Tag Archives: victimization

How Much Are We Willing To Hurt The Innocent To Punish The Guilty?

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There are certain questions that nobody likes to ask, but still need to be answered. Questions concerning crime, justice, and punishment are usually at the top of that list. Lately, answering those questions has becom more urgent. If current cultural trends continue, that urgency will only increase.

That’s not because people are becoming more keen on justice. It’s more a byproduct of injustice being so much more visible in the age of the internet and social media. Crimes don’t just make the news these days. They can trigger full-blown social movements, destroy careers, and bring down powerful people.

To some extent, this is a good thing. We, as a social species, have an innate sense of justice hardwired into us. When we see something unjust, be it a kid stealing a cookie or a gruesome murder, most sane people want to see some level of justice enacted. When it isn’t, that bothers us. That’s where our sense of empathy comes from.

That said, it is possible for that innate desire for justice to go too far. Nature is a blunt instrument, largely out of necessity. Our desire for justice is no different and in the same way egregious injustices are harder to hide, gross misapplications of justice are becoming more visible as well.

As of this writing, the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization that works to exonerate those who’ve been wrongly convicted of a crime, have freed 350 people, some of whom were on death row. Those are the lucky ones, though. In a 2014 study, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that approximately 4 percent of those sentenced to death row may be innocent.

Think about that, for a moment, as a simple math problem. For every 100 people who are executed by the state for their crimes, 4 of them are completely innocent. Whether you’re liberal, conservative, libertarian, or communist, the murder of an innocent person offends our humanity to the core. Only a sociopath would be comfortable with that math.

That murder of some innocent people for the sake of punishing the guilty is an extreme example, but one that nicely highlights the potential pitfalls of our reckless crusade against injustice. I don’t bring it up to start a debate on the death penalty, which is very much a dead-weight issue within politics these days. I’m using it to provide context for misapplications of justice that aren’t as clear cut.

Thanks to social media and global connectivity, it’s a lot easier attack injustice without the rigid bureaucracy of legal justice system. It’s largely because of this emerging technology that the ongoing anti-harassment movement and the push for greater diversity have become more vocal. Instances of injustice that might have been ignored in the past are now much easier to confront.

Instead of hiring a lawyer, getting the cops involved, or going door-to-door to raise awareness, these perceived injustices can be attacked online, which can subsequently lead to offline consequences. While that can be an effective recourse for those who wield great power and have an army of lawyers, it does come at a cost and innocent people have felt that cost.

While there are plenty of cases that don’t become mainstream news, some of the most notable include the Duke Lacrosse incident or the UVA rape case. These are both cases that struck the right and wrong chords at the right and wrong time, evoking in people their inherent aversion to injustice in the utmost. It got people upset and emotional, so much so that they didn’t stop to wonder whether those involved were really guilty.

The alleged crimes were undeniably heinous. There’s no question about that. Anyone guilty of such crimes deserves to be punished. However, in wanting to punish such crimes, innocent people suffered. Some had their reputations temporarily ruined and others have been irreparably destroyed.

There are other lesser known cases of innocent people suffering because of an accusation that later turned out to be false. There are likely more in which the innocent person never gets justice. It’s impossible to know how common they are. Most will point out how rare those instances and in terms of raw numbers, that’s true.

However, that still implies that we have to accept the price that some innocent people will suffer in our pursuit of justice. It also highlights how important it is to have a functioning justice system that includes traditions such as due process and the presumption of innocence.

It’s a tradition worth belaboring too.

It’s an imperfect process, admittedly. There have been notable cases where someone likely got away with a crime because the standards for a conviction are so high. The principle behind that system is that, in the name of not condemning the innocent, we accept the price that some of the guilty may escape justice.

For some people, that’s more untenable than the condemnation of an innocent person. That has become a much more prominent theme in recent years, due to the anti-harassment movement. That’s somewhat understandable, given how long men like Harvey Weinstein got away with their deplorable behavior.

In the effort to prevent or punish such deplorable behavior, though, those critical tenants of our justice system that are supposed to protect the innocent are being cast aside. There are some within the anti-harassment movement who emphasize the importance of believing the victim’s accusations in lieu of the presumption of innocence.

