Kid, Are You Innocent?

This post comes out of an interesting discussion with my youngest child last night.

I forget the precise nature of the discussion, but it had to do with conservatives and their views on (among other things) science, abortion, and the relative values of lives.  I would remember more but I was building a fire at the time this all came up.

Oh, yeah!   She asked me how conservatives justify imposing “morality”-based laws (e.g., DOMA) on other people when they view the imposition of laws generally as a “bad thing.”

Anyway, this morning the discussion was still resonating when I came across two pictures that, taken together, were a revelation.

The first was this shot of a banner.  This is not the original banner, but a rather troubling Photoshop job.  I’ve seen the original banner, and the last line was added later by someone who I probably wouldn’t like all that much:

Here’s the original:

(In case the photos disappear, the original is of a black banner that reads, in white lettering, #BLACK LIVES MATTER.  The ‘shop job adds the line:  “BUT ONLY WHEN THEY’RE KILLED BY COPS.  KILLED BY EACH OTHER?  NOT SO MUCH.”)

And then I saw this, as a corrective:

And suddenly, I got it.  It’s probably blindingly obvious to other people.  But here’s where I think a large part of the conservative mindset is coming from:

Guilt and innocence. 

It’s OK to impose bad consequences (or, alternatively, a law) on those who are guilty.  And it’s OK to impose harsh consequences (i.e., via a law) to prevent harm to the innocent.  Government exists to protect the innocent from the guilty.

Now.  How do we figure out guilt or innocence?

I think it’s largely taken from a very crude (you will pardon the phrase) Judeo-Christian perspective that has in turn been influenced by a whole mess of philosophies and institutions, including patriarchy and slavery.  So the innocent include, inter alia:

Fetuses and/or children (age cutoff depending on denomination), [female] virgins, successful business[men–because of Calvinism], Europeans [because of anglo-Israelism, etc.] the faithful in religiously-sanctioned heterosexual marriage, those who have accepted Christ as their personal savior.

The guilty and/or potentially guilty include, inter alia:

Anyone who hasn’t accepted Christ as their personal savior, adults, particularly those who are not faithful in religiously-sanctioned heterosexual marriage, providers of abortion and/or birth control services, those who do not succeed at business and the poor generally [because of Calvinism] and non-white people [because of the mark and or curse of Cain].

Now, being an attorney (a much nicer term than lawyer, I think) it’s important to notice that there are some interesting relationships here.  First of all, innocence is supposed to be conjoint (i.e., there’s supposed to be an “and” connecting all of those categories) and guilt is supposed to be disjoint (i.e, you are guilty if you are an abortion provider even if you’re successful in business).

In practice, the relationships don’t work out that way.  Many successful businessmen are held to be innocents even though they have been unfaithful in marriage, and of course, taking Christ as one’s personal savior covers a multitude of sins, as does public repentance (which is much the same thing).  And black people are generally held to be less innocent/more guilty (even if they’re children or successful in business).

Second, like the list of factors that effect guilt or innocence, the precise outcomes of various mixtures are going to vary widely.  Ronald Reagan was approved by religious conservatives even though he and his spouse were big astrology fans (astrology being very much on the outs in general) and even though he had divorced his first wife.  Newt Gingrich is approved for several reasons even though he is a Catholic convert and has been married multiple times.  Conversely, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a professing Christian, but he was black, so he gets a stamp of disapproval (also, because we know that blacks are intensely sexual animals).  Matthew Shepard?  White, but gay.  Jews are considered proto-Christians, so they’re inherently less innocent than Christians but more innocent than Muslims.

Ultimately, it comes down to a tribal calculus of guilt and innocence.  Innocent lives aren’t worthy of the same sorts of protections as guilty lives, so when someone says they’re pro-life, consider what they mean.  Remember, government exists to protect the innocent.  And punish the potentially guilty.

That’s why the reference to “black on black” violence (as opposed to “white on white” violence).  There is an underlying assumption is the black people are less innocent/more guilty.  And that the #BLACKLIVESMATTER idea is thus a sort of false complaint.  It’s not a complaint about the “acceptance” of black on black violence within the black comunity (an acceptance which I have not seen)–it’s an endorsement of it.  You’re black?  Expect to encounter violence, either at the hands of police or at the hands of your fellows.  You’re not as innocent as white people.  You’re different from us.  You don’t have the same respect for life that we do.  We’ve all heard this language before.  In Viet Nam.  In the Middle East.

