That would be doubleplusungood.

I sometimes fear  that we will need to radically rewrite our dictionaries in the near future as so many of our words are dropping their old, negative definitions for new, positive and  winsome meanings. It is not, for example, unusual to hear a phrase such as “go on, indulge yourself, you deserve it” on an advert  on the television. The modern use of indulge is the components of luxury or tolerance. Any former ideas of postponement of a debt or deferment of a sin has largely been lost. Similarly words such as “pride“, which was previously something to be avoided, as one of the seven deadly sins, are now seen as positive attributes to one’s character.

Common words such as health can come to mean their opposite when allied with the word “mental”. It is not unusual to hear he suffered with “mental health” (instead of illness) and  “we are all affected by mental health” (When unfortunately this is not the case and many of us suffer with mental illness). I fear the stigma associated with mental illness is so great that people are even fearful of saying the word and will try all forms of verbal gymnastics to avoid it.

It is to be expected that words change their meaning over time as fashions and social mores change. In an increasingly secular world it is not surprising that many words which previously had a religious connotation are now pressed into service for more profane uses. As our technology and lives change we need words to communicate our new circumstances and it makes sense to bring older antiquated words out of retirement and disuse, and dust them off, before pressing them into use in contemporary conversations. Although I am a bit of a pedant, and I do like the original meaning of words recalled, I am happy to see drifts and changes in the language allowing us to communicate freely. I would not wish to think that words should be preserved in aspic as this is a sure route to the demise of conversation and understanding.

However, there are some words which are so important in the meaning they bestow that they should only be misused with great care. In his excellent novel ‘1984’ George Orwell reminded us of the power of words, and in particular the power of words when misused  to entrap and imprison us. Big Brother altered the meanings many words,  through the development of Newspeak , as they were aware this was a source of political power. Nowadays, it seems that we are rapidly learning Newspeak and words such as sexcrime and crimethink seem very prescient.

Two such words are ‘Shame’ and the related word ‘Guilty’. Shame used to mean the painful emotion we felt when we were aware that we had not lived up to our standards, when we experienced feelings of guilt or disgrace because we had behaved badly and to a level below the standards to which we hold ourselves. Shame is increasing being used as a verb meaning to make someone feel ashamed and often tagged onto a preceding word – fat shaming, slut shaming, body shaming, and so on. However, it is often the case that it was not shame that was sought but rather advice which was offered. It is no great surprise that the commonest people responsible for fat shaming are family members and doctors, people who have a vested interest in aiding someone who is obese or overweight and are least likely to wish to insult or distress them. People are not trying to shame someone but rather to advise or counsel them. It is true that we wish to avoid or get rid of shame, but not by banning the attribution, but rather by living and behaving in such a way that we do not feel ashamed by our actions.

This current strategy seeks to put the distress on the person who notices the sub-standard behaviour rather then on the person who has fallen short of their own standards. If I am happy with my behaviour and feel it accords with my view of what is right and proper, it does not matter one iota how you criticise me, I will feel no shame. I can only feel shame when I fall below my expectations not yours. I can only feel shame when I agree I am in the wrong, if I disagree I feel wronged or misunderstood not ashamed. You cannot shame me unless I share your thought that I have done something wrong.

Guilty‘, however,  is the word being treated in the most egregious manner. In our connected and on-line world it has almost come to be synonymous with ‘accused’ . Previously there was a chain of events – an accusation was made, an assessment of the facts undertaken, all parties explained their actions and finally, after consideration, someone was either found “Guilty”  or remained Innocent. This is what would be loosely called “due process“. To be guilty of some wrong deed is to be found responsible and culpable and is a major step, a step all civilised societies have found should only be taken after due process.

The nightmare of living in states where an accusation is all that is required to make one guilty is well known and is the hallmark of the totalitarian and barbarian. Over the millennia we, as a species, have learnt that it is vital that people should have the presumption of innocence and we should only call people ‘Guilty’ after a rigorous  and fair examination of the fact. Too often today, in cases of child abuse or sexual abuse, people are quick to name someone as Guilty before due process has been had. On social media and the internet many are happy to condemn people as guilty without an exploration of the facts. Campaigns are often mounted to shout the word “Guilty” to the world before any trial of the evidence has taken place. The campaigns accuse and the media condemns before any justice can be obtained.

This often occurs in the most heinous of accusations (child abuse, rape, etc) but it is because these are the most disgusting and dreadful acts that it is especially important to ensure due process. While we must do everything possible to find those that commit these acts, hold them culpable, and punish them, we must be careful that we do not punish the innocent. To label an innocent party guilty of acts such as these is a crime on a par of severity with the acts themselves. Although it may be difficult to swallow, especially at times when the desire for revenge is high, but Blackstone’s Formulation is a true foundation for a safe and civilised society :-

It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer

When we interfere with this viewpoint we place everyone in danger. No-one would be able to sleep at night if all it took to become guilty was that someone accused you.  What about the snubbed friend, the disgruntled employee, the querulous neighbour ? Our innocence is a precious thing and should not be able to be tarnished without very good cause.

 


That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved.
Benjamin Franklin, 1785


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Hounded to death.

Hounded to death.

It is gingerly, and with a great deal of trepidation, that I write today’s post. I have been struck by the awfulness of Carl Sargeant’s death on Tuesday when it appears he took his life after having been accused of misbehaviour and having lost his government position. Now, I don’t have any great affection for politicians and did not know a great deal about  Mr Sargeant before this event so why has his apparent suicide affected me ?

