Ellen, Amber and Reclaiming Forgiveness

By: Danielle Butler

In response to mounting criticism over being seen at a Dallas Cowboys game sitting alongside former President George W. Bush, daytime talk show juggernaut Ellen DeGeneres defended her friendship with Bush in a 4 minute monologue on her show directed at the wave of disapproval expressed on Twitter. Staring earnestly into the camera, DeGeneres asserted “Here’s the thing. I’m friends with George Bush” she said, “In fact I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have.” After citing an example of her being able to befriend people who wear fur, while being vegan she continued, “When I say be kind to one another, I don’t mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.” Met with a predictable thunderous applause from her cheering audience, and tweets from approving fans who exclaimed that seeing her and Bush’s friendship helped ‘restore their faith in America.’ DeGeneres’ defiant defense of her “kindness” came days after another event that elicited the same response for largely the same reasons.

A few days before DeGeneres’s monologue, 18 year old Brandt Jean stood up in the courtroom to ask the judge if he could hug Amber Guyger – the woman and former cop who’d just been sentenced to 10 years in prison for fatally shooting his older brother Botham Jean. After receiving permission from the visibly verklempt judge, an emotional Jean embraced Guyger saying he didn’t want to see her go to jail and he forgave her. Imploring her to give her life over to God who’d surely also grant her his forgiveness. Sobs reportedly could be heard in the courtroom, and on social media reporters who’d been covering the verdict and those who’d been following the case remarked on what a touching display of humanity they’d all had the privilege of witnessing. 

Degeneres’ defense of her friendship with Bush – a man who she shares class interests with, may have different circumstances than that of a grieving family, leaning on their faith to cope with the trauma of having a loved one murdered by an agent of the state. However the reception of these displays are part and parcel of the larger and pervasive dysfunctional American socialization and its influence on the concept and distribution of “kindness” and “forgiveness”. Where the virtues of kindness and forgiveness are best displayed and most lauded, when extending grace towards people who have caused immeasurable harm, with or without the presence of remorse for having done so. Whether it can be attributed to a corruption or adherence to Christian doctrine and values, the notion of the peaceable, long suffering, and meek, extending grace and redemption to the arguably contemptible lends itself to a troubling dynamic. One that perpetually centers performing forgiveness for the people who are in relative positions of  power to enact the most and/or more frequent harm, who are least likely to be denied re-entry into society and investing in their subsequent redemption arc. While living in a captialist white supremacist police state, one that encourages deference to power and authority, its imperative to examine how these factors contribute to whom this grace is more likely to benefit, and whom it is most often withheld from.

When anger is characterized as a toxic flame to be extinguished as soon as possible so as to expedite the “healing process”, and civility is touted as a social necessity – it encourages the minimization of harm. This is illustrated when Ellen reduces Bush’s presidency, one that resulted in the slaughter of millions of Iraquis, empowered the influence of facist  Evangelical interests, paved the way for the privitization of education in New Orleans after having abandoned and penalized most of the city’s displaced citizens during Katrina, expanded state survaillance, provided police departments with military weapons, engaged in torture, and laid the groundwork for Trump’s xenophobic and islamaphobic rhetoric and legislation we see today – to a mere difference of opinion. In his essay The Jew & The Antisemite, Jean Paul Sartre explains the function of this behavior: 

“The word opinion makes us stop and think. It is the word a hostess uses to bring to an end a discussion that threatens to become acrimonious. It suggests that all points of view are equal; it reassures us, for it gives an inoffensive appearance to ideas by reducing to the level of tastes. All tastes are natural; all opinions are permitted.”

And while Brandt Jean’s offer of forgiveness to his brother’s killer is not an uncommon gesture for surviving family, coping with the exhaustion of the trial process, and grief. The presiding Judge, district Judge Tammy Kemp, allowed her courtroom to envelop Guyger in uncharacteristic warmth, laying out a path for Guyger  to surrender herself to God, and his expedient forgiveness. Hugging her close Judge Kemp assured Guyger, “You haven’t done as much as you think you have, and you can be forgiven. You did something bad in one moment in time”. Similarly while giving interviews on the morning news circuit jurors who were tasked with the conviction and sentencing of Guyger, expressed being tearful and torn over sending her to jail often grimacing while recalling the verdict. Both Judge Kemp and the jurors claiming that they had seen a transformation in Guyger over the two week trial, and her remorse. Despite her having lied about the details of the case, and utilizing a defense that attempted to paint Botham as responsible for his own death.

Acts of kindness and forgiveness are essential components of a humane society, however when they are disparately applied in favor of those who already enjoy a station of privilege and power they become insidious, callous displays of self indulgence, and especially cruel while viewed by an audience most affected by the harm(s) of the forgiven who often don’t enjoy being on its receiving end. While defending her hug and spiritual counseling of Guyger, Judge Kemp tearfully asserted her compassion shouldn’t have to be limited by race, however Judge Kemp (who enjoyed a two time endorsement from the Dallas PD) was unable to offer other examples where she behaved similarly to other defendants who weren’t former cops. Likewise, while DeGeneres touts her friendship with Bush as a testament to her tolerance for difference of opinion, two years ago she notably stated that she would never have Trump on her show stating “he’s against everything I stand for.” The absurdity in gushing over the rehabilitation and friendship of a man who to date has shown no remorse for the atrocities he’s committed (including laying the groundwork for Trump and supporting many of his efforts) was best captured in a video by a twitter user who photoshopped images of tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib, injured Iraqi civilians and  distressed and suffering Katrina victims in the background of Ellen’s 4 minute cry for conditional civility for the cruel and powerful.]

There is something bizarre and grotesque about a country that gushes over the imagery of two multi-millionaires (one being an unrepentant mass murderer)  enjoying each other’s company and holds their relationship up as a beacon of hope, while it’s homeless population is being discriminated against, murdered and burned alive at increasingly alarming rates, and it’s formerly imprisoned population is often denied re-entry into society. There is something sinister about weaponizing the grief and complicated relationship a family has with reconciling the death of a loved one, as a battering tool to compel communities affected by police violence to view the gesture of forgiveness as aspirational. Whether it be thousands of onlookers being warmed by the sight of Michelle Obama passing Bush candy at a church service, or affirmed in seeing Neocon facists being given a space to express their views on mainstream platforms as a metric for tolerance and fairness – what these people are ultimately comforted by, is the maintaining of social order. An assurance that nothing is required of them to realize the change they feign interest in, a reminder that their comfort is in no danger of being disrupted.

Presently, we are at a time where kindness and ethical and humane treatment of our fellow man is imperative. As climate change compels more migration from the global south and struggle for resources, our homeless population rises, vulnerable populations are still subjected to state violence, and many are forecasting another imminent recession – community, is of increasing significance. And while we cannot afford to continue to employ punitive responses, we can afford to imagine a healthier display of kindness. A kind of kindness that would prioritize protecting the vulnerable from harm, as opposed to only marveling at its ability to forgive harm waged against the vulnerable. A kind of forgiveness that encourages those that have transgressed, to be worthy of its presence should their victims be interested in offering it, not entitled to it. With the social conditions that presently steer cultural attitudes it’s critical that we reimagine kindness; focusing on decentering the exploitative uses that are weaponized to engender sympathy for the ruling class, and re-center it on members of our communities that have long been deemed less deserving of it.