SCSU Professor Studies Forgiveness from a New Angle

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In his upcoming book Dr. Steve Larocco, professor of English at SCSU, is taking a fresh approach to the subject of forgiveness. Although forgiveness plays an integral part in human relationships, little work has been done on the nature of forgiveness as is. Instead, most scholars and philosophers are concerned with what forgiveness should be. Larocco characterizes this as a “deficit in the conversation.” He believes Western thinking “makes people creatures of choice” and ignores “the social dynamics that pressure us on whom we should forgive and under what circumstances,” he said.

Dr. Larocco was inspired to write on the social aspects of forgiveness after visiting a forgiveness conference in 2009. Most attendees were focused on the traditional philosophical way of looking at forgiveness, wherein forgiveness is a way to overcome emotion. Larocco disputes that view of forgiveness. “We are biased towards the idea that we are in control of what we do, but that bias is undercut by the idea that we don’t have access to some of our emotional processes. They aren’t conscious and they are largely socially instituted,” said Larocco.

Larocco is also looking at when society’s notions of justice clash with an individual’s desire to forgive. Justice demands payment be made to make up for a wrongdoing, but forgiveness often operates outside of this simple balancing act. “Justice presupposes that a social order has a responsibility to make things balanced in some way…But forgiveness sometimes means saying you don’t need that reciprocity, you don’t need that balancing. In that sense it is antagonistic to justice,” said Dr. Larocco.

This antagonism is especially heated around the idea of politically charged forgiveness. “Politically, if you forgive too easily or too soon [it may seem that] you are basically condoning the behavior,” he said. LaRocco is exploring the controversy around the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid. Many disagreed with the commission’s pacifist stance, which sought to make amends rather than punish orchestrators of apartheid. “The idea that [Bishop Desmond] Tutu and others had was that if you allow people to be accountable but not responsible, if you forgive that legal debt, people will behave better.”

Another example is the politics surrounding the Australian government’s apology to aboriginal people who suffered under the government’s policy of removing aboriginal children from their homes to state run schools designed to alienate them from their heritage and culture. The government’s apology was seen by many as an attempt to bury the issue and prevent more drastic measures such as reparations from gaining momentum.

Larocco believes that full forgiveness is not just a matter of social necessity or personal will. “It’s something we have no control over. We can try, but our cognitive life may not agree with what we choose. Resentment and anger can come up, you can forgive yet that forgiveness may not fully work…Forgiveness is a continuous process of working towards reconciliation…there’s speech and emotional processes and they don’t necessarily match up.”

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