The Redemption of Jonah Lehrer?

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.

Update: The Knight Foundation thinks it was a mistake to pay him so much.

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]

13 Responses to “The Redemption of Jonah Lehrer?”

  1. Lucy

    Maybe someone with a lot of time on their hands could collect large scale data on this. We could record different types of transgressions, then interview people and scale their hurt feelings, track the time/acts of kindness that led to forgiveness. Perform some statistical magic on those numbers and presto. You have a linear regressions of forgiveness vs. meaningful factor affecting forgiveness. However, I’m willing to bet most of us are more likely to check our feelings against those mathematical curves, not let them determine our behaviours.

  2. Steven B. Levy

    That he’s getting paid for this really ticks me off. That he’s getting paid $20K really, really, really ticks me off. For $20K a pop I’d say I was a plagiarist, liar, and lousy guitarist as well.

    I don’t think the issue is the redemption algorithm. I think it’s the bread-and-circuses aspect, where we want to see the freak and will pay to do so, making it feasible for others to pay him and collect a profit.

    Panem et circenses. There’s a good reason Susan Collins name the land of the Hunger Games Panem.

    Or as PT Barnum said, There’s a sucker born every minute. This way to the egress.

    1. Scott

      I wonder if he was paid on an old contract, signed before he was caught. He could still give the money away I suppose, but it’s possible the foundation had no choice.

  3. A Reader

    Totally agree. He did the wrong thing, repeatedly, and like so many others, is profiteering off the back of it. I guess when you have no morals and no sense of ethics, it shouldn’t be surprising that you’re perfectly willing to sacrifice yourself on the altar of dignity, repeatedly, for enough money.

    People like him deserve to be shunned, not given more and more spotlight. It’s like the whole Nate Silver hype, which I honestly cannot grasp for the life of me. The guy is in no way a statistician but reputable news agencies refer to him as one of the world’s most famous statisticians. Even after the repeated mistakes predicting who would reach and then who would win the Superbowl, he still gets this kind of recognition and endorsement. I don’t get it.

    1. Scott

      It sounds like one criteria is “do not profit from your own lies” which he’s violated here.

  4. Ravi Warrier

    I like Jonah and his work. Yeah, he may have lied and fabricated stuff, even more than once perhaps. But, haven’t we all? It’s just that most of us don’t get caught fudging our reports and copy/pasting our presentations at work.

    Give the guy a break. He made a mistake. I’m sure he’s learned his lesson.

    To answer your questions Scott:

    I don’t think there is a formula for redemption. But, I’ve learned that forgiving self, learning lessons, and being humble while apologizing works most of the time. Most people are not able to forgive because they can’t understand the reason or can’t digest it – “How could he do that to me?????”, but once the whole picture is visible, it becomes easier to empathize (or sympathize or pity) and forgive.

    Actions and Trust are put together as cause->effect. However, I don’t think the core of trust has anything to do with actions. It’s more emotional than we think. If it were correlated to actions, every parent would lose the trust of his/her child by his/her 5th birthday. It’s the love, hope, belief, and other emotions and feelings that are behind trust. Actions are just triggers that effect emotions that effect trust.
    One’s betrayal just changes the filters s/he sees the world with and nothing else. The truth remains the same. The people remain the same. The events remain the same. We create, good or bad in our minds and not nature.

    I think Jonah’s a smart guy, who perhaps had hit a rough patch and still deserves a second chance. :)

    1. Scott

      I’m one of those people who believes the safest day to fly is the day after a plane crashes. Everyone is paying attention.

      Lehrer will be dogged by this the rest of his career. He will never hear the end of it and everything he publishes will be scrutinized in a way no writer could enjoy.

      This has nothing to do with his merits for redemption, but the practical risks of him doing this again seem small, and even if he did, it’d be caught faster than similar mistakes by most other writers.

  5. Karla

    Wait by Frank Partnoy has an interesting chapter on forgiveness and the time required to have an apology come off as sincere. But redemption is hardest when the accusation is lying, forgery, or some other form of plagiarism. Everything he does will forever be suspect, especially since he was involved in long-term disregard for the rules, rather than a single mistake.

  6. Kelly Irwin

    WE walk on this beautiful earth as a journey, some shown a path , others take shortcuts. Some cheat. But the strenght and gift that come from integrity and individual truth does not ever compare to a stolen reward. But maybe the true gift is in the story and how it affected the pages of future writers. Its all a journey.

  7. Vanessa

    This is a good question. Why do some people, maybe Lehrer, get redemption and others don’t? It’s not about apologies. I mean, Marion Barry’s “Bitch set me up.” still got him re-elected. Lance Armstrong had the single best redemption tool on the planet – Oprah – and somehow managed to walk away with people more angry at him.

    Death seems to be a way to get redemption from a large portion of people, not that I am recommending it. Death creates a sort of collective amnesia or an agreement to be polite. And a person isn’t walking around still being an asshole so you have time to forget what they were really like in favor of what you wished they had been like. Reagan has turned into a saint since his death. After Koch’s death my Facebook feed was a flutter with R.I.P. and only those directly impacted by the start of the AIDS crisis were posting “murderer” comments.

    Indignation works for some people. Bill Clinton comes to mind. Just moving on as if it never happened works for others like LeBron James. Humility for others, Hugh Grant.

    I loved Lehrer’s book How We Decide. I even gave it to multiple people as a Christmas present the year it came out. When news broke that he made stuff up and plagiarized, I felt personally affronted. I could go either way on his redemption, I either continue to hold a grudge because fool me once, yadda yadda. Or I see him as redeemed because I feel a personal investment in his legitimacy having essentially advocated for his work originally. I’m still on the fence.

  8. Sean Crawford

    Part of the issue is how badly it affects society.
    Today a head of state might have nonmarital sex, but back when society was scared of the rising divorce rate, Princess Margret could not marry a brave Battle of Britain pilot who was divorced. (How tragic) Today we have dropped the label “divorcee.”

    On the frontier, when society needed to swiftly develop the economy, when cattle were sold unseen on a handshake, to call a man a liar was to risk a duel. It would be hard, back then, to forgive such an accusation.

    Today, although “even a bigot hates a liar” lies are not so serious, but still, a democracy requires that information flow, and so writers are held to a less forgiving standard. I always hate it when someone (like a commenter above) implies a non-liar is naive, or that “we’ve all plagiarized.”

    George Orwell said something like every healthy society demands standards for people that are a little unreasonable, and I think the writers, like story tellers around a town bonfire, are responsible to support society, not abuse it.

    Here’s a criteria: a person could earn forgiveness with the three R’s: take Responsibility, have Remorse, and have the humility to make Repairs.

    The last could be an action, looking at systemic stuff as in society as a whole. For example, if I do violence against my wife I should of course repair my marriage, and then I could donate cash to a woman’s shelter. Another example: a man who once drove drunk may apologize, as a systemic action, by going in front of high school students.

    I would ask of Lehrer that he take a systemic action, such as appearing for free before college students, before I write him a blank cheque for forgiveness.

  9. Mike Nitabach

    In my opinion, redemption for someone who has grossly violated the most central foundational ethical tenets of their profession–as Lehrer surely did as a journalist who fabricated quotes and then lied about it–requires that they renounce the perquisites and privileges of that profession forever and make their way forward elsewhere.

    If Lehrer wants to make a living talking about how horrendous his behavior was and telling “scared straight” stories to journalism students, I’m all for it. But he should never be allowed to actually practice journalism again, especially when there are so many honest journalists with trouble finding work.


Leave a Reply

* Required