On the Weaponization of Forgiveness
WARNING: The following article contains discussions of sexual assault and other violent crimes, including the sexual abuse of minors.
On April 23rd, former reality television stars Josh and Anna Duggar posted a gender reveal for their seventh child on Instagram, happily announcing Anna’s pregnancy; six days later, Josh Duggar was arrested and charged with downloading and possessing child pornography. At Duggar’s detention hearing, federal authorities testified that they found hundreds of images of sexually abused children, including toddlers, on one of Duggar’s office computers in a case file described by one agent as being in the “top five of the worst of the worst that I’ve ever had to examine.” Although software was installed on this computer to track Duggar’s activity (and regularly inform his wife of his internet searches), additional software had been installed to circumvent these measures. Josh Duggar pleaded “not guilty” to the charges and has been released on bond to the custody of family friends pending his trial in July.
This is not the first time that Josh Duggar — son to former Arkansas state representative Jim Bob Duggar — has made national headlines. In 2015, In Touch magazine published copies of a 2006 police report indicating that Duggar had repeatedly sexually molested five minors when he was fourteen years old; the ensuing scandal, worsened by the fact that Duggar’s father had leveraged his political capital to protect his son from consequences (despite several of Duggar’s sisters being among his victims), led to Duggar resigning his position as the executive director of the Family Research Council (a Christian lobbying organization). Additionally, in the wake of the controversy, TLC chose to cancel 19 Kids and Counting, the popular reality show portraying the lifestyle of Jim Bob Duggar’s large family. Several months later, hackers exposed user data from AshleyMadison.com, a dating site that markets itself towards “cheating spouses” seeking extramarital affairs; Josh Duggar was one of several celebrities revealed to have paid for multiple accounts with the service.
In his response to these previous scandals, Duggar apologized in 2015 for his “wrongdoing” as a teenager and said that he had “sought forgiveness from those I had wronged and asked Christ to forgive me and come into my life.” Regarding his infidelity, Duggar said he had been “the biggest hypocrite ever” and explained that he had developed a “secret addiction” to pornography that led him to become “unfaithful to [his] wife.” As his confession continues, he says: “I am so ashamed of the double life that I have been living and am grieved for the hurt, pain and disgrace my sin has caused my wife and family, and most of all Jesus and all those who profess faith in Him.” Duggar’s 2015 statement finishes with the following: “I humbly ask for your forgiveness. Please pray for my precious wife Anna and our family during this time.”
At this point, apart from his court plea, Duggar has been silent about his 2021 arrest, but his parents released a short statement asking for prayer and reaffirming their commitment to their family.
Although it might seem like a surprising topic to consider, philosophers have had multiple things to say about the phenomenon of forgiveness that Duggar’s past statements repeatedly invoke. Some have analyzed the emotional elements of forgiveness to, among other things, define the necessary and sufficient conditions for actions that qualify as actually bestowing “forgiveness” on transgressors. (If I say the words “I forgive you” while still harboring resentment, have I truly forgiven you?) Other academics have focused on questions of standing for acts of forgiveness: for example, if Calvin pulls Susie’s hair, it seems like only Susie could rightfully forgive Calvin (should she choose to do so) — no matter how much Rosalyn might insist that she forgives Calvin for pulling Susie’s hair, it seems like Rosalyn lacks the proper standing to forgive the offense. However, this scenario raises another question: what about acts of religious forgiveness, in particular those connected with receiving forgiveness from God? (Could God forgive Calvin on Susie’s behalf? Or has Calvin somehow wronged both Susie and God such that God has standing to forgive Calvin in this case? Or is something else going on here?) And what about obligations to forgive — are there ever duties to do so? Additionally, should forgiveness itself be seen as a virtue?
Indeed, the philosophy of forgiveness can be a rich field to plow.
I think that the Duggar case demonstrates another interesting feature of forgiveness and how it functions as a sociopolitical kind of speech act: namely, one that triggers certain social expectations (and, perhaps, even duties) to view the speaker in a certain valenced perspective (in a manner similar to what J.L. Austin describes as a “behabitive” speech act). When Josh Duggar references his past sins and explains how he has already sought “Christ’s forgiveness,” he is not explicitly obligating people to likewise forgive him for his actions — however, for a certain subset of Duggar’s audience, he is implicitly indicating that they should forgive him on their own. According to Duggar’s religion, Christ’s forgiveness is freely given to all who ask for it: for anyone who might treat Jesus as a moral exemplar (and ask “What would Jesus do?”), Duggar’s invocation of his having already sought divine absolution is an implicit appeal to the Christians hearing his confession that they should do likewise.
In this way, Duggar’s deployment of Christian terminology (like asking Jesus to “come into my life”) functions as what philosopher Jennifer Saul has called a “dogwhistle” because it has multiple layers of meaning, but only certain people in a given audience will be able to fully decode the deeper message. On its face, hearing that someone asked Jesus to “come into their life” might be easily understood as a metaphorical way to recognize Jesus’ influence on the speaker; for Christians — particularly fundamentalist Protestants like Duggar — this phrase carries significant theological meaning with considerable baggage automatically communicated implicitly to anyone who understands the code. And even if audience members don’t calculate the full implicatum of Duggar’s words (“Jesus has forgiven me for X, therefore you should not hold X against me”), they might nevertheless recognize Duggar as a member of their own social group in a manner that often results in the triggering of various in-group biases.
My point is not that Josh Duggar (or anyone else who speaks in similar fashions) is necessarily intentionally trying to manipulate their audience by evoking Christian (or otherwise partisan) terminology; importantly, dog whistles (and other sorts of covert speech acts) can easily be used without speakers realizing that they are doing so. Nevertheless, when such words function to effectively manipulate the emotions and perceptions of audience members, we would do well to pay more attention to their operation.
Consider what happened in 2015: various other celebrity Christians, including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, rushed to Duggar’s defense, insisting that, although Duggar’s actions were indeed terrible, his “mistakes” had been addressed and the families involved should be protected from the “blood-thirsty media” looking for a scandal. Pundit Matt Walsh argued that “progressives” were the real hypocrites in this case (because they were allegedly only looking to discredit a prominent Christian family). Whether or not such charges carry water is beside the present point: if Duggar’s statement functioned as I’ve suggested (and indeed triggered certain members of his audience, like Huckabee and Walsh, to implicitly recognize a duty to support their fellow Christian) then these partisan responses are unsurprising.
In short, I’m suggesting that public statements mentioning God and forgiveness (which have been made by everyone from former President Bill Clinton to Kanye West) can work to identify the speaker as an ally or member of a particular subculture or sect. In much the same way that my saying “Live long and prosper” or “May the Force be with you” entitles my audience to make certain assumptions about my background or social position (insofar as they might think I’m a member of certain sci-fi fandoms), deploying specific language — like Duggar’s “Christianese” discussing his sins — works similarly. When such associations might alter interpretations or feelings about violent or otherwise unjust events, said language should be analyzed more carefully.
To date, with the exception of his lawyers and family members, no one has publicly jumped to Josh Duggar’s defense. However, he has been released from jail to await his July trial in the custody of Lacount Reber who was described in court as a “close friend” of the Duggars. Mr. Reber is a pastor in northwest Arkansas.