Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner
We should condemn a little more and understand a little less.
British Prime Minister John Major, 8 October 1993
The problem with accepted wisdom is that for every proverb there is an equal
and opposite proverb. A bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush and you
shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but since everything comes to he who
waits, maybe settling for just one feathered beast isn’t such a good idea. You
can’t teach an old dog new tricks and a leopard can’t change its spots, but
since it’s never too late to learn and it ain’t over until the fat lady sings,
why be so defeatist?
Rather like reading the Bible literally, accepting the wisdom of old proverbs
at face value can only lead to embracing contradiction. So even the wisest of
sayings needs to be approached with a degree of caution.
One of the better proverbs is the French expression "tout comprendre c’est
tout pardonner": to understand all is to forgive all. There’s more than
a grain of truth in this. The more we understand why a person has acted the
way they have done the less likely we are to blame them for their wrongdoings.
The sexual abuser, for example, appears at first sight to be nothing more than
an evil monster. But when we realise, as is usually the case, that the abuser
was himself abused and is the damaged product of a terrible upbringing, we begin
to have some sympathy for the abuser as well as the abused.
Unfortunately, this insight has tended to be interpreted as entailing a crude
link between understanding on the one hand and condemnation or punishment on
the other. This is partly because of the way the thinking behind the proverb
has been used by the left and the right. Socialists generally believe that people
are not intrinsically good or bad and are only corrupted by the injustice of
society. This means that crime and wrongdoing have to be seen as a product of
an unjust system. If this is true, then the fundamental fault for the existence
of crime lies with society, not the individuals who are corrupted by it. So
to understand the oppressed person’s crime is to forgive them and blame the
In reaction, the right has tended to dismiss the connection between a person’s
background and their propensity to commit crime, arguing that each individual
is free and must take responsibility for their actions. And so they have resisted
the idea that a person can be forgiven their wrongdoing if we understand their
social and family background. Hence John Major’s plea that we should condemn
a little more and understand a little less.
The problem with both sides is that the supposed inverse relation between understanding
and condemnation has not been demonstrated. The proverb may move swiftly from
understanding all to forgiving all but we should not be so quick. The direct
link can only be made if we think that we can only condemn if a person’s actions
are entirely the product of their own free choice. But why should we think this?
Let us imagine that it is in fact true that all sexual abusers only do what
they do because they have themselves been damaged through no fault of their
own. It does not follow from this that we should not condemn what they do or
punish them by restricting their freedoms. Condemnation may be a necessary way
of showing and maintaining society’s disapproval; it may also be required to
bring about reform in the wrongdoer; locking up offenders may be the only way
to protect society from abusers who wouldn’t be able to stop themselves offending
In these and myriad other ways, it may be possible to understand the wrongdoer
without shrinking from condemnation and punishment. Of course, none of this is
uncontroversial. But these possibilities need to be explored. It may be true
that people do wrong because of their upbringing, but the best way to reform
them and protect others may not be to take them aside for an understanding chat
but to condemn them clearly and unequivocally.
So John Major’s dichotomy is a false one. We can understand more without necessarily
condemning less. And even if in a sense to understand all is to forgive all,
such forgiveness does not necessarily entail the suspension of criticism and
even punishment. While it has a less catchy ring, perhaps what we should say
is that to understand all is simply to be a more sympathetic judge, not to refrain
from judgement altogether.