Jacque Derrida: On Forgiveness and Punishment

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Jacque Derrida: On Forgiveness and Punishment

September 3, 1939— World War Two had begun, and on this seminal day, the world plunged into a conflict that would redefine the workings of human association and justice. Surely, such a war of urgency and severity called into question (and for reform) the notion of a shared inter-state jurisprudence; marking also, for Jacque Derrida and his contemporaries, the first real instance of crime threatening the very notion of human morality—a “crime against humanity”. (Derrida, 29) Accordingly, discourse over a universal ethic or morality became problematized out of the absolute repulsion for the acts themselves, the weight of their monstrosity, which seemed to transcend all notions of a moral imaginable. The starting point here is as political as it is problematic, for the justifications of punishment—such as the need for protection against misconduct or rehabilitation of criminals—were no longer valid for punishing Nazi-related crimes. The atrocities of such a global conflict shattered all standard of justice; they were actions that could neither be punished sufficiently nor forgiven ordinarily: How might one (or a whole nation) respond? Who is the judge of these acts and on what grounds? What does such a notion of justice inscribe? Nevertheless, the rhetoric of forgiveness and punishment became prominent in the world as politicians and institutions alike began asking for forgiveness. For Derrida, it is enough to recall the Catholic Church’s plea for forgiveness of World War Two crimes, the plea of the Japanese Prime minister to Korea and China, the plea of Belgian government for neglecting to interfere with the massacre in Rwanda, and so on. On the grounds of these actions, accordingly, the notions of punishment and forgiveness are conflated by philosophers such as Hannah Arendt and Vladimir Jankelevitch: “Punishment has something in common with forgiveness, as it tends to put a limit on something that without intervening could continue indefinitely.”(Derrida, 37) Indiscernibly from their political agenda, Arendt defines punishment here as an alternative to forgiveness—as opposed to its contrary. Both principles (of punishment and forgiveness) share the possibility of ending depravations that, without their interference, could go on ceaselessly—the implications of which cause, for Derrida, burning questions over the nature of forgiveness.

Though, before delving into Derrida’s musings and characterization of forgiveness based on his skepticism, the tendency to conflate both principles in the wake of the Second World War requires further explanation. For Arendt, relating these principles has very significant effects on the notion of forgiveness: “It is a structural element of the domain of human affairs, that people would be incapable of punishing what reveals itself as unforgiveable”. To clarify Arendt’s argument here, it is necessary that men are not capable of forgiveness if there is no possibility of punishment (or of punishing something unforgivable). This point is fleshed out through Derrida’s discussion of Jankelevitch’s “To Forgive?”: “...for the inexpiable there is no possible forgiveness…not any forgiveness that would have a meaning that would make sense. For the common or the dominant axiom of the tradition, finally, and to my eyes the most problematic, is that forgiveness must have a meaning. And this meaning must determine itself on the ground of salvation, of reconciliation, redemption, atonement, I would say even sacrifice…as soon as one can no longer punish the criminal with a ‘punishment proportionate to his crime’ and ‘the punishment becomes almost indifferent’ it is a matter of the inexpiable…the irreparable… From the inexpiable or the irreparable, Jankelevitch concludes the unforgivable. And one does not forgive, according to him, the unforgivable.” (Derrida, 36) It is within the argument exemplified here—which can be linked with both Arendt and...
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