Law in the Internet Society

Can we still forgive if we can't forget?

-- By KerimAksoy - 26 Nov 2019

Edward Snowden's talk at Columbia sold out long before its scheduled date. I wanted to hear, in real-time, the insights of a man I deemed a hero six years after his "big moment." I was anxious to learn from him and see what he had to say in regards to cybersecurity, data privacy, and mass surveillance. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that not only did he strongly echo Prof. Moglen's explanations, he also used the same language, referring to technology companies as being in the business of "behavior collection." During his talk, one thing he said stood out amongst others. In response to a moderator's question concerning how the Internet had changed since he first started tinkering with it, he said something along the lines of, "When we lose the ability to forget, we also lose the ability to forgive." I'd been thinking about how the Internet is fueling partisanship, and it seemed that Snowden hit the nail right on the head with this aphorism.

Snowden's Perspective

Snowden first accessed the Internet at a time when one could still be genuinely anonymous. It was a time of chat rooms and message boards. Unless you personally disclosed your identity, or you were attacked, you could only be known to the extent that your pseudonym was known. If conversations got heated or you said something embarrassing, you could always drop your pseudonym and start anew with a different one. Individuals weren't tied to their real-life personalities. Online, they had "personas" instead. They could be different people at different times or different people at the same time. They could be people online that they never could be in real life, and they found this to be freeing. It was not utopia, since bad actors who really wanted to figure out who you were behind the pseudonym still could. However, most people stayed anonymous.

However, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, most people no longer have the luxury of staying anonymous. They consciously choose to join these platforms under their real-life guises. Even if they do not, it is easier than ever to investigate who they really are, as exemplified in the cases of James Comey and Mitt Romney. By saying that "hen we lose the ability to forget, we also lose the ability to forgive," Snowden was expressing his thought that people are becoming more and more committed to what they said in the past. They are no longer "allowed" to change their mind after hearing someone else's point of view, lest they are accused of being "weak" for admitting an error or of being labeled a disingenuous "flip-flopper," They are finding it harder to admit that they were in error and sticking to wrong points of view, thereby not trying to bridge the gap with someone who has a different opinion. They are also more likely to get defensive and protect their opinions, since their real names are attached to the opinions they are mentioning online, as opposed to saying them under fake guises they do not personally feel attached to. By remembering others' sayings towards us, we are becoming less likely to forgive them too. Therefore, according to Snowden, the fall in anonymity is, at least in part, fueling the rise of extreme partisanship.

Forgetting and Forgiving in My Personal Life

I was going through a difficult time in my junior year of college when I broke up with my girlfriend. I was depressed and had no motivation to work. My grades took a long tumble. Luckily, I was taking a class called Contemporary Political Thought at the time. Halfway through the semester, we started reading about Nietzsche's life and writings, which came as a cure to my depression. Nietzsche wanted to live his life in such a way as to be able to look back upon it in old age and shout, "Da Capo! Da Capo!", meaning from the beginning, over and over again. He wanted to live a life without regrets, wanting to relive all the bad parts as well as the good. An important part of this philosophy the ability to forget and forgive. He discussed the case of a French revolutionary who had a terrible memory, therefore holding no grudges and carrying no burdens. While this story was likely apocryphal, I took it to heart. I could live a happier life if I forgot more easily, therefore not remembering the harms I perceived to have been inflicted upon me. I could relive the bad parts, knowing that I wouldn't live with their trauma once they were over.

In an age where we spend so much time documenting our lives online, however, this is becoming much more difficult for me to do. I see exes me on social media and feel a tinge of sadness and jealousy. I see the profiles of friends and family members who have passed away, remembering them again and feeling their absence. I see those who have persecuted my family and experience feelings of intense anger. Frequently, when I come across those from my past who have hurt me or my family, I am reminded of their terrible actions. I relive the trauma again and again, as though it happened yesterday, therefore not having the ability to forgive. Enough time does not pass by for me to forget their actions.


For obvious reasons, the easiest solution to this, at least on a personal level, is to get off social media. I am slowly but surely working towards that goal, by first deleting the apps off my phone, and then deleting my accounts. I could also simply post less. Besides starting a movement to encourage others to get off social media, however, I do not see how we could change the fact that we now live in a culture where most people post online under their real names. As long as this is true, it will be harder to forget and harder to forgive.

I'm not sure I understand the theme of this draft. Let's leave Snowden out of it, because he may have meant something different, and what's important is what you mean. It seems evident to me that the quantity of memory is not related to the quantity of information. I remember my childhood quite vividly and in much detail, even though there are no Facebook pages and (by contemporary standards) few photographs. So even if there is an inverse relationship between memory and forgiveness I don't think your problem of forgiveness is made harder by the 21st century.

Nor do I understand why a feeling of jealousy seeing an old girlfriend with someone else should be considered an aspect of the problem of forgiveness: what have you to forgive? Your feeling of jealousy is the problem, so because you are not wronged you are not called upon to forgive. Perhaps you mean that every former girlfriend you have has wronged you. That too is a sign, however, that does not unambiguously point to forgiveness you should undertake.

But these confusions that I have seem to me peripheral, in a way. The point that seems most uncertain to me is the apparent premise that to remember is to be less able to forgive. But this would seem to imply that perfect amnesia would forgive all. Tout ne pas comprendre, c'est tout pardonner, which is ironic, but not very convincing. Forgiveness is a positive, active process: loving mercy for its own sake, not an absence of consciousness of wrongs suffered. How can we forgive what we do not remember?

So the best way forward here, from my point of view, would be to make the underlying psychological propositions a little clearer. That would allow the next draft to state its theme directly, without the need for Edward Snowden intermediating. You could start fro forgiveness and work outward.

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r3 - 09 Jan 2020 - 13:39:01 - EbenMoglen
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