The Psychology of Forgiveness Applied to Rep. Anthony Weiner
A great deal has been said and written about Anthony Weiner's (D-NY) "mea culpa" on June 6. As an academic and one who believes deeply in forgiveness, I want to use a different tactic in this blog to analyze Weiner's action -- one based on the psychology of forgiveness. Now, don't shut down this blog because you think it will be just another academic exercise. Read through it; think about it; talk amongst your friends; and I hope you'll see what happened to Weiner and how he dealt with it in a different light.
First, let me dispense with the necessities. Weiner is a jerk! He's an immature jerk! He deserves to be roasted (sorry) by his constituency, but that is up to the good people of New York's 9th District. What he did is shameful, stupid, borderline narcissistic, and he hurt the ones he purports to love the most. It's up to his wife to decide if she rides out the storm with her husband given his expressions of remorse. It's up to the people of the 9th District to determine his fate in the 2012 election.
As a society, should we forgive Weiner? What framework can we use to make that determination? Here is a definition of forgiveness from Dr. Robert D. Enright, a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the unquestioned pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness. Enright is the co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge about forgiveness and community renewal through forgiveness. Enright and a Human Development Study Group define forgiveness as follows:
Forgiveness is the overcoming of negative affect and judgment toward the offender, not by denying ourselves the right to such affect and judgment, but by endeavoring to view the offender with benevolence, compassion, and even love, while recognizing that he or she has abandoned the right to them.
The question then becomes on what basis should we consider forgiving another person for a transgression? I don't mean from a religious context. I want to explore forgiveness granted by one human being towards another human being. Here are my thoughts on the matter and one's I share with my accounting ethics students. To forgive the offender that party must take four steps: (1) take responsibility for one's actions; (2) show remorse for what you have done; (3) be contrite in making an apology for one's inappropriate behavior; and (4) promise to never do it again.
I believe one's interpretation of these four standards in Weiner's case rests largely on whether you attribute his statement of regret this past Monday to getting caught or, on the other hand, to reflecting about what was the worst of his offenses, that is, after the story broke he blamed others, in particular blogger and investigative reporter Andrew Breitbart, for hacking into his Twitter account. My opinion is that Weiner's handlers -- spin doctors if you will -- came out right away and pulled the old "plausible deniability" game plan from the book of cheaters and liars. We've seen it used before by the likes of Richard Nixon in Watergate. Now, I don't know if Weiner sincerely thought it through over the weekend and came to the independent conclusion that it was a mistake to blame the generic hacker. I'd like to give him the benefit of that doubt. Why? Even if he was motivated to confess because he knew more pictures would come out and that the damage control had to begin as soon as possible, he did expose himself to the American public and the world as a cheat, liar, and one who deflects blame onto others for his wrongdoing. These are not admirable traits even by today's low societal standards of right and wrong. He stood up to the ridicule and incessant questioning for over thirty minutes all the time repeating it was a mistake and apologizing to his wife, constituents, and even Breitbart. If you have followed Congressman Weiner's career and the man, then you know how difficult this must have been for an individual like Weiner who typically is very combatant and does not shy away from the likes of Bill O'Reilly and others who may go after his liberal viewpoints tenaciously.
While I am willing to give Weiner the benefit of the doubt and let those who matter most decide his fate including his wife and constituents, I withhold final judgment until enough time has passed to see if his apology covered all transgressions and not just those he sensed would become public. I've become too cynical over time to naively think this definitely is the end of the story.
I leave you with this quote from Paul Boese, a Dutch botanist, known more for his quotes than for his research in science: “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future."
Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, June 8, 2011
Cartoon reproduced with permission