Celebrity Music: Taylor Swift, Philosopher of Forgiveness

0
25
Celebrity Music: Taylor Swift, Philosopher of Forgiveness

Celebrity Music:

The pop superstar offers genuine insight about “moving on.”

Dr. Hershovitz is a philosopher.

Image
CreditCreditAndrew Kelly/Reuters

Taylor Swift is on fire. She just dropped her seventh album, “Lover,” and it’s already the top seller of 2019. She also dropped some wisdom that deserves to be as widely appreciated as her music.

In an interview on Aug. 25 on “CBS Sunday Morning,” Ms. Swift spoke up about our culture’s obsession with forgiveness. “People go on and on about you have to forgive and forget to move past something,” she said. “No, you don’t.”

She’s right. You don’t have to forgive and forget to move on. And sometimes, you shouldn’t forgive or forget. You should resent.

To see why, imagine that you’ve been wronged. Let’s say Kanye West just busted up your big moment onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards. So what? Why not be Jay-Z and brush the dirt off your shoulder? The reason — as many philosophers will tell you — is that wrongdoing sends a demeaning message that shouldn’t go unchallenged.

As the philosopher Jeffrie Murphy explains, that message is typically something like “I count, but you don’t.” Or “I am here up high, and you are there down below.” Or “I can use you for my purposes.”

Another philosopher, Pamela Hieronymi, teaches that the message implicit in wrongdoing poses a threat. The threat is that the message is true, that it’s O.K. for Kanye West to ruin your big moment, because you don’t matter as much as he does.

When you resent, Professor Hieronymi says, you protest that message. You insist, if only to yourself, that you do matter. The alternative is to acquiesce in your own mistreatment, to see yourself as less than Mr. West, as someone he can push offstage. And if you see yourself that way, other people might, too. Resentment is about self-respect — and self-protection.

Forgiveness is often understood as the release of resentment. That’s the source of the idea that you can’t move on without forgiveness. Resentment may be protective, the argument goes, but it can also be destructive. It eats you from the inside. So forgive and forget, some say. It’s the only way forward.

But forgiveness is a way forward only when it’s warranted, Professor Hieronymi suggests. If Mr. West sincerely apologizes, he rejects the message he sent when he pushed you offstage. And once he rejects the message, you can release your resentment, because your protest is no longer needed.

There are other paths to forgiveness. If you think Mr. West’s acts were out of character, or if he finds ways to affirm you, even without apologizing, you might not feel threatened. Ms. Swift said she believes in forgiveness for people “who have enriched your life and made it better.” But she doesn’t believe in forgiveness for everyone: “If something’s toxic and it’s only ever really been that, what are you going to do? Just move on.”

Some people think that moving on is forgiving. But Ms. Swift is right to insist that there’s a difference. To forgive, you must release your resentment for the right reasons. You must release your resentment because you see that you can repair your relationship.

What if you can’t? Ms. Swift advises that you don’t have to forgive and forget; instead, “you just become indifferent and then you move on.” This is sound advice. She is saying: Hold on to your resentment; just don’t let it hold on to you. Don’t let it consume you. Put it in perspective, and then … shake it off.

At least, that’s one way forward. There is another way, and again, Ms. Swift can light the path. In 2013, a radio host named David Mueller groped Ms. Swift as they posed for a photograph. She sued for battery, asking for a single dollar in damages, and she won.

What was the point? She hardly needed another dollar. But make no mistake, the verdict mattered.

Ms. Swift sued to make clear that her body was not public property, available to any man who wanted to touch it. In other words, she asked the court to reject the message Mr. Mueller’s groping sent. The verdict told Mr. Mueller — and every man listening — that no one had a right to her body but her. And because the court applied general principles of battery law, it sent a message about every woman’s backside: Hands off.

Litigation gets a bad rap. But courts give us a chance to call on our community to reject the messages that wrongdoing sends. A lawsuit can let us move forward, without forgiving or forgetting.

But doesn’t Christianity teach that people must forgive? Not exactly. My friend Len Niehoff, who’s a full-time lawyer and part-time pastor, recently gave a sermon on forgiveness, which invoked Luke 17:3. In it, Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”

That’s the teaching of Taylor Swift too. Whatever you make of her music (and for the record, I’m a fan), she’s an astute philosopher of forgiveness.

Scott Hershovitz is a professor of law and a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

A version of this article appears in print on

, Section

SR

, Page

6

of the New York edition

with the headline:

The Wisdom of Taylor Swift

. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Read More

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here