After a respectful discussion yesterday with someone who feels strongly that our process of law – a person is innocent until proven guilty – is paramount to the success of Democracy (a tenet to which I theoretically concur), my mind just won’t be still.
In this discussion, the position of the person I was talking to is that without concrete evidence (negating uncollaborated memory), the alleged perpetrator remains innocent and under our current legal system – goes unpunished. The context of the conversation was about “the current mentality that a woman is referred to as a victim just because she claims it is so”. I challenged the perspective of innocence in ‘he said, she said’ cases and the history of marginalized people going unheard. It was quickly apparent to me that we were viewing this topic from different positions and a Facebook discussion was going to be unproductive. Yet, the ethical element of this controversy – currently highlighted in the news – is very unsettling.
How do we, as a society, honor the pain of those who believe they have been abused with the legitimate need to also protect innocent people from being punished when the only ‘evidence’ is an imperfect memory?
As a psychotherapist, I have witnessed the intense reaction of people suffering (definition of “victim”) from the pain of having been personally violated. Many, many times they felt so much shame that they buried the pain a coping mechanism so that they could continue to function in their lives. Sadly, this happens even after trying to tell someone; a mother in denial of her husband’s ability to do something as horrific as inappropriately touching their daughter; an HR director who knows the company’s success is dependent on a key sales rep or a board member; or, a college president who would be in jeopardy of losing funding. These scenarios are sad realities in our history; histories that stymie people’s emotional energy when it comes to speaking out. Histories that foster a culture of boxing it up and keeping silent.
If we fail to believe – and even act on – a woman who claims a violation 30 years after the fact, how can we believe – and act on – a man who claims to have been violated by a priest 30 years ago when he was a child? What are we telling these people?? We believe you but without proof, your perpetrator is allowed to walk around (potentially continuing to violate others) and that’s Democracy?? Therein lies a HUGE hole in our system.
Complicating it even further is the problematic element of ‘memory’. The probability of our memory being 100% accurate is low after 30 years. Indeed, our memory is easily distorted over time as our brain files away similar experiences. An additional complication occurs when alcohol is involved Science tells us that alcohol especially, inhibits experiences from being implanted into long term memory. Alcohol also, lowers our filters – allowing us to do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do. IF we did something we might feel shame about – we are also likely to repress that memory as a defense against continuing to feel shame. These are also facts.
How do we solve this problem of one person’s view over anothers without causing more harm – intensifying the victimization – and dismissing the pain of people who feel violated? Do we dismiss the inappropriateness of something that happened when under the influence? Or when someone was ‘young and dumb’? Or before they were successful, upstanding, perhaps ‘reborn’ middle aged adults?
How do we protect people against unjust, revengeful, or misaligned accusations? How do we protect the careers and reputations of individuals who are truly innocent? How do we make sure that people are not marginalized? Or dismissed?
I think THESE are the questions that the next generation needs to be brave enough to try and answer. The ethics of these issues are deeply woven into the fabric of our current culture and clarity is a necessity for the success of our Democracy.
As a side note on the currently public ‘he said, she said’ debacle…
As a candidate for the Supreme Court – if Judge Kavanaugh has said something along the lines of “I have no memory of the incident I am being accused of. I cannot perceive that the man I am today could have ever exhibited that behavior. However, if I did ANYTHING that felt invasive or inappropriate to her or anyone – I deeply apologize.” … Something like that would have allowed me to believe that he is a fair minded, non-judgmental, empathetic, and rational option for the job. Instead, he adopted the “it wasn’t me” stance that is prevalent in these cases which, only served to magnify the historical injustices that lined up in front of him. Now – I have very deep doubts about this man’s ability to deliver unbiased and fair decisions; ESPECIALLY in reference to victim rights. It would be a ‘no’ vote for me based solely on this performance.
I feel better now. : )