In other words, from a conservative perspective, #WHITE LIVES MATTER MORE.

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2 Responses to Kid, Are You Innocent?

  1. Marty Hiller says:

    I guess there’s a sense in which you’re right that it’s blindingly obvious, tho as you say there are many shades of gray that people don’t seem to be taking into account. But the interesting question, to me at least, is whether there’s a way to use that insight as a path toward communication. I had a FB conversation a few months ago with a distant cousin (someone I’ve never met) about Hispanics and some kind of government service he didn’t think they deserved. He considered them despicable, and therefore unworthy of assistance, as a result of some observations he’d made about them: in particular, the parents using their children as translators when his job took him to their homes (“don’t even care enough to learn the language,”) and relying on welfare (“too lazy to get a job,”) and the presence of Hispanic drunks in a visible location in town. I commented that I didn’t know what language services are available in his town, but I know in LA there’s a two year waiting list for ESL classes. And I reminded him of our cousin who went on welfare as a single mom in order to escape from an abusive husband, and his grandfather who was a reformed alcoholic: not bad people, but rather good people whose lives went astray for awhile. I also said something about the state of the economy, and told him I believe God calls us to show even more compassion in times like these, when so many people can’t find jobs even if they do speak the language and don’t have people prejudging them. I have no idea whether it affected his opinions even a little — he didn’t respond after the comment about compassion. But it was an attempt to chip away at his presumption of guilt.

    There’s a mechanism I think we all succumb to from time to time, of selectively attending to information that reinforces our stereotypes, and discounting information that conflicts with them. So even though he had the same data point about two different people — e.g. Hispanic drunks, and his drunken grandfather — he reached opposite conclusions about their worthiness. I remember an exercise we did in a psych class I took, where the teacher passed out a quote to everyone at the beginning of class (“A little revolution now and then is good for a country — say, every twenty years or so.”) and asked us to rate on a scale of 1-10 how much we agreed or disagreed with it. On half the slips of paper, the quote was attributed to Karl Marx, and on the other half it was attributed to Thomas Jefferson. You can probably guess the outcome of the survey. The question is how to make people *aware* of the way they automatically judge more harshly when they have a negative preconception, and more leniently when they have a positive one, and recognize how unfair that is so they’re motivated to try to compensate for their own biases.

    • (WARNING: I probably shouldn’t have composed this response in this itty-bitty window. It rambles around and may miss the point…)

      I think you probably took the best approach. And it’s important to note that this approach probably only works with those with whom we already have a relationship that allows us to get beyond slogans.

      Essentially, you play a game of “what if?” with the other person. It’s similar to the goal, in mediation, of getting beyond ‘positions’ and drilling down to ‘interests,’ only I’m not certain that those are the most applicable terms here. Rather, the issue is that we slap a label (e.g., “guilt”, “innocence”) onto someone and then act as if that explains everything. So what we need to do is (1) explore how that label came to be applied, and (2) in what ways it may be inaccurate in explaining other things about that person.

      For example, many Christians suspect that atheists are bad people (‘guilty,’ because they reject god). Consequently, they must be bad in other ways–for example, they must not love their children, or they must be into porn, or they must be spouse-beaters, etc. Conversely, many atheists shut down when they meet a professed Christian because they believe that Christians turn off their brains (I had a science teacher in high school once who expressly disavowed the possibility of evolution–and who was famously Christian). Well, that means that all Christians are closed-minded. Similarly, all Mormons are… All Jews are… etc.

      Stereotypes are similar to positions; the trick is to get past them, find out what created them, and demonstrate the fallacy in reasoning FROM them.

      So–with respect to your cousin–WHAT IF the parents aren’t adept at English, feel embarrassed by their command of the language, or simply are too busy working to learn it? (How many English-speakers take the time to learn another language? How many take the time to learn correct grammar in their native tongue?) WHAT IF they’re trying to help their children develop bilingual skills? *AND* what does an assumed failure to learn the local language say about them in other ways, if anything?

      We *do* tend to filter out things that disagree with our own beliefs, cognitive dissonance being painful. If I were trying to teach someone *not* to do that, I would try to clarify the distinction between reacting, on the one hand, and reflecting, on the other. Interestingly, we tend to use these techniques differentially with respect to those we know, where we reflect and exercise judgment, and those we don’t know, where we react and execute justice.

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