How can mercy, justice, and forgiveness play a role in our public discourse? Can religious teachings help us address the intolerance and “othering” that takes place in society? These were some of the questions that panelists tried to answer at “The Quality of Mercy: Justice, Forgiveness, and Public Discourse” virtual event on March 10. The discussion was a part of the Speech Acts series and was hosted by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture.

“Our discussion is unique in this series in that—appropriately for a center dedicated to examining questions related to religion and culture—we wanted to look at the spiritual and religious aspects of what some believe is a new wave of censoriousness and intolerance in American society,” said David Gibson, director of the center and the panel’s moderator. “I wonder if this isn’t just one of the issues at stake, but is in fact, the issue.”

Public vs. Private Accountability

The Rev. Charles Howard, university chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, said he had been wrestling with the question of whether the U.S. is “an increasingly unforgiving society” and discussed it with his 15-year-old daughter. His daughter said she believed it depended on whose behavior was in question.

“With celebrities, I think we are less forgiving,” his daughter said. But Howard said that among her friends, she thinks that people are actually more forgiving and more understanding.

Howard said this is in part because knowing a person makes you inclined to look at their good sides, and because people can also easily hold that person accountable.

“When it comes to my friends—I understand why they make the mistakes they make,” he said. “I know what they’re going through. I know that person. Therefore, we’ll check him and we’ll push him or her, and we will allow them to sort of reenter the fold—we will forgive them.”

For public figures, the only way to have that accountability is publicly via social media or by “unsubscribing” from their content—whether that means not watching their show or supporting their fashion line. Howard said that one of the reasons the younger generation is doing this is because they don’t believe the rich and famous are being held accountable by anyone else.

“She said, ‘Look Dad—what we see are people who are wealthy and powerful, (they) always get off—courts aren’t sort of stopping them, the law is not arresting them. We have to hold people accountable.”

When Should We Forgive?

This notion of holding people accountable fits with the work of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg of the National Council of Jewish Women. Ruttenberg has a new book called On Repentance And Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, where she explores “the forgiveness question”—the notion that we as a society often look to forgive, but also need to see people make amends.

“What are the reasonable expectations of the harm-doer vis-à-vis cleaning up their mess?” she asked. “We all make mistakes, right? We all cause harm. Sometimes people cause harm quite intentionally; if somebody causes harm, what is a reasonable expectation? What is the path forward? If I screwed up unintentionally, how do I fix it?”

She gave the example of someone who accidentally breaks someone’s foot—possibly by stepping on by not paying attention.

“I want to know what you’re doing to pay my medical bills, I want to know that you’re not going to do it again, if it was because you weren’t paying attention, because you were staring at your phone, because you were drunk again, and you need to look at that,” she said. “Why am I forgiving you? I’m sitting here in pain—let’s talk about the expectations on you to do some cleanup work.”

The Role of Isolation

One of the concerns that Stephen Pope, professor of theological ethics at Boston College, noted was that, even before COVID, people in our society have become more isolated from each other.

“Our society is more and more stripping away civil institutions and intermediate associations,” he said, adding that their absence leaves us disconnected.

Pope also said that while people are using social media, talk radio, and cable news to find “their groups,” in order to belong in that group, people have to distance themselves from those they don’t agree with.

“Our ability to empathize with people from other groups is reduced,” he said. “I think that raises anxiety and fear and mistrust. Mistrust is now at historic highs—historic highs for our political institutions, for the government, but also system mistrust for our groups and their members. We now have people that are not just different, but they are opponents and opponents aren’t just people that have different points of view and different interests, but they’re our enemies.”

Pope said that this group isolation is one way to explain the “new wave of censoriousness and intolerance” that Gibson talked about.

“I think our worry is the lack of civility in our public spaces, a lack of public discourse that is tolerant, and seeking understanding,” he said.

Two ways to combat this, Pope said, are to try and be curious about others and have humility about yourself and your own beliefs.

“One [way]is the importance of trying to understand how other people think, especially when they don’t share my framework or maybe even some of my core values, so curiosity is key,” he said. “And I think second is humility—the willingness to see that we have our blind spots, we have our frailties, we’ve made mistakes, and that we shouldn’t be standing in judgment of other people, but rather, in a stance of human solidarity [where]we share a common dignity but also common moral weaknesses.”

There are two more Speech Acts events scheduled before the series wraps up: ”Epistemic Bubbles and Echo Chambers: The Epistemic and Political Impacts of Modern Technology” on March 24 and Academic Discourse and Freedom of Expression on Campus on April 6.