Michael Vick and the problem with forgiveness
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has conditionally reinstated former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, who was convicted of running a dogfighting ring in 2007. Vick served 23 months in federal prison, followed by two months of house arrest.
Last Thursday the Philadelphia Eagles answered the question as to which team would sign a convicted dog-killer (there were 32 possible answers to the question, and “none of the above” wasn’t one of them), and in doing so touched off a long-awaited PR war for the souls of their stunned fans. That the move is this controversial in Philly is instructive, because this is a city that has some of the meanest, most hardcore fans in the sporting world. Imagine if the team had instead been somebody like Seattle or the 49ers.
In any case, this is America, and as such there was never any doubt that Vick would be reinstated and that some team would pay millions to sign him. If Saddam Hussein had been able to break down a defense and get to the rim he wouldn’t be in Hell right now, he’d be in the NBA. So the controversy, such as it is, has nothing to do with anybody being surprised that Vick would find his way back onto the field.
Nonetheless, the argument is raging, and not just in Philadelphia. As I’ve read what people on “both” sides of the question have to say, as I’ve listened to the takes from local and national various sports commentators, as I’ve heard callers to sports talk stations offering their humble (and utterly meaningless) opinions, I have to admit that I’ve gotten a little tired of some of the memes being trotted out to defend Vick, the Eagles and the league. No matter how self-evidently inaccurate or utterly silly a particular idea may be, once it reaches the point of cliché the chances of somebody not repeating it are about the same as a crack addict not honking on the pipe every chance he gets. It’s true that much of what I’m complaining about comes from a noble place and it’s also true that many of those who are getting on my nerves are in fact good people espousing worthy ideals. Still, we have to understand that good intentions don’t guarantee positive results, and sometimes the pursuit of even the best ideals can effect unanticipated and undesired outcomes.
Here are some examples.
Everybody deserves a second chance…
Really? Everybody? Let’s test this. How about Charles Manson? Does he deserve a second chance? If so, can he stay at your hosue when we release him? Did Ted Bundy deserve a second chance, and if so, would you have let him escort your daughter to the prom? How about TIm McVeigh, or Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold or Pol Pot or Stalin or Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer?
Okay, okay. What Vick did wasn’t as bad as those guys. I get that. But two things to remember. First, the meme says everybody, not almost everybody, and this ain’t no straw man – I’m quoting lots and lots and lots of people that I’ve heard with my own in ears in just the past month. If we agree, as I suspect we do, that it’s not really everybody, then what we’re literally saying is that not everybody deserves a second chance.
Second, let’s try a scenario involving nobody famous. Say you’re a parent and you have a brother named Fred. And one day you catch Fred molesting your five year-old daughter. Assuming you’re even vaguely human, Fred’s ass is off to jail (assuming you can keep yourself from killing him on the spot).
So one day Fred gets out of jail. Do you let him babysit your daughter? If not, why not? After all, everybody deserves a second chance.
Give me a few minutes and I think I can convince just about anybody out there, even the most charitably minded person alive, that some people don’t deserve a second chance. Once we get to that point, the only thing left is to decide where to draw the line. At a minimum, though, we’ve demonstrated the ridiculousness of ever saying those words again.
He’s paid his debt to society…
We’re a nation of laws and we must, at some level, invest a measure of faith in the collective justice of our system if we’re to live civilly. Otherwise there’s a lynch mob on every corner, a vigilante lurking in every dark alley, and that’s a prescription for chaos. Who will watch the watchers, right?
That said, it’s hard for an intelligent and moral citizen to take the system at its word, to assume that justice is done in each individual case. If a man breaks into a home, rapes and murders a woman, and winds up pleading to a misdemeanor because the prosecutors can’t cobble together enough evidence to get a felony conviction, has the perpetrator paid his debt to society? Has OJ Simpson paid his debt to society? (Remember, he was found liable for the deaths of his ex-wife and Ron Goldman in a civil case.) Or has he merely paid a fraction of the debt he should have incurred?
