Twitter is aflutter today with talk of Jonah Lehrer, the (in)famous young author caught fabricating quotes, about his recent talk at the Knight Foundation where he was reportedly paid $20k to speak. I can’t tell if it’s the price tag of his speaking engagement, or the fact he was given such a high profile forum to speak, that has riled people up.
What I’ve wondered about since all this happened is: how does redemption work?
We often talk about forgiveness, compassion and second chances as cultural values. These ideas are deeply imbedded in many religions and cultures. But when someone we follow fails us, those ideals go out the window. We run with our outrage and put them in a box we never let them even try to earn their way out of. Perhaps some crimes are so heinous that there is no redemption, but what are they? How do we evaluate these things?
Questions that come to mind include:
- Is there a redemption formula?
- Is there a number of good acts they must do, or a period of time without ‘failing’ again to re-earn our basic trust and respect?
- Is our judgement based on something more than behavior? Was that true before we were betrayed?
- What are the measures we use to decide?
- What kinds of violations are unredeemable?
Shouldn’t there be some criteria, however daunting, we use to let people work their way out of the damage they’ve done?
From the talk transcript he’s clearly contrite:
12:39: Lehrer introduces himself: “For those who do not know who I am, let me give you a brief summary: I’m the author of a book on creativity that contained several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes. I committed plagiarism on my blog, taking without credit or citation an entire paragraph from the blog of Christian Jarrett. I plagiarized from myself. I lied to a journalist named Michael Moynihan to cover up the Dylan fabrications.”
But perhaps an apology was part of what the Knight Foundation demanded he do. The first challenge of redemption it seems is convincing people you’re at least as upset about what was done as they are, which is no easy task.
As my questions suggest I don’t have the answers. I don’t understand how the mathematics of atonement work, yet I’m convinced we need one.
What do you think?
[Update: Lehrer posted his talk transcript here]