It’s easier to ask for forgiveness, but it’s also unnecessary.

I love Rachel Maddow, but she got the last (ish) sentence here wrong.

I think I first heard the quote “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” when I was a teenager. It was in a silly commercial aimed at men, and I think the idea was that women wouldn’t want their boyfriends to do whatever these advertisers were selling, but the boyfriends should do it anyway and then give their girlfriends a nice card, asking for forgiveness. I now see that kind of marketing as stupid, sexist, and juvenile. At the time, it struck me as sort of funny, but I had a small feeling that the idea behind the commercial, the idea that you should for forgiveness after you do something rather than ask for permission before you do it and run the risk of being denied, was flawed. A couple years later, a teacher at my school said that same quote to me and some of my classmates in reference to something she did that she knew was technically against some rule, but was in fact a good idea. Again, while I felt that I understood her general point, I had a small problem with the phrase.

I was a fairly well-behaved kid. I usually did what I was told. If I had a problem with what I was told to do, I engaged in conversations with the people in charge, under the assumption that they would listen to reason and eventually see my point. This didn’t always happen, but it worked enough that I still see see that strategy as a useful one. But I know that I’m in a pretty privileged position, where the people in charge usually listen to me, and I know that a lot of important social and political changed happens when someone doesn’t do what they’re told, because the people telling them what to do really don’t see that person’s needs as anything worth hearing. So maybe, I thought to myself when I tried to figure out my problem with this phrase, I was too influenced by my agreeable nature and the fact that people usually gave me permission to do the things I wanted to do. Still, every time I heard someone say anything about asking for forgiveness instead of permission, I flinched.

Finally, about a week and a half ago, I figured it out.

I was giving a presentation to prospective parents and students at work, and I based it on a story about how, when I was a student, my classmates and I rarely asked for permission before we did anything. We painted pictures on the walls, held fundraisers and events, started clubs, maybe even enforced our own rules, all with no official permission from teachers, principals, or anyone. We didn’t want to piss people off or break rules. We just did what we thought would be good things to do, and the people in charge trusted that we wouldn’t cause irreparable damage. The first time I gave this presentation, several months ago, I told my audience that I didn’t think no one ever needed permission, but that part of growing up is learning what you can and can’t do without permission, and that, often, people ask for permission as a way of avoiding risks. As long as someone above them on the hierarchy says they can do it, they won’t be the ones getting in trouble.

I planned to say something similar last week, but shortly before the presentation, maybe the night before or maybe five minutes before, I had my realization. So I changed the ending of my story slightly.

“There’s a saying,” I said (or something along these lines), “that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, and I don’t like that saying. I don’t like it partly because it sounds really sneaky, and I don’t think people should be sneaky. But I also don’t like it because you shouldn’t ask for forgiveness.” I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my point was this: My classmates and I rarely got in any kind of trouble for the things that we did, but if we had gotten in trouble, we wouldn’t have then begged our teachers or principals for forgiveness. We would have fixed whatever problem we had caused. We would have painted over the pictures we had put on the walls, canceled the events or redirected the money we raised somewhere more appropriate, changed or cancelled the clubs we had started, stopped enforcing our rules. Because getting forgiveness from someone doesn’t actually do much good. Maybe it makes you feel better, maybe it makes the person giving to to you feel better, but it doesn’t solve anything. It’s the other side of an apology, but apologies mean nothing unless they come with a change in attitude or behaviour.

Whenever I hear someone say that they plan to go ahead with whatever it is that they want to do even though they know they shouldn’t because it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, I get a strong feeling that they’ll probably do something very similar later on. They might say they’re sorry, but they won’t mean it. So if you have something you want or need to do, and you feel it’s important enough to do even without permission, why bother with the forgiveness? You shouldn’t have to apologize for doing the right thing.


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