The “paid his debt” meme forces us to assume and to assert that the system is always right, and I’ve never yet met anyone who believes that, I don’t think. Yes, the system has run its course, but it’s not hard to find cases where offenses are punished too heavily or too lightly and every day the guilty walk free (and the innocent are sometimes convicted, as well). We do have an obligation to accept the results of the justice system, writ large, though, so while I’m mad as hell that Michael Vick only served a fraction of what I think his crimes merited, I’m not campaigning to throw him back into prison. Given a chance I’ll certainly support much stiffer penalties for dogfighting, but that’s about the future, not the past.
That said, what should I think of people who spout these kinds of clichés when they clearly have no idea of the implications of them? Further, what do we do with those who seem to think that the framers of the Constitution meant that multi-million dollar sports contracts were an inalienable right?
The system has rendered a verdict and exacted a punishment. In one context this means Vick has a right to pursue a life for himself. But in no sense does this entitle him to resume the life of royalty he lived before he was caught.
Don’t get me wrong – forgiveness is a wonderful thing, taken in moderation. People make mistakes and it wouldn’t be much of a world if we couldn’t forgive the simple fact of human failing. For my part, I’ve made massive mistakes in my life and am the (hopefully worthwhile) person I am today because I’ve been afforded the chance to learn from those errors. By the same token, I have been the victim of the mistakes of others, and have tried to be as generous with my own spirit of forgiveness as possible.
That said, we Americans have some problems where forgiveness is concerned. For starters, not all mistakes are created equal. I do not believe that all things deserve forgiveness (refer to my comments above on Tim McVeigh and your Uncle Fred) and even if I did, I think it would need to be earned by a regimen of penance that was proportional to the offense. Despite what 90% of Americans are required by their religions to say they believe, I don’t think that if we all felt free to voice what we really believe that I’d be in the minority at all.
For example, if you’ve been around long enough you’ve probably had the misfortune to be involved with some form of marital or relationship infidelity. Maybe he/she cheated on you, or maybe you were the cheater. Or both. Or maybe you’ve been lucky enough not to be involved, but you know people who have. In any case, tell me if you have heard some variation of this: “I forgave him/her, but I can’t ever forget.” My guess is that most of us know of a case where person A forgave person B, but nonetheless exiled person B from his/her life forever. Well, is that really forgiveness? If so, then what is the functional difference between forgiveness and can’t-forgiveness? The practical results are the same in both cases – the only distinction is that in one case you repeat the words that you’ve been taught you have to repeat when issuing mandatory forgiveness.
An ever bigger issue has to do with the hypocrisy of forgiveness – in short, the ways we use the certainty of forgiveness to enable all manner of bad behavior. We get a lot of this from those in the ministry, it seems. Jim Bakker. Jimmy Swaggart. Ted Haggard. Henry Lyons. If it isn’t a preacher it’s somebody famous in the news all the time. Right now the happy guys in the spotlight are Louisville hoops coach Rick Pitino and former Senator and presidential hopeful John Edwards. (One wonders if “Catholics in Louisville” would be less forgiving of a coach who knocked up a stranger in public restroom and then paid for her abortion if said coach’s record was in the .500 range.)
The problem here has to do with the concept of intent. It’s one thing to forgive someone who acted improperly in a time of crisis, or who made the wrong choice when the choices were ambiguous, or someone who hurt us accidentally through some form of negligence.
But what about those people who intentionally did that which they knew or believed to be wrong with clear planning and/or forethought? Jim Bakker didn’t realize that he shouldn’t cheat on his wife? Really? All those Catholic priests didn’t know that molesting little boys was bad? Really? Ted Haggard can’t say hello without railing against the abomination of sodomy but he thought it was okay to buy a male hooker for himself? Really? In these kinds of cases there’s a good degree of arrogance associated with even asking for forgiveness, because the regret very clearly isn’t about the action, it’s about getting caught.
