The sudden death of Whitney Houston on Feb. 11, and the tribute-filled Grammy ceremony that followed the next day, were overshadowed for many by the onstage performances and Grammy victories of R & B singer Chris Brown (no relation to Bobby). Was it really ideal for the Grammys to celebrate a man guilty of the same crime that plagued Houston for so many years, at the hands of her ex-husband, R & B singer Bobby Brown? Brown (Bobby) is said to have physically abused Houston until their marriage ended in 2007 (he was charged with domestic violence in 2003), and Chris Brown was convicted of felony assault and sentenced to five years’ probation for brutally beating his then-girlfriend, pop star Rihanna, in 2009 (the night before the Grammys, no less). Brown (Chris) performed live twice at the awards this year, and took home a trophy for best R & B album. Country music singer Miranda Lambert was the most forthright about her sentiments in a tweet she sent after the show. “Chris Brown twice? I don’t get it. He beat on a girl. Not cool that we act like that didn’t happen.”
But “we” weren’t the only ones who acted like it didn’t happen. First, there was Chris Brown’s now-notorious tweet in response to Lambert et al.: “HATE ALL U WANT. BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now! That’s the ultimate F–K OFF!” Brown’s handlers, maybe guessing that winning a trophy doesn’t exonerate you for hospitalizing your girlfriend, removed his tweet. (Brown did not apologize for posting it.) Then came the disturbing onslaught of tweets from (mostly female) Brown fans who said they would relish the opportunity to be beaten by Chris. Meanwhile, in his half of the clueless universe, Bad Bobby Brown was acting as though the wife-beater who had terrorized Whitney Houston was some other Bad Bobby Brown. Directly following her death, at a concert in Maryland, he announced: “I love [Whitney] like a love God! I am badass Bobby Brown!” and proceeded to make customary obscene hand gestures to female audience members. A week later, ignoring the strong wishes of some family members, he showed up at Houston’s funeral, along with a nine-person entourage, and further distinguished himself by complaining about the seating arrangements. He was subsequently asked to leave the funeral. Critiques of his mourning strategy were not positive.
Back to the other Brown (Chris). He and Rihanna shocked the latter’s fans (and hopefully every self-respecting woman in the music industry) when they recently collaborated on a sexually explicit song in which Brown says he’d like to “give it to [Rihanna] in the worst way.” However, just because Rihanna has apparently forgiven Brown, doesn’t mean we will—or should.
In fact, the specific opprobrium the Brothers-in-Denseness Brown were treated to after Houston’s death and the Grammys was just a reflection of the general distaste the public has held for them ever since they started hitting women in public. This latest case also highlighted the secondary sin of the Browns, the one that no one gets a free pass on, no matter how many Grammys he cops: not the abuse of a person, but the abuse of remorse. We might be able to one day forgive a celebrity for beating on a girl, that is—but not for acting like it didn’t happen. We might be able to forget—but only if he doesn’t.
Think of when a friend has done you wrong—when a person you’ve recently forgiven for something you previously thought unforgivable stops apologizing for everything he does and starts having guilt-free fun again, you begin to wonder how contrite he was to start with. In other words, even though you have forgiven him for the original sin, you can’t forgive him for forgiving himself. In this regard, forgiveness isn’t a direct exchange for an apology, but a request that the person apologizing should do so until the day he dies. Or at least until the statute of limitations runs out on remorse for the sin in question. The more dire the sin—or crime—the longer the lag time (and the more abject the required remorse) until the slate is cleared.
What does genuine, effective remorse look like? When 22 Canadians died in the Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak in 2008, CEO Michael McCain delivered one of the best public apologies in recent history, and more importantly, he kept on delivering. A year after the outbreak, even though the company’s profits had improved since the inevitable drop, McCain took out a full page ad in three Canadian daily newspapers commemorating the anniversary of the tragedy. “On behalf of our 24,000 employees,” the ad read, “we will never forget.” What McCain understood, that the two Browns likely never will, is that the only way people can put the past behind them is if you do not. The option to forget applies only to the victim, or the audience; never the perpetrator. It’s only when this equation is satisfied, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, that “forgotten is forgiven.”