We all love redemption arcs in stories.
Just think to fictional characters like Star Wars’ Darth Vader, Marvel’s Loki, and more recently, Game of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister – three iconic villains in their respective universes who did evil things, hurt other people, and caused problems for the protagonists of their stories.
Yet, we all cheered as they subsequently turned over a new leaf and redeemed themselves with acts of good and repentance.
We readily forgave their previous transgressions, and hailed them as misguided characters who had simply made the wrong choices earlier in life, but were now ready to walk the straight and narrow.
Let’s face it – such stories give us a warm, fuzzy feeling. That is why the redemption trope is so commonly used in books, television shows and movies.
But that is the reel life. Are we this forgiving of those who make mistakes in real life?
For those unfamiliar with the saga, here’s a summary of what happened.
It all started when the organisers of this year’s Pink Dot – an event held annually in support of the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community – announced Zhang as one of the its ambassadors earlier this month.
A day after the announcement, however, a Facebook user by the name of Sarah Yip went on social media to express her surprise at Zhang’s selection for the event’s ambassadorship.
In her Facebook post, Yip drew attention to several discriminatory remarks about LGBTQ people that Zhang had previously made on Twitter, and even provided screenshots of these Tweets – which were posted between 2010 to 2013 – to back up her claims.
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Nonetheless, Yip explained that she was not calling for 29-year-old Zhang to be removed as an ambassador of Pink Dot; instead, she simply wanted Zhang to “come forward and admit (his) mistakes and problematic behaviour”.
Zhang did eventually take to Instagram to issue an apology for his discriminatory Tweets, and voluntarily stepped down as Pink Dot ambassador as he did not want to be a “distraction” at the event.
Many netizens, however, remained unmoved by Zhang’s apology. This was reflected in a subsequent Instagram post by Zhang, who said that he would take a break from social media as the “amount of hate” he had received over this issue was “overwhelming”.
Now, Zhang has been publicly reproached by several members of the LGBTQ community over his decision to step down as Pink Dot ambassador owing to the furore. Frankly, I do think that these criticisms are valid, and he should not have given up the ambassadorship.
But, let’s put that to one side. Let’s back up a little, to when Zhang was first announced as a Pink Dot ambassador. Because I want to focus on the barrage of criticism that was levelled at Zhang once Yip revealed the insensitive Tweets he made all those years back.
Make no mistake about it – those comments, which Pink Dot has since labelled “homophobic and discriminatory”, were unkind and uncalled for. But surely the fact that Zhang agreed to be an ambassador for the event shows that he is no longer someone who discriminates against LGBTQs.
Isn’t that encouraging for the LGBTQ community? Isn’t this what the Pink Dot event itself is meant to achieve? To educate and edify the public about LGBTQs in Singapore in order to change the mindset of people like what Zhang used to be?
Shouldn’t this be Zhang’s redemption arc?
Instead, people mercilessly vilified Zhang for the comments he made at least six years ago. He was harassed online, even after publicly apologising for those offensive Tweets.
To be clear, this is not a piece condemning or advocating for LGBTQ rights in Singapore. That is a different argument for a different time. Nor am I a die-hard fan of Zhang who is looking to defend him from his detractors and clear his name.
This entire saga, however, showed me one thing – mistakes are seldom forgotten, much less forgiven. This is especially so if the transgression in question involves someone high-profile, or is noteworthy enough to capture the attention of the nation.
Take the infamous case of Amy Cheong for example. In 2012, Cheong made racially insensitive remarks in a Facebook post which went viral and earned her the ire of Singapore netizens. Despite apologising profusely, Cheong was eventually fired from her job, and was forced to leave the country as she feared for her safety after being constantly harassed.
Even today, almost seven years after her moment of indiscretion, Cheong is apparently still being harassed online by netizens.
Of course, it’s understandable to get outraged over what Zhang and Cheong said. But they have already admitted to their mistakes, and apologised. What more do they need to do to earn our forgiveness?
Are we really such an unforgiving society?
I’d hope not, because mistakes are an inevitable part of life, whether we like it or not.
We have all made mistakes in our lives. We have all hurt or offended someone with our words and actions. And, like Zhang and Cheong, I’m sure we all have sought forgiveness for these mistakes.
Now, forgiving someone for their mistakes does not mean you’re condoning their wrongdoing. And it does not mean forgetting that they committed these mistakes.
What it means is that we no longer get hung up about their past mistakes, or hurl old accusations that serve no purpose other than to open old wounds.
More importantly, for our own wellbeing as individuals and as a society, it means letting go of the negative feelings you harbour towards the person for the wrong they did. Holding on to resentment and anger will only be to our detriment.
Yes, it can be hard to forgive certain mistakes, especially when it comes to heinous crimes. But, if someone has been sufficiently punished for their mistakes, and more importantly, genuinely repented and changed for the better, then surely, they deserve to be given a second chance.
So maybe it’s time for us to put away the pitchforks that we’ve been brandishing at Zhang and Cheong. Maybe it’s time for us to instead, acknowledge the fact that they know they were wrong and have repented.
And maybe it’s time for us to be greater and finally forgive them.