» Government Rants, Uncategorized » Guilt v. Shame

Guilt v. Shame

A witness and I each had pretty remarkable breakthroughs at the same time earlier today. We both suddenly understood things we’d never really considered. When she had her revelation, she shook her head in disgust. On the other hand, I just thought yet again about how ridiculous our justice system really is.

To say the witness and I have different backgrounds would be an understatement. We’re generations removed, and even if we shared a birth date in the same year, it would hardly even begin to bridge the cultural gap. On top of that, she’s mostly deaf and entirely mute. An ASL interpreter did not work out, and her writing is very difficult to understand. The “interview” today involved a pen and some paper. Luckily, it was as fascinating as it was frustrating.

She’s my best witness in an upcoming trial, yet she’d continually shown up in court and failed to help at all. She’d only communicate how my client was a good man, hard-working and caring at the same time. She wouldn’t provide a shred of information about the offense, though, which was all that mattered for the purposes of the hearings. No amount of explaining would change the fact that all she would offer was very favorable character evidence.

I’ve had these types of witnesses before in other situations, but this was different. Here, I have what I believe to be an innocent client. She can help me show that. She can help me show that the victim is a liar by exposing some very clear and very well-documented motives to lie. She isn’t some stereotypical denier. She wasn’t minimizing the crime by focusing on my client’s positive qualities. She isn’t someone who communicates one thing in an informal meeting and another thing under oath. Until this morning, she just didn’t get it.

She knew my client didn’t do it. What she didn’t get was the fact that a good man could actually be stripped of his freedom, his property, and potentially his life for a single act. She certainly never thought it could happen for something as trivial as the accusation in this case.

She clearly thought about how silly the charge was and how wonderful my client is, and it was unfathomable to her that any society or any single individual could ever be so profligate and morally adrift without any bearing that they could care so much about a single stupid little act in the face of a lifetime of good deeds. She focused on his character every time she spoke because, in light of its great weight, how on earth could anyone be so petty as to impose consequences on another for such a minor transgression even if it was true?

What she did was go for the best argument she saw based on her values. The problem was that her values didn’t happen to have any relationship to the values of the ruling class in her jurisdiction. When she finally realized that, I felt bad for exposing the horrid truth to her.

I also felt grateful for seeing that the insanity of micromanaging every living human as much as possible and frothing at the mouth to dish out punishment is not yet universally accepted. It may not be inherent in mankind, and it may even be something that could change.

So they pretend punish the do, not doer, but they the same? Good man.

I thought I know what she meant, and I immediately flashed back to anthropology class. He was honorable, not a bad person. Lack of conformity to some arbitrary rule doesn’t change that.

She comes from as pure a shame society as exists today. Ours, on the other hand, is obsessed with guilt. On an institutional level, however, we are pretty much devoid of the forgiveness aspect that seems to me to be pretty integral to a traditional guilt society.

Perhaps I read too much into her last statement:

This is only bad because they say.

It seems to me that a guilt society doesn’t operate so well when we’re making more pointless rules than we can count, the vast majority of which people can barely understand without an advanced degree, and where right and wrong on a fundamental, comprehensible level are wholly detached from the dirty work of the systems we’ve put in place. The conscience plays very little role in it at all when we’re hopelessly confused about what’s wrong and what isn’t, and yet we’re ingrained with a powerful need to feel guilt for doing wrong.

We’re producing a society of sociopaths, people with no real moral bearing but who can memorize rules with ease and impose them harshly and without conscience on others. For the stupidest, it works great. For the insightful, it’s a nightmare. A lawyer friend joked this last weekend that he thinks the authorities here read Kafka’s “The Trial” and thought it was a how-to manual. It’d be funnier (but it’s still damn funny) if it wasn’t so true.

The witness eventually walked away, shaking her head in silence. I think she felt guilty about not realizing how awful things really are, and responsible for a good man’s suffering. I felt ashamed about the system, the one in which I work, and the one that lets this stuff happen all day every day.

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