Other, more radical, voices in the movement have favored changing the standards of evidence for rape cases so that they would no longer be subject to reasonable doubt. Granted, these are somewhat extreme measures that probably won’t upend our justice system anytime soon. Others far smarter than me have already pointed out the dangers and debunked many of the assumptions.

None of this is to say that the anti-harassment movement or the effort to hold people accountable for their behavior is entirely misguided. I’m in favor of exposing crimes and having the guilty pay for those crimes, provided they really are guilty. I support efforts to reduce harassment, sexual or otherwise. I support efforts to reduce sexual assault on women and men. Most decent human beings share that sentiment.

What I don’t support is the idea that it’s okay for more innocent people to suffer for the sake of capturing even more guilty people. As I mentioned before with the Innocence Project, our flawed justice system already condemns innocent people. A willingness to let more innocent suffer is the wrong direction to go in fighting injustice.

I know that’s easy for someone like me to say because I’ve never been the victim of a serious crime. I’ve had some stuff stolen before, I’ve been cheated out of some money, and I have been roughed up before, but I’ve never been seriously injured or assaulted. I can’t imagine how someone who has been seriously victimized feels about what happened to them.

Their suffering matters. The suffering of innocent people matters too. It’s why the question surrounding hurting the innocent to punish the guilty needs to be asked, even if the answers make us uncomfortable. The fact those answers make us uncomfortable reflects the flaws of our justice system and how imperfect our world really is.

At the same time, it also reminds us why seeking justice and combating injustice matters. We, as a society and a species, cannot function if there isn’t some semblance of justice. For victims and innocent alike, we need those institutions so that we can prosper and grow as a civilization.

From the anti-harassment movement to crusading prosecutors to overt bias in the court system, there comes a point in the pursuit of justice where compromising the innocent is a price that some are willing to pay. Once that line is crossed, though, it sets a dangerous precedent that relies on dangerous assumptions.

To be willing to compromise the innocent, it’s necessary to believe that people who fit a certain profile are guilty by default. If their gender, race, ethnic group, religion, or nationality checks enough boxes, then innocence becomes an afterthought. It becomes another numbers game in assessing potential guilt over actual guilt.

That’s a precedent that can easily devolve into a panic and, as history has shown, panics tend to harm the innocent far more than the guilty. It also undercuts the suffering of actual victims because if actual guilt becomes an afterthought, then so too does actual victimization.

That, in many ways, is the greatest price that comes with compromising innocence. Punishing a guilty criminal simply rights a wrong. Punishing an innocent person has impacts that go beyond simply making an undeserving individual suffer. It has a ripple effect on the entire concept of justice, much of which cannot be qualified.

That’s why, even if it is as rare as some claim, the punishment of one innocent person should offend our sense of justice more than a guilty person escaping. A guilty person is still going to be guilty, no matter what their high-priced lawyers say. An innocent person who is punished for a crime they didn’t commit often lose so much more than just their innocence and that’s an injustice no one should tolerate.

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Remembering (And Learning From) The Satanic Panic

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Lock your doors, hide your children, and pray with the force of a million pious nuns because it’s happening. It’s out there and it’s probably going on as you’re reading this. There’s a vast network of Satanic cults who have infiltrated schools, child day care centers, and major media outlets. They’re coming for you, they’re coming for your kids, and they’re determined to corrupt every soul they can.

I hope everyone who just read that laugh paragraph is either laughing or confused. It was not meant to be serious. The fact that I actually have to clarify that for a certain segment of people who may take it seriously says a lot about the human condition. It also reveals even more, albeit in a way that’s hardly flattering to our species.

When one person has crazy, irrational fears, we can easily shrug them off and move on with our lives. When a large group of people have those fears, though, it’s a bit harder to ignore, especially when it becomes a full-fledged panic that spurs outrage, ruins lives, and wastes resources.

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This is exactly what happened in the 1980s during the so-called Satanic Panic. It may sound like the name of a bad heavy metal band or one of those funny church signs, but make no mistake. It was no laughing matter. There was a real, genuine fear among people that there was a conspiracy of Satanists looking to abuse, exploit, and corrupt children.

