Author’s note: This article was written just before the U.S. election. Now that we know the winners, I still stand behind it. One major revelation from the entire campaign has been the fact that it is no longer possible for public figures to hide their behavior, misdeeds, or even thinking. Donald Trump, it has been argued, deliberately turned his misdeeds into theater; he played the role of unforgivable to score votes. (One commentator who consistently made this point was cartoonist/writer Scott Adams.) In the end, some acts are indeed unforgivable, and that (for me) includes some of the things Trump said on the campaign trail, whether they were intended theatrically or not. Nonetheless, my personal list of unforgivable acts remains relatively small. If I condemn an act, or a belief, in Trump or anyone else, then I know I must not cross that line myself. In a world where privacy is gone, a more discerning ethic of forgiveness is essential for survival.
The release and publication of private emails and obscure videos has made the U.S. presidential election — and all elections everywhere to come — different from those that came before. In a world of technologically enabled universal awareness, any private act can be made public at any time. And this environment imposes a new political requirement on those of us who take voting seriously: a capacity for thoughtful, enlightened forgiveness.
I teach a college class on the future of new media. Every year I ask the students to imagine a world in which surveillance of human activity is heightened to its plausible extreme. When I first asked the question, in 2010, I described an imagined future scenario. “Suppose it’s a few years from now,” I said. “You’re happily married, and it would be a tragedy if your marriage broke up. But you commit an indiscretion nonetheless. You walk out of the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person. Unknown to you, an automated street camera records your face. An image-recognition bot on the Web tags it to your name. And your cousin has programmed a Facebook page to capture and broadcast snapshots of relatives on the Web. Your marriage breaks up. Would that be a better or a worse world than the one we live in now?” To a person, these 20- and 30-year olds — graduate students at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), which trains professionals in the world of leading-edge technology — said it would be a better world. At least then everyone would know the truth.
I asked the same question in the same class in 2016. But now I was describing the present, not the future — and my students said the reality was horrifying. This year, opposition research, leaked information, aggressive reporting, and Congressional investigations have brought unprecedented, though highly selective, transparency to the presidential campaign. Voters have never had as much access to the raw data of an election and its candidates; it has revealed alleged misdeeds on both sides. For the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, these appear to include carelessness with classified information and a fair amount of cronyism — or at least tolerance of staff people who have done the same. For the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, these appear to include habitual sexual misconduct, a tendency toward unfair or misleading business arrangements, and possible ties to foreign influence. Any related legal issues won’t be resolved until after the election. But the non-legal aspects of these alleged transgressions are front and center. So are the observable manifestations of bullying and ethnic targeting by the Trump campaign, and the more general accusations that both campaigns have unfairly intimidated their opponents or simply don’t care about people who are not in their constituencies.
Accusations of this sort have been part of democratic elections since ancient Athens. They are nearly always made with partisan venom; the heart of opposition research is smearing your opponent with charges that aren't proven but might be true. But this time it’s different. On both sides, the evidence includes a fair amount of leaked or widely distributed data and documentation that would not have been broadly shared in the pre-Internet world.
In the context of pervasive data, the debate over which charges are accurate — or, to put it more precisely, the debate over who’s lying — is a sideshow. The more important question, which most voters seem to be wrestling with, involves forgiveness. Assume that the most plausible accusations about any given candidate are accurate. Which misdeeds would you be willing to forgive? By contrast, which would be so far beyond the pale that you would consider them unforgivable?
This may sound like an abstract question of moral philosophy. But it’s an intensely practical question, and not just for elections. Everyone employed by an organization works with imperfect colleagues who, often with the best of intentions, sometimes manipulate others, hide information, shade the truth, cheat, or lie. Self-interest is often a factor, but rarely the only reason for their actions. One person expenses a road trip that didn’t have to be taken. Another fudges a line of numbers where the data didn’t quite add up. A third makes a deal where it’s expected that the other person will get face time with a senior boss. These actions might be justified with the idea that everybody else does it too, but the reasons also include opportunity and expedience: Sometimes the pressures of the moment feel so great that you have to step over a line or break a rule simply to get something done.
You might respond to these acts with absolute condemnation: Forgive nothing, if only for the sake of fairness. After all, many people play by the rules, and they should not be penalized by comparison. Conversely, you might be inclined to forgive everything. A great deal of creativity would be lost if we tolerated no rule-breaking. Or you might just throw up your hands, let virtue be God’s (or someone else’s) responsibility, and avoid judging the candidates altogether. Base your vote solely on the policies they espouse.
But it’s not feasible to condemn all or nothing; some transgressions are clearly more unforgivable than others. Nor can you ignore temperament and integrity as factors in choosing a leader. They matter at least as much as policy. You have to cultivate your judgment; to build a sophisticated, nuanced, authentic sense — your own sense — of which misdeeds are worthy of forgiveness and which are not.
You have to build a sophisticated, nuanced, authentic sense of which misdeeds are worthy of forgiveness and which are not.
Judgment of this sort doesn’t come easily. In a 2012 strategy+business article, “Connections with Integrity,” venture capitalist and LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman argued that potential investment partners should be judged by their attitudes about alliances. On one extreme are the fully transactional: “I’ll do something for you if you’ll do something at least equivalent for me.” These people want to be sure the terms are favorable to them before they agree. On the other extreme are those who start with the goal of improving the relationship: “I’ll invest in this relationship because it’s the right thing to do.” Hoffman said that it’s the latter group that have earned his trust; those are the people he brings into highly profitable ventures with him, because he knows he can trust them as long-term, honorable allies.
When we choose who to vote for, we make a similar sort of calculation in our minds. We judge the candidates as we would judge potential allies. Since everyone we meet is likely to be flawed in some way, we must choose our alliances based on what we are willing to forgive.
As the campaign has progressed, I’ve tried to parse my choice in terms of forgiveness. I’ve listed the transgressions that seem reasonably likely to be true, if only because they fit with what I know of human nature. Then I ask myself: Which of these are forgivable? (The same forgiveness applies whether or not the candidate is nominated by my preferred party.) I include some misdeeds committed by the candidates’ family members, close associates, and advisors, if they seem relevant to the candidate’s own temperament. Then I ask: If I committed (or tolerated and approved) a similar act in the course of everyday business, would I expect and hope to be forgiven? Or would I hold myself accountable for perpetrating a genuinely harmful act?
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting the transgressions, any more than truth and reconciliation means acquiescing to power. Forgiveness means putting those acts in perspective. It means choosing not to let a misdeed, despite all the pain it has caused, disqualify a person from inclusion in your association. As we learned at the end of the Harry Potter series, remorse is helpful. A candidate who doesn’t express remorse is harder to forgive. But that’s not the only relevant factor.
Forgiveness has consequences. If enough of us learned to forgive more effectively, it would be good for the culture. One of the most moving public moments of the last few years came in June 2015, when the relatives of the victims of the Emanuel AME church shooting in Charleston, S.C., publicly forgave the white supremacist who had killed nearly a dozen congregants. I’m not sure if I would have the depth of feeling, and presence of mind, to do the same in similar circumstances.
The 2016 election is challenging us all to hone our forgiveness skills. We can’t forgive everything the candidates have done. But if we forgive nothing, we and the world will be paralyzed. And the need for skillful forgiveness — for making choices about allies and candidates in a thoughtful, deliberate way, conscious of their misdeeds — won’t go away. We’d better hope we’re moving toward a world where more and more is forgiven, not less and less. Consider the alternative.