In a world that likes rules — rules for texting, rules for the schoolyard, rules for proper bike-lane use — let’s agree there are also rules that govern violence. Violence is not as random or chaotic as we might imagine. Whether it is emotional, political, sexual or physical, violence operates according to some simple principles. One rule everyone knows: violence begets violence. Carry a big stick, and you invite your enemies to do the same. A second rule: violence begets nothing but violence. You won’t make someone loving and compassionate by hurting them. Violence cannot create; it can only destroy.
One oft-misunderstood rule about violence is that it is unconscious. This is a tricky idea but absolutely essential if we are to understand our reaction to what took place at Toronto City Hall in the waning months of last year. When I say violence is unconscious, I mean that the motivations for violence are irrelevant to the injury inflicted. If I break your leg, whether it was an accident or a deliberate act has no bearing on the actual broken leg; it is still broken, and it still hurts. No amount of regret or remorse will change the fact that your injury is real and that you are suffering.
The whole world watched as the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, unravelled in public. It was a pitiful and painful sight: the tongue-tied mayor confessing that he had lied to the city (and to himself) and that he betrayed the public trust. On a personal level, I felt some compassion for the man. Who hasn’t been caught in a lie? Who hasn’t been humiliated at some point? We can get inside shame like Ford’s and feel his helplessness.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to let emotional sympathy fog up our ethical reasoning. In office, the mayor has been a vicious political operator. If you disagreed with him, he dismissed you as part of a conspiracy of left-wing fanatics. He might even seek revenge, as a councillor who didn’t vote with him on a transit issue discovered when Ford initiated a robocall campaign to systematically ridicule him. The mayor used his weekly radio show to malign his enemies, especially the “maggot” journalists who, it turned out, had been telling the truth about him all along. And he was not just a little hypocritical. When a city employee was caught resting his head on his desk, Ford publicly called for his summary dismissal — this from a mayor whose own work habits were questionable, to say the least. Outwardly, he portrayed himself as a tough-on-crime common man, and privately he hung out with shady characters well known to the police.
After it all began to unravel, this same Rob Ford, who granted no quarter to political adversaries and offered no semblance of forgiveness to those he disagreed with, sought — demanded — our compassion and understanding. Ford said he was “very sorry” and ashamed, as if confessing his sins would settle the issue. That’s how absolution works, Rob Ford-style.
No matter that Ford left behind a city bruised by betrayal. He’s sorry, so it’s over, right? He seems blissfully unaware of the violence he has inflicted on the common good by lowering the bar for public service and undermining the integrity of municipal government. It was all unconscious — at least to Rob Ford. But the fact remains that the city, maybe the entire country, is suffering from the damage he inflicted. The cynicism Ford has wrought contaminates us all with that most toxic of civic questions: why bother?
And so after admitting to illegal activities, Rob Ford continues to collect his mayor’s salary and ask the city to grant him the grace that he has so consistently withheld from others. It’s as if responsibility and consequences are irrelevant concepts to him. I’m a spiritual guy, and so I would put the situation this way: behind the farce is a moral felony. At the very time when Toronto and the rest of this divided world need forgiveness the most, Rob Ford has poisoned it. The very thing he asks of us now, he killed. This may sound melodramatic, but I can think of no other way to put it. You don’t get forgiveness just because you ask for it. You don’t heal injuries you have caused by saying you’re sorry. Forgiveness is a delicate miracle that occurs when the unjustly treated receive back what has been taken from them. Rob Ford took our trust and derailed our sense of common purpose. There can be no forgiveness until they are returned.
Eventually, Ford will disappear and his antics will be forgotten. Toward the end of the November spectacle at Toronto City Hall, the mayor declared, “Folks, I have nothing left to hide.” This was heartening. He seemed to be ready to stop rationalizing his behaviour. Perhaps in time, he will also begin to recognize his part in decimating the forgiveness he expected from his fellow citizens. And perhaps much further down the road, we can put all of this behind us and begin to heal.
Rev. Christopher Levan is a minister at College Street United in Toronto.