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On the Weaponization of Forgiveness

black and white photograph of pray hands

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.

Under Discussion: Dog Whistles, Implicatures, and “Law and Order”

image of someone whispering in an ear

This piece completes our Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Law and Order.

For the last several days, The Prindle Post has explored the concept of “law and order” from multiple philosophical and historical angles; I now want to think about the phrase itself — that is, I want to think about what is meant when the words ‘law and order’ appear in a speech or conversation.

On its face, ‘law and order’ is a term that simply denotes whether or not a particular set of laws are, in general, being obeyed. In this way, politicians or police officers who reference ‘law and order’ are simply trying to talk about a relatively calm public state of affairs where the official operating procedures of society are functioning smoothly. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘law and order’ is always a good thing: by definition, acts of civil disobedience against unjust laws violate ‘law and order,’ but such acts can indeed be morally justified nonetheless (for more, see Rachel Robison-Greene’s recent discussion here of “substantive” justice). However, on the whole, it can be easy to think that public appeals to ‘law and order’ are simply invoking a desirable state of peace.

But the funny thing about our terminology is how often we say one thing, but mean something else.

Consider the previous sentence: I said the word ‘funny,’ but do I mean that our terminology is designed to provoke laughter (or is humorous in other ways)? Certainly not! In this case, I’m speaking ironically to sarcastically imply not only that our linguistic situation is more complicated than simple appearances, but that the complexity of language is actually no secret.

The says/means distinction is, more or less, the difference between semantics (what is said by a speaker) and pragmatics (what that speaker actually means). Often, straightforward speech acts mean precisely what a speaker says: if I ask you where to find my keys and you say “your keys are the table,” what you have said and what you mean are roughly the same thing (namely, that my keys are on the table). However, if you instead say “your keys are right where you left them,” you are responding with information about my keys (such as that they are on the table), but you also probably mean to communicate something additional like “…and you should already know where they are, dummy!”

When a speaker uses language to implicitly mean something that they don’t explicitly say, this is what the philosopher H.P. Grice called an implicature. Sarcasm and ironic statements are a few paradigmatic examples, but many other kinds of figures of speech (such as hyperbole, understatement, metaphor, and more) function along the same lines. But, regardless, all implicatures function by communicating what they actually mean in a way that requires (at least a little) more analysis than simply reading how they appear on their face.

In recent years, law professors like Ian Haney López and philosophers like Jennifer Saul have identified another kind of implicature that explicitly says something innocuous, but that implicitly means something different to a subset of the general audience. Called “dog whistles” (after the high-pitched tools that can’t be heard by the human ear), these linguistic artifacts operate almost like code words that are heard by everyone, but are only fully understood by people who understand the code. I say “almost” like code words because one important thing about a dog whistle is that, on its face, its meaning is perfectly plain in a way that doesn’t arouse suspicion of anything tricky happening; that is, everyone — whether or not they actually know the “code” — believes that they fully understand what the speaker means. However, to the speaker’s intended clique, the dog whistle also communicates a secondary message surreptitiously, smuggling an implicated meaning underneath the sentence’s basic semantics. This also means that dog whistles are frustratingly difficult to counter: if one speaker uses a dog whistle that communicates something sneaky and another speaker draws attention to the implicated meaning, the first speaker can easily deny the implicature by simply referencing the explicit content of the original utterance as what they really meant.

Use of dog whistles to implicitly communicate racist motivations in government policy (without explicitly uttering any slurs) was, infamously, a political tactic deployed as a part of the Republican “Southern strategy” in the late 20th century (for more on this, see Evan Butts’ recent article). As Republican strategist (and member of the Reagan administration) Lee Atwater explained in a 1981 interview:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘[n-word], [n-word], [n-word].’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘[n-word]’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.…”

Of course, terms like ‘forced busing’ and ‘states’ rights’ are, on their faces, concepts that are not necessarily associated with race, but because they refer to things that just so happen, in reality, to have clearly racist byproducts or outcomes —  and because Atwater’s intended audience (Republican voters) knew this to be so — the terms are dog whistles for the same kind of racism indicated by the n-word. When a politician defended ‘forced busing’ or when a Confederate apologist references ‘states’ rights,’ they might be saying something about education policy or the Civil War, but they mean to communicate something much more nefarious.

Exactly what a dog whistle secretly communicates is still up for debate. In many cases, it seems like dog whistles are used to indicate a speaker’s allegiance to (or at least familiarity with) a particular social group (as when politicians signal to prospective voters and interest groups). But other dog whistles seem to signal a speaker’s commitment (either politically or sincerely) to an ideology or worldview and thereby frame a speaker’s comments as a whole from within the perspective of that ideology. Also, ideological dog whistles can trigger emotional and other affective responses in an audience who shares that ideology: this seems to be the motivation, for example, of Atwater’s racist dog whistles (as well as more contemporary examples like ‘welfare,’ ‘inner city,’ ‘suburban housewife,’ and ‘cosmopolitan elites’). Perhaps most surprisingly, ideological dog whistles might even work to communicate or trigger ideological responses without the audience (and, more controversially, perhaps even without the speaker) being conscious of their operation: a racist might dog whistle to other racists without any of them explicitly noticing that their racist ideology is being communicated.

This is all to say that the phrase ‘law and order’ seems to qualify as a dog whistle for racist ideology. While, on its face, the semantic meaning of ‘law and order’ is fairly straightforward, the phrase also has a demonstrable track record of association with racist policies and byproducts, from stop-and-frisk to the Wars on Drugs and Crime to resistance against the Civil Rights Movement and more. Particularly in a year marked by massive demonstrations of civil disobedience against racist police brutality, politicians invoking ‘law and order’ will inevitably trigger audience responses relative to their opinions about things like the Black Lives Matter protests and other recent examples of civil unrest (particularly when, as Meredith McFadden explains, the phrase is directly used to criticize the protests themselves). And, crucially, all of this can happen unconsciously in a conversation (via what Saul has called “covert unintentional dog whistles”) given the role of our ideological perspectives in shaping how we understand and discuss the world.

So, in short, the ways we do things with words are not only interesting and complex, but can work to maintain demonstrably unethical perspectives in both others and ourselves. Not only should we work to explicitly counteract the implicated claims and perspectives of harmful dog whistles in our public discourse, but we should consider our own words carefully to make sure that we always mean precisely what we think we do.