It got so serious that major news outlets, the FBI, and even Oprah Winfrey began reporting on it. They included disturbing recollections of adults taking children into dark rooms, dressing up in Satanic attire, and subjecting them to unspeakable abuse that often included sex acts. It got pretty horrifying, which is part of why it got so much attention. This is just a small sample of what some kids recalled.

In hours of footage, they talked about how the devil-worshipers preyed on the wealthy community, holding pedophilic orgies and murdering innocent people. They said the Satanists abused and tortured babies, slitting their throats, drinking their blood and dancing while wearing their skulls.

It all sounds too horrible to imagine. The descriptions are objectively horrifying. There’s just one key detail that undercuts that horror. There’s no verifiable evidence that any of it happened. There’s only evidence that the lives of innocent adults were irreparably ruined.

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It’s amazing to think that something so irrational had terrified and overwhelmed sane, rational people in a civilized society. Actually, that might have been amazing to contemplate five years ago. I think it’s distressingly easy to imagine something like that happening in an era where false accusations can become a viral media spectacle.

Most people may roll their eyes at the notion that history tends to repeat itself from those who don’t heed it’s lessons. Historically speaking, though, those lessons keep popping up in new forms in conjunction with new panics. One day, it’s a conspiracy of Satanists. The next, it’s a conspiracy of Bronies. In each case, a similar pattern emerges. History may not entirely repeat itself, but it sure follows a similar script.

The catalyst for Satanic Ritual Abuse panic was similar to what triggers most panics. One particular story, which may or may not be true, captures the public’s imagination and terrifies parents to no end. The story, in this case, was called “Michelle Remembers” by Lawrence Pazder. This was to Satanic Ritual Abuse what Harvey Weinstein and GamerGate was to the ongoing panic over sexual misconduct.

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The book itself is a disturbing story disguised as a real documentation about a psychiatrist uncovering repressed memories from a woman who had been abused by a Satanic cult. Almost immediately after publication, the legitimacy of the story came into question and Pazder got sued for libel. That didn’t matter, though. The story went onto become very popular and was actually taken seriously.

This culminated in the infamous McMartin Preschool Trial where, after seven years and millions of dollars in legal fees, those accused were found innocent. That didn’t matter in the end. The media coverage, combined with public fears, made them Satan-loving monsters by default. Needless to say, their lives were ruined.

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As I said before, and it’s worth belaboring, there was no hard evidence that any of these crazy Satanic rituals ever took place. The allegations were pretty elaborate, but the problem from a truth perspective was that they were based primarily on the testimony of young children. That’s a huge problem beyond the fact that most anecdotal evidence, even from competent adults, is unreliable and rarely admissible in a trial.

The testimony of those children was gained largely through something called recovered-memory therapy. It’s not as intensive as it sounds. Therapists just ask impressionable kids leading questions and get them to tell say whatever they want while claiming it’s a real memory.

That proved to be an effective/dangerous tool in provoking the emotions of the masses. It’s one thing when an adult makes a claim that sounds extreme, but when a child says it who may have been horribly abused, that nurturing instinct that most decent human beings have goes into overdrive. It doesn’t matter if there’s no evidence. The mere possibility that it could be true convinces us.

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Even after more thorough investigations revealed far more mundane truths, there was still plenty of panic. There was even an organization called Believe The Children that advocated accepting their testimony, even if it couldn’t be verified and meant ruining innocent lives.

This is where some of the distressing similarities to the ongoing crusade against sexual misconduct start to manifest. Now, right of the back, I want to make clear that I am not claiming that the movement to combat sexual harassment is as vacuous as the movement against Satanic Ritual Abuse. I really want to make that clear. However, the parallels are worth noting.

Yes, there have been cases of real, verified assault that have been proven in a court of law. There have also been cases where a false accusation put an innocent person in prison. Just like those urging that people believe the horrific stories told by the children, though, there are those who urge that we place a similar belief in anyone who accuses someone of a sex crime.

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There’s a reason why we have a justice system. There’s also a reason why the standard of proof for a serious crime is so high. There are some who don’t like applying that standard to sexual misconduct, but there’s a reason for that. In a civilized society, we understand that punishing innocent people can be much more damaging than letting a guilty person go.

I know that doesn’t sit well with certain people. One person getting away with a sex crime is one too much, especially for those who have been victimized. However, and I know this is going to strike the wrong chords, but that’s the price we all pay for having a functional justice system.

