David Weinberger
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To err is you, man

07 May 2001

For many years I wondered what sense forgiveness makes. It's not that I hold grudges (I don't particularly) but as a concept, forgiveness seemed irrational and even immoral: someone does something wrong and we're supposed to pretend it never happened? Shouldn't truth and memory win out?

But I changed my mind in two stages. First, when I was in my late 20s. I came to realize that forgiveness had a social function. We couldn't live with one another if we didn't let some things go. Then, in my 30s -- I'm a slow learner -- I realized that forgiveness is a requirement not just for social order but to be fully human. We're imperfect. Everyone screws up. In forgiving, we're not just choosing to ignore the evil act, we're also acknowledging and embracing the fact that we've done things as bad and will do things even worse in the future simply because we forgot to become gods.

I'm not saying that everything can or should be forgiven. Selling children into slavery, systematically murdering entire peoples, blowing up a government office building knowing that there's a daycare center inside . . . no, I'm not willing to forgive. And in my tradition -- Jewish, as if you hadn't guessed -- if you've done something wrong, feeling bad about it isn't enough to merit forgiveness; you also have to do everything you can to make right what you've made wrong.

If forgiveness accepts our common human moral imperfection, do we have a term for accepting our common human intellectual imperfection? Well, we have a whole bunch of terms for not accepting it: stupid, idiot, moron, pea-brained a-hole. And then we rank ourselves in terms of intellect far more precisely than we do in terms of our virtuousness: I'm smarter than Bill, and I could take Mary in an argument, but Leslie is better at numbers than I am. Who cares? One of the pleasures of getting older is discovering just how wrong you can be about people, just how surprised you can be, just how often your negative assessment of someone else reveals how narrow your own understanding has been.

Very few people you meet are evil beyond forgiveness. Very few are so stupid that they don't bear listening to. Forgiving them -- us -- our mistakes clears the way to seeing what is true about their view of our shared world.

In short, if you always feel you're surrounded by idiots, it's probably because you don't understand what they're saying.

David Weinberger is editor of Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.