On Tuesday evening, NBC announced that it would be suspending anchor Brian Williams for six months without pay for exaggerating a story about his experiences in Iraq. It is a severe penalty, and given that Williams had done grave damage to his reputation for delivering the facts to audiences, NBC had to exact one. But as suspensions and firings often do, Williams’ punishment forestalled a more significant conversation about sin and punishment at a moment when barely a day goes past without a call for someone’s head.

In his Tuesday column about Williams, David Brooks suggested an alternative way we might deal with Williams, other than demanding his immediate firing. Forgiving Williams, Brooks suggested, might be possible if it was part of a process that included, among other things, “Confession and Penitence. At some point the offender has to get out in front of the process, being more self-critical than anyone else around him. He has to probe down to the root of his error, offer a confession more complete than expected,” followed by “Reconciliation and re-trust. After judgments have been made and penitence performed, both the offender and offended bend toward each other.”

I wish Brooks had dwelt a little longer on the subject of penitence — though Williams really needs to be contrite — and addressed the subject of penance as well. The rise of social media has made it easier than ever to call for people to be fired. But that same cacophony has made it more difficult to reach a new set of social norms about what sort of apology ought to be accepted, and on which terms. And the vehemence of our reactions to people who lie, or say ugly things, or step outside the bounds of political discourse has often foreclosed another facet of this conversation: Are there ways people who err could make recompense that would be more valuable to the people they’ve harmed than their firings would be?

To be sure, there are absolutely times when a firing is the best outcome. If a person has crossed a line that absolutely must be held firm, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal did when he made disparaging remarks about President Obama to Rolling Stone, firing them can send a powerful message that a taboo is absolute, rather than flexible. And if someone is utterly unrepentant on an issue about which there is broad consensus, then it might be time to remove them from a position of power, such as when Donald Sterling was removed as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

But there are times when it seems that people who are being disparaged or principles that are being damaged might actually get more out of asking for something other than a firing or a suspension.

I’m no fan of celebrity chef Paula Deen, and there should be serious consequences — as there were — for using slurs and tolerating sexual harassment and wage theft in the workplace. But since her 2013 defenestration from the food establishment, I’ve actually wondered if advocates of racial and economic equality (not to mention healthy eating) might have gotten more out of demanding a rigorous path to forgiveness from Ms. Deen than from dismantling her empire. What if advocates had asked Ms. Deen to make a long-term commitment to showcasing the work of African-American chefs on her show, or starting a cookbook imprint that would publish black writers’ work?

It’s one thing to strip Deen of her money and influence. It’s another to take her and others like her at their words that they want to learn and grow, and then see if they’re really up for the task if it means letting other people make use of that money and influence.

In less extreme cases, ritual suspensions have become a way for networks to diffuse issues their critics bring up, without engaging in any substantial change. The brief suspension of Phil Robertson, one of the stars of “Duck Dynasty,” after he made anti-gay remarks in an interview, did nothing to shift the debate or make recompense. In fact, upon reinstating him, A&E let Robertson take cover in the suggestion that he would “never incite or encourage hate.” The suspension only really served to suggest that Robertson’s views would have been acceptable if he had just stated them a little differently.

Similarly, MSNBC’s brief suspensions of Joe Scarborough and Keith Olbermann for contributing to political candidates in 2010 seemed more hand-waving than substantive. If making contributions without prior approval is a major violation of journalistic neutrality, shouldn’t the price for doing it be set higher than two days off the air?

Over time, I’ve come to think there’s a lot of wisdom in what I refer to as the GLAAD model. Rather than insisting that celebrities who have said homophobic things come to a meeting with the organization’s leaders, kiss the ring, and return to Hollywood cleansed of their sins, GLAAD tends to ask stars who have erred to do something of substance. After Brett Ratner used an anti-gay slur during a question-and-answer session, he bowed out of a job producing the Oscars. But he also agreed to donate his time to put together a series of public service announcements for GLAAD. Comcast and NBC Universal put up airtime to broadcast the ads. The organization — and the fight against homophobia — got something material out of the exchange, beyond the perception that they had the power to compel Ratner to say he was sorry.

Something similar happened to the young adult author Daniel Handler after, in the course of presenting an award to an African-American author, he told a watermelon joke. Handler doesn’t work at a day job that could fire him. And given the sales for his books, written under the pen name Lemony Snicket, his publishers seemed unlikely to drop him. But in any case, what happened after the awards ceremony was better for the cause of diversity in fiction than shunning Handler would have been. He donated $100,000 to a campaign to bring new voices into young adult literature.

In this context, it’s worth discussing what we’d really like from Williams, beyond a clear explanation and forthright apology. If accuracy is foremost in our concerns, should he have to serve a stint in NBC fact-checking? If the most worrisome thing about the incident is Williams’ attempt to grab a war hero’s credit for himself, maybe he should make recompense by taking time off from the anchor’s chair and reporting an in-depth series about American service-members.

Whatever answer we arrive at, it’s worth remembering something: forgiveness may ask more of us than calling for someone to be fired. But in cases where forgiveness is possible, we might get a whole lot more out of it than the ephemeral satisfaction of having cost our targets their jobs.