Firstly because it is a very obvious reminder of the terrible damage we are doing to our society and the rule of law by the ongoing hysteria in the media about sexual abuse and politicians. Clearly I would want to see any politician, of any hue, who abused any other person dealt with and punished appropriately. The promise of power and influence, that the world of politics offers, means that it will attract more than an average amount of psychopathic individuals. Therefore it is quite reasonable that we may find an above average number of people who are guilty acts of abuse in our governmental bodies. But, equally clearly, I only want guilty people punished and shamed. This distinction is one of the hallmarks of a civilised society where rules are just and punishment only justly applied when it is warranted.

One of the earliest legal treatises was the Mishneh Torah which was an attempt codify the bases of Jewish Law. In the early attempt to tease out guiding principles for a fair and just society the great philosopher Maimonides wrote :-

“It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”

as he was aware that to do otherwise was the start of a slippery slope which lead to a lawless and unjust society where conviction, not being based on an adequate burden of proof, could lead to punishment on the basis of a whim of courts and rulers. This has also been referred to as Blackstone’s Formulation after he stated “All presumptive evidence of felony should be admitted cautiously; for the law holds it better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer“.

This principle should be considered alongside another, related legal principle, that is, the presumption of innocence. All legal systems hold this principle dear. Roman law states “ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat” (the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies), and Islamic law, Common Law and the Civil Law all carry this basic tenet. As the public puts it “Innocent until proven guilty“. This is a principle that keeps you and I safe : we can only fall foul of the law, and be punished, if we are found guilty after trail not simply by accusation.

In the Carl Sargeant case he was treated as if her were guilty before he had a hearing. He lost his position and was treated by Carwyn Jones, The First Minister of Wales, as if the accusations were true. This is the  habit, increasingly popular, of jumping to the conclusion that accusations are truth. It is this approach which  underpins such campaigns as #IBelieveHer. Now it is understandable that we want to increase the justice for those who are victims of any form of abuse but this strategy is very dangerous. If we believe the accusers without question what is the need for a trial ? If we believe the accusers then the only thing missing is retribution. This leads us to a very dark place where people can be destroyed by malicious accusations.

 

welsh-spads

 

This photograph, might explain my concerns about this. This is a group of Welsh special advisors out for the evening celebrating on the night that they had just started the ball rolling on the case against Carl Sargeant. These are the expressions just after they have opened the floodgates of innuendo and suspicion. A colleague and erstwhile friend has been thrown to the dogs and this photograph reveals their feelings that very evening. When accusation becomes proof, accusations become dangerous and powerful political weapons which some people seem to enjoy using.

This is not the only legal principle that was ignored in Carl Sargeant’s case. He was never given details of the accusations nor knowledge of who his accusers were.  Again in English Law, Roman Law, and also the Sixth Amendment of the United States this is a ignoring a cornerstone of justice. In the Bible, when Paul was accused, it was described thus :-

“It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man up to die before the accused has met his accusers face-to-face, and has been given a chance to defend himself against the charges.”

If one does not know the accusations, nor your accuser, you are effectively denied the opportunity to defend yourself. If you can not defend yourself you cannot receive justice. It has long been known that ignoring this principle would lead to injustice and would facilitate terror. The oppressive, nightmarish qualities we try to explain when we use the term “Kafkaesque” , relate to being on trial but ignorant of your accusers and their claims as so well described nn Kafka’s novel Der Process (The Trial). Secret accusations, secret courts and clandestine meetings have always been the way of the power hungry who wish to subvert justice. In this particular case it seems that it has gone further than this as there were also meetings with the accusers when their stories were discussed with all the risks of contaminating evidence of any wrong doing. This is very reminiscent of the history of the Stasi, or the Gestapo, collecting accusations so that they might prove useful against political enemies in power struggles at a future date

Carl Sargeant did not know of what he was accused nor do we. We know that it could not have been sufficient to warrant police involvement. It is likely that it was behaviour that is deemed inappropriate in our present moral climate. He might have behaved in a manner more in tune with an older generation than the present. If this is the case then it is probable that a further legal principle is  in the process of being ignored – we can only be tried for offences against the rules that applied at the time. Guilt can not be backdated. If tomorrow they pass a law outlawing drinking alcohol on Sundays,  it is this principle which protects me against them coming and punishing me for last Sunday’s drinking. I am obliged to follow the law as it is just now, not as how it might be in the future. Without this principle we could all be facing punishment in the future for some act which is not a crime at present – did you spank your child ? Did you smoke in a public place ? etc etc.  The same guideline should be used when we consider social mores and customs.

For all these reasons the story of Carl Sargeant is a sad and worrisome tale. He did not receive fair justice and now never can. We will never know the truth of these accusations as they can not be tested now that he has died, so justice will never be served. These principles are not minor bureaucratic foibles but are the foundations of our enlightened society. For the sake of all those black men lynched in the South in America, denied a trial and presumed guilty on the words of their accusers, we must fight for these principles. For the sake of all the women accused of witchcraft and killed never able to confront their accusers we need to remember how important these principles continue to be. For the sake of the very many women who are going to be accused of adultery, or other crimes in the middle east, and face death just on the basis of an accusers word we need to promote these ideas and promote civilisation.

Carl Sargeant worked hard for his community and tried to improve the world by his work in politics, I hope now that he can rest in peace. Hopefully his family will also find peace and perhaps, in time, they may see that his sad death contributed to a turning point when society turned its back on hysteria and witch hunting.