Sometimes we give ourselves seemingly very good reasons for ignoring our uncomfortable feelings. Mustn’t judge. Can’t jump to conclusions. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Innocent until proven guilty. They probably didn’t mean it. It’s all in our heads. There is so much wrong with this, that I struggle to disentangle it, but there seem to be at least three main parts of this problem.
First of all, on the surface, we seem to be prioritising protecting people’s feelings over our physical security. That’s pretty messed up. Below the surface, though, what we are really saying is that other people’s feelings need to be protected, but ours don’t. We’re burying our feelings to spare other people’s. What does that make us? Lesser people? Non-people? That’s even more messed up.
Secondly, we seem to be confusing acknowledging our feelings and apportioning blame. There is a world of difference between saying “I feel creeped out by George” and “George is a creep.” There may be a myriad reasons while I’m feeling creeped out by George that do not in fact involve any intentional creepiness on George’s part. George may be a lovely guy who wears the same aftershave as my pervy high-school PE teacher. However, I AM feeling creeped out. That feeling is a valid data point. That feeling doesn’t per se insult or hurt anyone in any way, unless I act upon it.
But no: we prefer to cling to some kind of notion that acknowledging our negative feelings towards someone is A Bad Thing. That our feelings, on their own, will somehow hurt them, or our group. As if people could read our minds. As if thinking less than well about someone must necessarily translate itself into less than good behaviour on our part. As if lying about how we feel was ever successful at making our feelings go away, rather than making them pop out unexpectedly and uncontrollably at inconvenient moments.
Thirdly, and I think this is a problem so in-built in our nature that it’s hard for us to see it, we are so wrapped up in how we do “justice” at a social level that we are trying to replicate it in our own heads. Our concept of justice is a deeply-held belief – it’s so deeply-held, in fact, that many or even most of us don’t even see it as a belief. Many western legal concepts – burden of proof, innocent until proven guilty, innocent by reason of insanity, mens rea, the need for an unbiased jury, the value of precedent, etc. – have become internalised beliefs for most of us. Of course someone is innocent until proven guilty. Of course it matters if people hurt us or purpose, or by accident.Of course everyone should be equal under the law. Of course we can’t hold people who are in a mentally unbalanced state to the same standards (wait, but didn’t we just say… oh, never mind).
I’m not saying that the underpinnings of our legal system are wrong. I’m saying first and foremost that we have to be aware that they are beliefs (or paradigms, if the word “belief” makes anyone feel squiffy). They are not facts. They are not the only way to do business. The Vikings, the Mongols, the Klingons, would laugh their heads off at them, and at us for believing in them.
Secondly, and most importantly, they are designed to work at a social level. They require a set of resources that an individual simply doesn’t have. For instance, after a robbery, a police department may start an investigation. This may involve expert investigators, forensic experts, witnesses, psychologists, substance abuse specialists, legal counsellors. The balance of evidence will be looked at by twelve uninvolved individuals. A highly trained legal expert will act on their conclusions, based on law and precedent. If we are expecting to be able to replicate that process in our own heads, we’re being a tad unrealistic.
Thirdly, this system is designed to work after the fact. It doesn’t work at preventing crime. It’s not designed to do that. It never was. It’s designed to allocate proper punishment after something has happened. And, as individuals, punishing perpetrators may be something we don’t have the ability or the right to do, anyway.
When we are faced with someone we are not sure about, who gives us an uneasy feeling, who makes our intuition tingle, we may not have the time and resources to play police-forensics-lawyer-jury before taking steps. That’s not a problem, though, because we don’t have to play judge either. We don’t have to play any part of that game. There are plenty of steps we can take that are not punitive steps. We can be proactive. But until we snap out of a mindset where every evaluation has to go through a grotesque one-man re-enactment of a mash-up between NYPD Blue, CIS, The Mentalist, and Boston Legal, we’re gonna find ourselves stranded.