XXVIII.5 September - October 2021
Page: 14
Digital Citation

I am sorry!

Gopinaath Kannabiran

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The topic of forgiveness is slowly gaining attention among researchers interested in the design of digital technology and computer-mediated interactions around topics such as security, trust, intimacy, privacy, and repairing broken or strained relationships. For instance, Asimina Vasalou and colleagues propose five provisions to guide designers who want to "encourage reparation in social systems," attempting to "underscore the relevance of reparation for the field of HCI" [1]. Building upon existing efforts, I provide critical commentary on designing digital technology for fostering forgiveness from a feminist perspective. Forgiveness, it has been argued, can be beneficial for both personal and societal well-being. The concept of forgiveness has a long history in every human culture, often raised during the discussion of repairing or reconciling relationships after transgressions occur. It is possible to forgive someone without wanting to reconcile. It is also possible to reconcile a relationship, by recalibrating expectations or with diminished trust, without having to forgive.

Human relations are increasingly mediated through the use of digital interactive technology across personal and professional contexts. Conflicts and transgressions are likely to happen between two or more individuals over time. Digital interactive technologies such as email systems, social networking sites, multiplayer games, and mobile applications play a crucial role with respect to how transgressions between people occur, are managed and resolved, and may be prevented from being repeated. Lars-Erik Janlert and Erik Stolterman emphasize that "interactivity is not only about being reactive and responsive but also about pushing reality in a certain direction" with respect to HCI research [2]. In this column, I critically evaluate and articulate some preliminary ideas in favor of "pushing reality" toward fostering forgiveness from a feminist perspective. I argue for a trauma-informed, care-based approach that prioritizes the well-being of victims while designing technologies for reconciliatory interactions. But why should we discuss forgiveness?

Let us consider an example scenario. Reena makes a problematic post on social media. Within a few hours, her post goes viral and several people express anger. Reena has the option of editing or deleting her post. Depending on the design of the platform, her post may be censored and she may be temporarily or permanently banned. For argument's sake, let us assume that Reena deleted her problematic post after a day, but by then several screenshots of it have been circulated beyond her intended network. Apart from dealing with angry online comments from strangers, Reena may also face the real threat of being doxed, whereby someone reveals and publicizes personal information about someone else without their consent.

Those who express anger at someone online do not always have a clear sense of how many people are sending similar angry comments. Lapidation, or death by stoning, involves a group of people causing harm to the offender as a public act of punishment. No one particular stone is lethal by itself and therefore no one particular person can be held responsible for the death of the persecuted. People like Reena may face serious threats to their physical and emotional well-being because it is not always possible for others to see the volume, intent, content, and seriousness of retribution aimed at someone online. As Vasalou and colleagues remark, "systems whose design is dominated by tools of punishment for maintaining order encourage strategies of retaliation whose nature is conveniently swift but not necessarily fair" [1]. In this example, I have been intentionally ambiguous about why Reena's post is problematic. Reena's post might have reinforced and further perpetuated existing injustices online, contributing to the "slow death by thousand cuts" experienced by individuals when persistently exposed to sexism, racism, transphobia, or ableism. The contribution to collective harm by actions of many individuals, both as transgression and as punishment, mediated through the use digital technology, often defies neat categorizations of victims and offenders. What is problematic, why, and for whom are contextually arbitrated and seldom conflict free.

We have made it too easy to punish without providing adequate technological options for fostering forgiveness.

A majority of digital technology design is currently oriented through a retributive impulse (i.e., punish the offender) while handling transgressions. Existing digital-technology-mediated interactions are disproportionately retributive and lack support for fostering forgiveness. Statements like "Don't say stupid things online!" and "What you put on the Internet lives forever!" are often dispensed as commonsense advice. We encourage people to "be more careful" online and update their privacy settings, since it is possible, even likely, that anyone—a potential romantic partner, say, or a future employer—can look at our online past, often without context. These instances hint at an underlying fear-based culture of technology-enabled retribution toward transgressions that also often recommends increased surveillance as the obvious solution. We have made it too easy to punish without providing adequate technological options for fostering forgiveness when transgressions occur.

When our technology-mediated interactions are designed to be disproportionately retributive, we risk losing sight of a simple yet profound truth: We humans can learn from our mistakes. My interest in exploring forgiveness as a feminist stems from my concern that we have made it too easy to punish and discard people based on their mistakes. Some transgressions may not be forgivable, at least not immediately; others might be. Arguing in favor of an apology ritual, Christopher Bennett notes that the "fundamental impulse to apologize and make amends when one has wrongfully caused harm, can be more meaningful to victims, offenders, and the local community than the current system of" retribution [3]. Contrasting two approaches to handling transgressions, "retributive punishment is backward-looking and concerned with making the offender suffer for what he or she has done; whereas restorative justice would be concerned with making things better for all parties for the future" [3]. But is forgiveness always desirable?