To this point, can you actually argue that Michael Vick didn’t realize dogfighting was wrong? If so, then why did he take such effort to conceal it?
We’re not just talking about famous people and preachers here, of course. The certainty of forgiveness plays a big part in the way some of us plan our lives. For instance:
- Monday-Friday: go to work
- Friday night: get loaded, get into a fight
- Saturday night: pick up a hooker
- Sunday: go to confession
Lather. Rinse. Repeat. How many times do you suppose that the aforementioned legion of priests confessed for buggering altar boys? What do you think is the world record for number of consecutive weeks confessing to buggering altar boys?
At some point, we’re not talking about genuine forgiveness, we’re talking about enabling.
The purpose of prison – or at least one of the purposes – is rehabilitation. We send people who do bad things to prison so they won’t do them anymore. Studies indicating national recidivism rates of better than two-thirds tell us what we need to know about the rehabilitating effects of incarceration. Still, it’s a nice idea.
But even in the absence of this data, we’re assuming that all things can be fixed. In truth, an extremely detailed study would probably conclude that some kinds of anti-social behaviors are more easily addressed than others. For instance, a small-time mugger who encounters a strong vocational training program in jail is a very different case from a pedophile. A few experts seem to think that pedophilia can be treated, but I don’t believe this is anywhere near a majority opinion.
So if we’re going to talk about rehabilitating Mike Vick, it’s fair to ask about the nature of the crime and its amenability to treatment.
And here’s my biggest problem: what Michael Vick did was simply sub-human. I don’t mean that word in a pejorative, insulting way. Instead, I’m referring to a clear deficit in human empathy. One of our greatest writers, Philip K Dick, in one of his greatest books, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, confronted a world of increasingly human-seeming androids and posed the question: what quality makes us essentially human?
The answer: empathy. In the narrative (upon which the film Blade Runner was based), humans worked hard to cultivate their empathy (which was central to the society’s dominant religious ideology) through the stewardship of animals. A citizen who didn’t have an animal to care for lived a deficient, hollow life, and few sins were more damning than the failure to properly care for one’s animal. In one of the central moments of the novel, one of the replicants kills an animal – something no human could have even contemplated. The lesson is undeniable: only something inhuman could harm an animal.
Dick’s depiction of a strange science fiction near-future was brilliant in its grasp of the fundamental character of our actual humanity, here in the real and now. Empathy makes us human, and there are few measures of empathy that are more revealing than our treatment of animals. Why animals? Because they are helpless. They rely on us.
There’s no absolution here for Michael Vick
We all have our own means of evaluating other people and the moral codes that govern our lives, but for me no bell has ever rung more clearly than the one PK Dick sounds in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? From where I stand, there is no more meaningful and reliable measure of human character than how one treats the innocent and those who cannot take care of themselves. Animals are one case, and a good one. So are children. And if you’re a man, especially a strong one, I know all I need to know about you if you abuse women. You are sub-human.
I have no forgiveness for that, and I’ve never really understand people who do.
So here’s how I see it from the context that I’ve described here. The NFL has said that sub-human behavior doesn’t disqualify you from membership in their highly paid club, and the Philadelphia Eagles have gone a step further and said they’re willing to subsidize those who exhibit sub-human behavior.
You do what your conscience tells you is right. For my part, though, I won’t be spending a penny on the NFL this year. Further, I’ll be paying attention to who advertises with them and making sure I don’t patronize their businesses, either. It’s not much, I know. I don’t have a lot of money and the NFL doesn’t care what people like me think. But my principles must matter to me and I won’t apologize for having a code that isn’t subject to compromise on something as essential as the default qualities of humanity.
Meanwhile, it’s a shame that Rae Carruth isn’t up for parole anytime soon. I’d like to see if the league would at least put its foot down when the victims are human.