Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Post-Obama Victory: Forgiveness

 by Bennett Gordon

Tags: Spirituality, Politics, forgiveness, Obama, McCain, evolution, In Character, Wilson Quarterly,

Shaking HandsThere has been a lot to repent for throughout this election. Both Republicans and Democrats have viciously attacked each other over the past few months (or years) in pursuit of a single goal: electoral victory. Now that Barack Obama’s victory has been decided, it’s time for a little forgiveness. 

It wasn’t always this nasty. Gil Troy writes for the Wilson Quarterly that “our political ancestors often approached the political game in better humor and with a closer attachment to political life.” Today’s “media politics,” by contrast, engender partisan bickering and division for the sake of a compelling storyline. In their attempts to motivate the electorate, politicians end up distancing themselves from voters. The effect is that  political parties today are approached with the same zeal as a pro-sports team, according to Troy, with all the intensity and vitriol, but little participation from the fans.

Evidence of this nastiness was on full display throughout campaign 2008. Many on the left focused on the hate-filled videos from outside of McCain-Palin rallies, but the Democrats released their share of attack advertisements, too. Watching television in battle-ground states over the past few weeks has been an exercise in muck-wallowing, with a constant stream of attack ads and over-the-top accusations coming from both sides.

The reality is that revenge serves an evolutionary purpose, psychologist Michael McCullough told In Character. When an animal feels wronged, revenge protects that animal’s interest and deters “harm-doers from harming us a second time.” The inclination for some may be to redress the harms of the past few months and lick the wounds inflicted throughout the campaign.

For many, however, Obama’s victory can send that same message of deterrence for the wrongs of the past eight years. On an evolutionary level, for a species to survive, animals must move beyond revenge to forgiveness.

“When people forgive,” according to McCullough, “they switch from ill will for someone who has harmed them to good will for that person.” That simple act has evolutionary and health benefits: Conflicts create anxiety and stress that forgiveness helps alleviate. Beyond the benefits to the individual, forgiveness fosters cooperation in a species, according to McCullough, and “helps us restore and maintain relationships that are valuable to us.”

In their final speeches of last night, both Obama and McCain seemed to acknowledge the importance of relationships with other Americans. Obama quoted Abraham Lincoln saying “We are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” The way to ensure that is for both sides to forgive.

Image by Aidan Jones, licensed under Creative Commons.