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It’s not perfect because humans aren’t perfect. Trying to make it perfect, though, at the cost of innocent lives is a price that undermines the very concept of justice. The Satanic Ritual Abuse craze in the 1980s ruined innocent lives. Their suffering is a crime in and of itself.

In a sense, the unjust suffering of an innocent is twice the injustice of a guilty person getting acquitted because it inflicts unjust guilt on someone and forces them to carry that burden beyond the accusation. That is why presumption of innocence is so important in any justice system.

The ongoing efforts to combat sexual misconduct has noble goals. Even the panic around Satanic Ritual Abuse had noble goals in wanting to protect children. Most decent people are on the same page with those goals. However, when outrage, anecdotes, and hyperbole are the primary tactics, it leaves little room for actual substance.

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That substance matters because, in terms of the bigger picture, violence against women has gone down significantly over the past 20 years. Women today are far safer and less likely to be victimized than they’ve been in decades past. I know that’s not much comfort to those who have been victimized, but one burning tree doesn’t need to start a forest fire.

In the end, the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic created a pretty scary environment for parents and children, so much so that little things like facts, truth, and justice got lost within the horror. Those little things matter even more with real crimes like sexual assault. If there’s one lesson we should learn from the Satanic panic of the 1980s, it’s that terrible stories can lead to terrible injustices if the truth gets overlooked.

In the interest of ending this on a lighter note, check out this old video from the Satanic Panic and enjoy a good laugh. Yes, they really took it that seriously.

 

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, human nature, sex in society

Aziz Ansari: A Case Study Of He Said/She Said And Impossible Justice

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Ordinarily, I prefer to wait until an ongoing scandal involving a celebrity dies down before I comment on it. In my experience, it takes time for the full story to emerge. Most of the time, a more complete story tends to render any premature comments moot. John Carpenter recently provided a notable example of why such prudence is important.

That said, there are times when patience is also moot because the narrative follows an all too familiar pattern. It becomes so predictable that you can practically set your watch to it. Over the past several months, especially since the Harvey Weinstein scandal, we’ve seen that pattern play out in all sorts of disheartening ways. That’s why I’m opting not to wait on offering comments on Aziz Ansari.

By now, everybody with an internet connection, a social media feed, and a predilection for celebrity meltdowns knows the story. Aziz Ansari is the latest case of the Weinstein Effect. His name has officially been added to the growing list of male celebrities being accused of sexual misconduct.

The story first broke on Babe.net where a 23-year-old Brooklyn-based photographer calling herself Grace, which isn’t her real name, told a very distressing story about a night she had with Ansari. That story reads like a bad date, but still echoes with some of the same themes that Harvey Weinstein has helped make infamous. Naturally, this story is already striking a chord with the ongoing anti-harassment movement.

The way Grace tells it, she got into a situation that she lost control over and Ansari took advantage of that situation. I don’t want to get too caught up in the details. They’re just too unsexy, even for an aspiring erotica/romance writer.

Before I even attempt to comment, it’s worth pointing out that Grace said herself that she confronted Ansari about this privately. On the surface, it seemed like a terrible example of miscommunication and mixed messages. According to the article, this was the exchange.

Grace: I just want to take this moment to make you aware of [your] behavior and how uneasy it made me.

Ansari: Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.

If this had occurred several years ago, that probably would’ve been the end of it. The incident would’ve been a nasty experience for Grace and an uncomfortable memory for Ansari, but it probably wouldn’t have made the news, outside a few disreputable tabloids. Since powerful men harassing women has become a far greater issue, though, this is now national news.

It’s already generating the kind of divisive arguments that have been cropping up since the Weinstein scandal. Supporters of the anti-harassment movement are siding with Grace, accepting her story as another example of powerful men exploiting women. Opponents, including a few celebrities, are saying this movement is going too far and devolving into a man-hating witch-hunt.

Neither side is going to convince the other they’re wrong. Both sides have plenty of rhetoric to make their point. When I look at this story, though, I see far greater forces at work. I also see a devolving situation that is doing more to divide people in lieu of addressing real issues surrounding men, women, consent, and harassment.

