welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Failures of Forgivenes by Myisha Cherry

Ben Almassi learns that to forgive is complex.

Myisha Cherry invites us to practice forgiveness more expansively. This is not to say that she thinks we should be more forgiving. Failures of Forgiveness: What We Get Wrong and How to Do Better (2023) is not an ode to the magic of forgiveness, and her argument is not that the world is better when we offer forgiveness freely and easily. The failures of forgiveness that concern her are not so much missed opportunities to forgive, as cases of forgiveness done wrong: forgiveness coerced or even commanded, sometimes at the wrong times, from the wrong people, in the process disrespecting victims and causing them more harm. The problem as Cherry sees it is that many of us view forgiveness too narrowly while also expecting too much from it. A broader range of ways of forgiving have a role to play in the aftermath of wrongdoing – but this doesn’t mean we should forgive automatically or indiscriminately, or make forgiveness our main goal.

Among its virtues, Failures of Forgiveness is good public philosophy at work. It offers deft conceptual distinctions and a skeptical eye toward conventional wisdom on what forgiveness is and how it should work. Fans of Cherry’s earlier book, The Case for Rage (2021), will find the argument carrying through here, productively so. But she doesn’t assume readers’ familiarity with her work, nor with the history of moral philosophy, or contemporary scholarly literature on forgiveness. When she engages with philosophers and other scholars, alongside apt historical, pop-cultural, and personal examples, their inclusions help answer rather than sidetrack from the practical questions raised.

“For many, to forgive means to reconcile, to let go of anger,” notes Cherry, but asks: Can’t we forgive someone even if we never harbored negative emotions toward them? Alternatively, can’t we forgive and still be angry? Anger can be a good thing, after all – when expressing self-respect, bearing witness against wrongdoing, motivating us to enact social change. On the other hand, can’t you forgive someone and yet not continue in your relationship as before? A narrow view would say no; but why presume a one-size-fits-all model of forgiveness?

Building on the work of Canadian feminist ethicist Alice MacLachlan, Cherry asks us to recognize a variety of ways of practicing forgiveness, where the practices vary in their aims. Forgiveness may sometimes aim at reconciliation; it also may aim, if not necessarily to extinguish, then at least to moderate certain negative emotions; it may also aim to grant contrite wrongdoers some release from burden. But forgiveness need not aim at all these things all the time. A broader conception of forgiveness allows us to appreciate why two people might forgive similar wrongs in different ways. It also allows us to see why withholding forgiveness altogether can sometimes be appropriate, too.

Forgiveness done better can contribute to what Cherry calls radical repair: putting our relationships, communities, and lives back together. Unlike superficial or hasty repair, it’s radical because it gets to the root of the problem (‘radical’ comes from the Latin for ‘root’). This repair can be a lengthy, uncomfortable process. It takes time to rebuild trust, express genuine apology, be vulnerable again. Sometimes forgiveness practices contribute to a reparative process, but sometimes they don’t, and in these cases we should not try to force forgiveness on the assumption that genuine repair must include it. Cherry acknowledges that some breaks are irreparable, and some relationships not worth saving: “Sometimes the most creative thing we can do is to recognize and admit that something cannot be repaired.”

Reconciliation Josefina de Vasconcellos 1999

By reconceiving forgiveness and its role in radical repair, we can see it at work in the world with fresh eyes. Cherry does this throughout the book, examining situations from family dynamics to politics to corporate culture. For example, we can recognize how forgiveness served as a crucial link between truth-telling and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. We can honor the tremendous achievement of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission there, yet still appreciate how its political and religious framings marginalized victims who were perhaps understandably unwilling to forgive and reconcile (or to presume their equivalence). We can also better unpack what’s going on when reporters ask victims’ families about forgiveness in the immediate aftermath of a racist murder, before a conviction, or even an apology. Cherry’s approach shows why third-party forgiveness and self-forgiveness can be truly worthwhile, and yet never an adequate substitute for victim-focused repair. It also exposes the emptiness of corporate appropriations of resilience and forgiveness rhetoric. Just as ably, it illustrates why Pope Francis’ apology and plea for forgiveness for the Catholic Church’s mistreatment of indigenous children in Canadian residential schools was, although no doubt sincere, both too little and too late.

One topic that might seem extraneous initially but which proves rather compelling, is Cherry’s discussion of forgiveness and cancel culture. Tracing that culture back to its roots in Black Twitter, she argues that cancelling can be an appropriate response in transactional relationships, but not intimate ones. Among other things, this helps clarify the bind that actors, comedians, or musicians might feel about their now cancelled celebrity friends, even when the rest of us are right to cancel our connection to them. What worries Cherry about cancel culture is also what worries her about forgiveness culture: not cancellation or forgiveness itself, but that it becomes an uncritically endorsed groupthink (ie nonthink), rather than a reflective, individually reasoned decision.

If her treatment of cancellation is deeper than expected, one thing I would have liked to see unpacked more is Cherry’s claim that while forgiveness involves moral practices put toward moral aims, we have no moral duty of forgiveness, nor any right to be forgiven. Why exactly this is, is not made completely clear. This is a shame given the book’s otherwise careful considerations of both social institutions and family dynamics, where Cherry is absolutely right that family members can coerce each other to forgive in all sorts of harmful ways for the sake of appearances and group preservation. Yet especially on her broader picture, of forgiveness practices put toward varied aims, I’d suggest that parents very often have a duty of care to forgive our young children. This is not a general duty to forgive just anybody, but one grounded in the specifics of our care-giving relationships.

In the end, Myisha Cherry comes not to praise nor bury forgiveness, but to demystify it. Not only whether to forgive, but how and why to do so – these are questions that I have no doubt her book will help many readers to answer for ourselves. Just as valuable, she encourages us to think twice about the easy answers we might previously have accepted to the question ‘Why should I forgive?’.

© Ben Almassi 2024

Ben Almassi is a professor of Philosophy at Governors State University in University Park, Illinois.

Failures of Forgiveness, Myisha Cherry, 2023, Princeton University Press, £9.99 pb, 240 pages

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X