesday, March 9, 2011

TPM, The Philosophers' Magazine, is publishing a list of the top 50 ideas of the 21st Century submitted by leading thinkers. One on the list is Forgiveness, put forward by the writer Alexander McCall Smith who before becoming an international best-selling author was professor of medical law at the university of Edinburgh. He says that it is an idea that has come alive in the first decade of the century.

Forgiveness is, indeed, now being seen far more widely as a quality that is not just religious or personal but something affecting the lives of nations. We increasingly see in the media reports of people forgiving or people asking for forgiveness, indeed whole nations doing so. Just as we see people ridiculing or trying to belittle efforts in this direction.

What McCall Smith points out is comparatively new is the social function of apology and forgiveness, encouraged, he says, by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and the subsequent attention paid to public apology by governments, notably those in Australia and the United States. In the Australian case the issue focussed on the wrongs done to the Aboriginal community by successive governments right up to the second half of the twentieth Century. The Scottish writer refers to President Clinton apologizing to the survivors of the Tuskegee Experiment which allowed disease to go untreated in a population of disadvantaged patients and also to the public apology to Ireland made by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997 for government inaction during the great Irish potato famine of the nineteenth century.

In his view the philosophers should identify the basis of a duty to forgive. 'The proposing of such a duty,' he writes, 'is particularly important in a culture that, in the name of accountability, encourages us to blame and denounce others. When the popular press howls for blood, who is there to suggest that those who have done wrong should in due course be forgiven.'

McCall Smith says that society cannot be cluttered with old resentments; at some point we have to draw the line and forgive and that Northern Ireland provides an example of that. He writes, 'If the two previously warring communities do not forgive each other, then they will be locked in a never-ending blood feud but if they realize it this becomes an important part of the peace process in that part of Ireland.'

I am not a philosopher. I do not come to this subject through academic study. But for more than fifty years I have been associated with men and women all over the world who have been working for reconciliation on the basis that you start with putting things right in your own life and facing up to what is wrong in your own country rather than point the finger of blame at others. And I have had the good fortune to tell stories where such approaches have contributed to peace and built trust within divided communities.

When my book No Enemy to Conquer - Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World was published I told my distributor I had just one request, that she read it. She did so and exclaimed, 'This is forgiveness with teeth.' I liked that. Because I would like to get away from the idea that forgiveness is something weak, that it means you are excusing evil, or dispensing with justice, or letting people get away with murder, or becoming a doormat for others. It is none of those things. We all have to face the consequences of our acts. But we don't need to be ruled by our pasts, personally or as a nation.