When you read over Grace’s story and then read the statement Aziz Ansari issued in response, there’s one inescapable fact. It’s impossible to vindicate or disprove either version of the story. It is very much a classic he said/she said ordeal. She said he assaulted her. He said everything they did was consensual. There’s no way to be certain.

Sure, there’s a distinct possibility that one of them is lying. Everyone, celebrity and non-celebrity alike, is prone to lying. There have been documented incidents of women falsely accusing men. There have been men who have lied and gotten away with sexual misconduct. However, without knowing more details about the incident, it’s not possible to truly know.

Me being a guy who places a lot of faith in people, I suspect that both Grace and Ansari believe they’re telling the truth. I believe that if you hooked them up to a perfect lie detector, it would verify that both of them believe their respective stories with all their hearts.

This sounds like an impossible position until you remember that our memories are not very reliable, especially when it comes to unpleasant memories. Beyond simply not remembering the details of a terrible situation, our brains are wired to avoid the kind of mental discomfort that comes with enduring or committing a sexual assault at all costs, even if that means mis-remembering the truth.

It’s because of this that the he said/she said nature of stories like this is difficult to process. It creates a scenario that’s different from most other crimes and injustices. There’s no dead body. There’s no lost or damaged property. There’s nothing tangible to highlight the crime or misdeed. There are only two conflicting stories. As a result, it leads to a situation of impossible justice.

Even if everything Grace described happened exactly as she said it did, there’s no way to prove it in a courtroom or even a civil case. Even if Ansari is one-hundred percent innocent and is the victim of an elaborate extortion plot, there’s no way to prove that either, absent a confession or new information.

In both instances, there’s an injustice being committed. Since humans are wired with an innate sense of justice that shows even when we’re infants, that situation is untenable in our collective minds. People hear a terrible story like Grace’s and that inner justice system goes into overdrive.

Since we don’t have the time, energy, or even the capabilities to gather all the facts, we’re left relying on a certain degree of prejudice. This is where the impossible justice of he said/she said gets real ugly and this scandal with Ansari demonstrates it. When people start relying on prejudices, it tends to bring out the worst in humanity.

For those who believe our culture is full of entitled, misogynistic men who see women only as objects to be owned, then their prejudices will be reinforced by this story. For those who believe the movement against sexual misconduct is going too far and all men are being demonized, this story does the same.

That’s greatest tragedy of an impossible justice. It gives certain people the anecdotal evidence they need to further their agenda. It also gives those who stand against that agenda even more incentive to fight back. In the end, it only serves to heighten hostilities and intensify the rhetoric.

At a time when men and women are increasingly divided, especially in matters pertaining to sex and intimacy, this sort of story really drives us in all the wrong directions. It frames all men as sleazy pigs who jump at any opportunity to harass a woman. It frames all women as victims who must fight back against everyone and everything attacking them, real or imagined.

For me, personally, this story makes me sick to my stomach because it’s one of those stories that’s perfect for pushing an agenda, but not for pursuing justice. If what happened to Grace is true, then I’m in favor of having Ansari face justice for his misdeeds. I say that as someone who has been a fan of his comedy and his work on “Parks and Recreation.”

As it stands, though, there’s not enough evidence beyond the he said/she said dynamic to convict anyone of a crime. Absent that kind of justice, people are filling in the blanks with whatever gender-driven prejudices they want to strengthen.

In my personal opinion, which may put me at odds with both sides, I believe that there’s a third version of this story between Grace and Ansari that is closer to the truth. In that version, Ansari isn’t a total gentleman and Grace isn’t a hapless victim either. It’s just an experience that becomes awkward and unpleasant for them, the memories of which later get conflated and influenced by outside sources.

In the end, it’s still impossible to know for sure. Short of high-definition video, unambiguous audio, and an ability to read the exact thoughts of both Grace and Ansari during those moments when they were together, we can’t know how consensual or hostile the situation was between them. It messes with our desire for justice, especially when it comes to how men treat women.

In seeking that justice, though, it’s important to remember that there are instances where the truth isn’t just elusive. It’s physically impossible to ascertain. In those instances, trying to fill that uncertainty with agendas will only lead to more injustice in the long run for everyone.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Current Events, gender issues, sex in media, sex in society