Obama, Alton Brown apologized for harmful words. Should we forgive past problematic views?

David Oliver

Former President Barack Obama recently apologized in his memoir, writing that he used homophobic slurs when he was a teen. "Once I got to college and became friends with fellow students and professors who were openly gay, though, I realized the overt discrimination and hate they were subject to, as well as the loneliness and self-doubt that the dominant culture imposed on them," he wrote. "I felt ashamed of my past behavior – and learned to do better."

Ryan Reynolds and wife Blake Lively expressed regret, too, for their plantation wedding, calling it "something we’ll always be deeply and unreservedly sorry for." And Alton Brown apologized after he wrote a "flippant" tweet about the Holocaust.

Celebrities and politicians, like everyday people, often make mistakes when speaking or posting on social media – and can also say harmful words on purpose.

People are quick in this era of "cancel culture" to ridicule someone for saying something inappropriate. But can we – and should we – forgive people for their past (or even current) problematic views? Experts say the first step lies with the person who said the harmful things. If they make amends, then the wronged individuals can decide whether to forgive them.

Former President of the United States, Barack Obama, speaks to viewers during the Democratic National Convention at the Wisconsin Center, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

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'I was ready to accept her apology'

T.M. Robinson-Mosley strolled down an aisle in Home Depot about five years ago, looking for items to refinish a bed. Out of nowhere, her grandmother called to apologize and ask for forgiveness.

Robinson-Mosley – now 36 – came out to her family as gay when she was 16 years old. Robinson-Mosley, a Black woman from Mobile, Alabama, grew estranged and disconnected from her family afterward.

Her grandmother now wanted to say sorry, but wanted to know how to apologize appropriately. 

"It was incredibly powerful to me, like I'm in the middle of aisle 26, having a full emotional experience," Robinson-Mosley, a psychologist, tells USA TODAY. "But it was an incredibly transformative experience that was healing for me too, because I was ready to accept her apology, and she earned it from me."

Sheila Addison, licensed family and marriage therapist, says it's hard to confront people for their problematic views, but it's necessary. 

"When we don't do that, what we wind up doing is we focus on the person who has less power in the system because of their devalued identity, the person who has already been harmed," she says.

Whether someone offers an apology or not, it is up to the individual to accept it if they're ready.

"Contrary to popular belief, people seem to think that forgiveness is something that we should give automatically, or that it means that we are going to forgive and forget or we excuse the harm that someone has done to us. But the realistic aspect of it is that if we're real with ourselves, the pain and disappointment might always still be with us. But when we're ready to forgive, forgiveness can minimize the hurtful impact," Robinson-Mosley adds.

Addison says that if a problematic person has died or is otherwise incapacitated, those harmed can turn to loved ones to help them share the burden.

"It can be easier to say, 'OK, I can accept that great aunt Martha never acknowledged my same-sex relationship if you, mom and dad, also acknowledge that when we talk about her, if you also are able to say she was kind to children and puppies, but she also was hurtful to really understand that.'"

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It's OK to mess up

Of course, not all harm is malicious.

Jazmyn Green, a recent college graduate, recalled a memory from childhood when a group of children called her a "wannabe whitey." She knows it was racist but at the time she laughed it off.

"I was just too young," she says. "I didn't know what to say." 

She says sometimes it's easier to forgive if something wasn't done maliciously.

"I think they can be forgiven if they're making active steps in a different direction," Green says.

Jerin Arifa, an activist for LGBTQ Muslim rights, says that she's seen people who have made offensive remarks change. She's been able to forgive them because they've done the work.

Arifa has done such work herself. She remains horrified that she used to use a term that is considered ableist (discrimination against those with disabilities).

People are often quick to defend themselves after saying or doing something problematic. Take Sia, who doubled down after she was criticized for not casting someone on the autism spectrum to play an autistic character in her upcoming film "Music."

If people want to change the first step is wanting to.

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What a real apology looks like

Robinson-Mosley often hears people say, "Well, I already said I was sorry, what do you want me to do?" People demand instead of request forgiveness, but there's a lot more involved in repenting.

She says there are five languages of apology:

  • Expressing regret: Flat-out apologizing
  • Accepting responsibility: Instead of saying you were right, saying you were wrong
  • Making restitution: Asking what you can do to make it right
  • Genuinely repenting: Doing your best to not make the mistake again
  • Requesting forgiveness: Asking what you must do to be forgiven). 

"There's this idea that we have to forgive in order to move on, we have to forgive, because we're supposed to forgive and that people expect that forgiveness," Robinson-Mosley says.

It doesn't necessarily have to be that way. But if that lack of forgiveness takes up a lot of space and you feel resentful, that's when it becomes a problem.

Others may never receive an apology, but that doesn't mean relationships have to end.

Robinson-Mosley lays out the scenario: "I may not be able to get this apology that I so desperately need from my family, but what I really enjoy is when we have our game nights, and so we may not have any deep conversation, they may not say they're sorry. But I really enjoy seeing my siblings, and I really enjoy seeing my parents and we have such a fun time and we watch the game together. And when we hang out, and it makes me feel good."

Green recommends people spend time with groups unlike themselves, such as people of color and the LGBTQ community. "And then maybe giving back to those communities or trying to help them out in some way, is kind of what I would like to see," she says. "Some type of support and active understanding of what you did wrong."

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