Jenna Wong '20

Jenna Wong smiling and holding her completed thesisThesis Title: All Our Trespasses: Building a Model for Forgiveness

In the words of Todd on Bojack Horseman (and yes, I am very proud of myself for quoting Bojack in my actual, final thesis), “You can't keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself like that makes it okay! You need to be better!” His words echoed in the back of my mind throughout my thesis writing process, because I was constantly grappling with ideas of repentance, apology, and forgiveness. My project is called All Our Trespasses: Building a Model for Forgiveness, and it intervenes on the exact type of all-too-often real conversations represented in Bojack Horseman.

I’ll be honest - when I first chose my topic, I was terrified that I had made a mistake. In large part, I think this is because I had chosen to write basically a philosophy thesis and had a minor existential crisis that I was in the wrong department (spoiler alert: I wasn’t and I love Social Studies endlessly). I wanted to submit a reflection about choosing this methodology because I felt very much in the minority writing a strictly theory-based thesis within Social Studies. So I want to let all you future theorists, ethicists, and philosophers know that there are other students who share your nerdy obsession with Kant, Foucault, or whoever else and have turned that passion into a fully realized thesis.


I will admit, it did feel strange at times to be surrounded by peers who had more hands-on research approaches, especially because I initially planned on doing the same thing. I spent six weeks in Buenos Aires this past summer conducting interviews and gathering primary sources on how human rights activists conceptualized forgiveness in the wake of the Dirty War, a period in Argentine history from 1976 to 1983 in which a military junta “disappeared” around thirty thousand people. Yet when I began to think about putting my fieldwork into a thesis chapter, I just wasn’t excited by the data I had gathered. The activists I spoke with had an almost visceral reaction to even the suggestion of forgiveness, and I quickly realized that if I relied on my data alone, my conclusion would be essentially that, as my Airbnb host so poignantly said, “we Argentines don’t understand forgiveness.” And so I realized that if I really wanted to contribute to this intimate discussion in a way that would be meaningful to these activists, to my peers, and to myself, I would need to look at the normative theory underlying forgiveness.


I ultimately identified a major theoretical rift in Argentine society between Catholic and secular conceptions of forgiveness, and put these two models in conversation with each other in my thesis, building one that I felt not only was normatively sound, but also could be applicable to our lived experiences. This required me to dive into literature on everything from moral psychology to Kantian ethics to the work of Thomas Aquinas, and I am so grateful that this approach allowed me to connect seemingly disparate topics.


I was also extremely lucky to have a very supportive thesis advisor in Professor Catherine Elgin as well as departmental advisors like Anya and Don. They gave me that much needed push to realize that my heart lay in theory, and that simultaneously, I could take theory out of its “ivory tower” and apply it to the world around me. This last point is of particular importance given that current juniors are now in the very unfortunate position of having to do thesis research remotely.


I’m sure that many of you are scrambling to adjust your methodological approach now that fieldwork isn’t an option. I hope that my thesis journey can illustrate to you how we can find underlying questions of theory and ethics in any topic (which also means you can conduct “research” by browsing articles on JStor in your pajamas…). I’m more than happy to talk with anyone thinking about how to pivot towards a more theoretical thesis-style in light of the current pandemic and pass on my experiences (and undying love for Kant)!