None of which will matter, because the habit we’re in of waging small-scale wars via celebrity censures has made us nearly incapable of really holding our allies accountable or of really forgiving our enemies. If forgiveness had a face, it would be hideous to us now; to the degree that beauty is a matter of socially constructed taste, we wouldn’t be able to look at forgiveness without revulsion. Forgiveness means having the technical right to exact some penalty but electing not to pursue it. This breaks the cycle of retribution with unearned, undeserved mercy. The face of forgiveness is bruised because it bears its own injuries with grace. So doing permits the cycle of retribution to go no further. It is a hard thing, but necessary, if huge numbers of strangers are going to live peacefully together.
It is crucial to note that forgiveness doesn’t preclude accountability: It’s possible (and probably preferable) someone can both make restitution for their wrong and be forgiven. In Barr’s case, for instance, stepping away from her public role makes sense, given the egregiousness of her tweet — which doesn’t have to mean that she’ll be persona non grata forever or that she’ll never work again. It’s the total absence of forgiveness from our cultural logic that makes any penalties whatsoever feel terminal, which feeds this toxic habit of ours. It doesn’t have to be like this, but neither can the decision to change it be left up to someone else. What would it take for you to forgive whichever of these two women who has offended you more? Not just to ignore them or release them into the icy waters of vague contempt — but to wish them well, or well enough, and perhaps one day give them a chance to make you laugh?