Perhaps due to associations with religious traditions and spiritual practices, forgiveness is often extolled as a higher virtue. Judith A. Boss explores the limits of forgiveness as a response to domestic violence suffered by women in patriarchal cultures. "Victims of domestic violence who are unwilling to forgive are often viewed as bitter and vindictive and held to blame for their own emotional distress as well as the breakdown of the family" [4]. Boss asserts that discussions of forgiveness in our culture cannot be separated from gender politics, warning, "To put aside resentment or moral indignation and to forgive in the face of ongoing oppression absolves the oppressor of any need to change his or her behavior" [4]. Then, pushing back on idealized notions of forgiveness as higher virtue, Boss builds her critical stance: "In the absence of genuine repentance, forgiveness, that is, the putting aside of resentment, is a vice because it entails accepting the wrongdoer's degraded view of the victim" [4]. Therefore, it is necessary to resist the temptation to venerate forgiveness as a universally positive ideal to uphold.

Feminist philosopher Margaret Urban Walker observes that the "worse the wrong, one might say, the more arduous is the work and uncertain the possibility of repair" [5]. A difficult challenge in designing for fostering forgiveness is accounting for the invisible emotional labor involved in reconciliatory interactions. Roy Baumeister and colleagues postulate that to "forgive is to step out of the victim role; but relinquishing the victim status has both costs and benefits [and therefore] to understand why a given person forgives or refuses to forgive, it becomes vital to understand how the costs and benefits of the victim role pertain to the individual case" [6]. Forgiveness becomes terribly complex when there is a power inequality (e.g., employer and employee) and individual transgressions further perpetuate harm and hostility generated by past evils (e.g., posting racist memes online). Forgiveness may be contentious, inadequate, inappropriate, or even harmful at times when dealing with trauma caused by deep-rooted systems of oppression such as sexism, racism, and casteism. Further, forgiveness may not always be an adequate response to transgressions that might be better addressed through efforts such as reparations and support for victims.

In a restorative justice ethos, offenders must be provided the opportunity to express genuine remorse and demonstrate responsibility toward addressing damages caused by their transgressions. Victims of transgressions may choose to forgive not necessarily because the offender deserves it but simply in order to move on with their lives and not remain bound to past hurt caused by another, if and when possible. As Walker writes, "While forgiveness is never obligatory, and no victim should feel pressured to forgive, restorative justice creates a space where the familiar transaction of apology and forgiveness may be attempted and is sometimes completed, even in cases where wrongs are deeply serious" [5]. Existing digital-technology-mediated interactions lack support for fostering forgiveness. Walker opines, "Practices that aim to reinvite trust and ignite hope can be as simple as saying 'I'm sorry' or as complex as designing a program of reparations for victims of political violence" [5]. More research is needed to explore how we can design technological interactions to foster forgiveness when transgressions occur and prioritize the well-being of victims through trauma-informed, care-based approaches.

back to top  Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Susanne Bødker, Ida Larsen-Ledet, and Katta Spiel for their thoughtful conversations and helpful feedback on this work.

back to top  References

1. Vasalou, A., Riegelsberger, J., and Joinson. A. The application of forgiveness in social system design. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM Press, 2009, 225–228.

2. Janlert, L., and Stolterman, E. The meaning of interactivity—Some proposals for definitions and measures. Human–Computer Interaction 32, 3 (2017), 103–138.

3. Bennett, C. The Apology Ritual: A Philosophical Theory of Punishment. Cambridge Univ. Press. 2008

4. Boss, J.A. Throwing pearls to the swine: Women, forgiveness, and the unrepentant abuser. In Philosophical Perspectives on Power and Domination: Theories and Practices. L. Duhan Kaplan and L.F. Bove, eds. Rodopi Press, 1997, 235–246.

5. Walker, M.U. Moral Repair: Reconstructing Moral Relations after Wrongdoing. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006.

6. Baumeister, R.F., Exline, J.J., and Sommer, K.L. The Victim Role, Grudge Theory, and Two Dimensions of Forgiveness. In Dimensions of Forgiveness: A Research Approach. E.L. Worthington Jr., ed. Templeton Press, 1998, 79–105.

back to top  Author

Gopinaath Kannabiran is a design educator, HCI researcher, and sexual rights activist currently working as a postdoc at IT University of Copenhagen.

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Copyright held by author

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2021 ACM, Inc.

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