‘Hamilton’ Reminds Us to Forgive Before We Condemn

"Hamilton" got me thinking about the concept of forgiveness and the equally powerful concept of rehabilitation.
July 14, 2020
Daveed Diggs and Lin-Manuel Miranda of ‘Hamilton’ performs onstage during the 70th Annual Tony Awards at The Beacon Theatre on June 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Last week, I watched “Hamilton” on Disney+. It was my third time experiencing this extraordinary musical. At the risk of advertising for a company that doesn’t need your money, everyone should subscribe — if only for a month — just to experience this production.

Alexander Hamilton is one of my favorite historical figures. An immigrant, orphaned child of a Scotsman and a Caribbean prostitute, Hamilton was critical to winning the War of Independence and forming this nation. While the French and Russian revolutions devolved into periods of violence and retribution, the American Revolution did not. Men of varying views established a form of government in the post-Revolution period through words, ideas and persuasion. The musical tells much of that story.

There are many songs in the musical that are extraordinary. One comes in the second act, when we learn that Hamilton — otherwise a man of great principle —  has cheated on his wife. After estrangement, a tragedy occurs that forces them together again. The song that ensues repeats the word “forgiveness” several times.

This got me thinking about the concept of forgiveness and the equally powerful concept of rehabilitation. We often fail to remember that we are all imperfect, make mistakes and are worthy of rehabilitation. When acting one-on-one, like Hamilton and his wife, people often find the strength and compassion to forgive each other. But when acting in groups, it seems people often give way to the bloodlust of the mob.

Everyone — conservative or liberal, rich or poor, Black or white — is human, possessed by human frailties, errors in judgment and imperfections. Yet, we should be thinking about the universality of imperfection and remember the adage “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”

Between the MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, our society has been forced to consider some pretty ugly stuff that has existed historically and continues to exist through today. I do not purport to write an entire history of the legacy of racial discrimination or gender inequality. There has been so much written — and to be written — by those who have experienced these outrages and by those who study these legacies. Rather, I am concerned about what we do about those who have transgressed.

Permitting growth is hard but necessary if we are to form a more perfect union.

We legitimately call out those who have pursued racist agendas or have engaged in gender discrimination or harassment. But in doing so, we sometimes go overboard and publicly shame people for a word and/or deed that is singular and not indicative of a pattern of behavior. Even when behavior is just plain wrong, if the contrition seems genuine, we should try to forgive.

There are those who deserve the approbation of society for their heinous acts —throughout history and today. They include the Confederate traitors to our country, the racists instigators behind Jim Crow laws, members of hate groups, and any  people who willfully and wrongfully engage in racial injustice and sexual harassment.

There are others whose crimes are not so clear, who have said things that are offensive, perhaps even controversial, that might be construed as misogynistic or racist. Let me be clear that I do not condone such behavior. I just worry that perhaps our judgment, while in many cases justifiable, results in shaming/shunning/loss of careers — penalties that exceed the gravity of the crime. Rather than these draconian humiliations and punishments, what if we forgave, with the expectation of better behavior and a model for others?

A case in point is former Sen. Al Franken. Here is a guy who, by most measures, could be viewed as a feminist. He also, depending with whom you speak, might also be considered a comedian. After engaging in childish behavior that seemed consistent with his reputation as a comedian and as a friend of the woman involved, he apologized. (A photo of him from 2006 surfaced groping a fellow performer on a flight home from a USO tour in Afghanistan.) No one was harmed, or so it seems. Yet he was summarily shamed and driven from the U.S. Senate. Many of those who participated in driving him from the Senate since have indicated they had acted too hastily. The same often holds true for others who told inappropriate jokes, made inappropriate remarks or condoned inappropriate behavior — perhaps including events at a college party years ago. It seems we are no longer kind enough, as a society, to forgive such behaviors and allow people to move on — older, wiser and better educated, even when acknowledging past error.

It feels as if we are embarking in a direction where every past act, every past word, every stumbling misstatement is parsed, analyzed and vilified, resulting in ruined careers, public humiliation and the inability to recover. Add to this the “shaming” that seems to be going on with social media and it is an unforgiving world in which we live. This is the “gotcha” culture that goes beyond pointing out past errors, but canceling out an adversary in total. If a person generally is honorable, the totality of their actions should be taken into account when analyzing a single slip of the tongue or questionable action. President Barack Obama initially opposed gay marriage but his position evolved to embrace it. Would it have been appropriate to shun him back then? We all deserve the right to evolve. Permitting growth is hard but necessary if we are to form a more perfect union.

Add to this the rejection of free speech by those with whom people disagree — a rejection practiced by the same people who claim entitlement to it. As Bret Stephens noted earlier this month, “There are those who believe all the old patriarchal hierarchies must go (so that new ‘intersectional’ hierarchies may arise) … who demand cringing public apologies from those who have sinned against an ever-more radical ideological standard (while those apologies won’t save them from being fired).”

A tyranny of correctness is on the march to remove dissenting views and/or those who have transgressed by automatic shunning, rather than educating the sinner and addressing ideas with ideas. Just this week, a professor shared that he and his colleagues live in fear of stating an opinion to which a single student in a class might take offense, resulting in punishment.

We live in a time when people increasingly do not feel free to speak. Opposing views increasingly are stifled. Ironically, the desire to label people and remove them may actually hinder — not further — the cause of those who are calling them out. Forgiving smaller transgressions and concentrating on identifying and removing those who truly, unapologetically and repeatedly transgress, should be the focus.

Again, I’m not saying bad behaviors ever are justified. I’m just suggesting when we label someone — irretrievably and forever — as a racist because of a prior action or misstep, are we acting in a manner in which we would want to be judged? This is nuanced stuff; it isn’t binary. People typically are neither “good” nor “bad.” 

As it is said, “Judge not, lest you shall be judged.” That said, we all are judgmental. It is hard to practice nuance. How does one maintain a balance between remaining principled while exercising forgiveness? Our worst tendencies are easily exploited by demagogues, while nuance is so hard to achieve. For all of our good, we must try.

Glenn Sonnenberg is president of Latitude Real Estate Holdings. He is former president of Stephen Wise Temple and is on the boards of the Jewish Federation, the Children’s Institute, Wayfinder Family Services, Bet Tzedek and Center Theatre Group. 

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