I am ashamed.
Although Brother Robert and I have had many rather intense discussions about the notion of shame, those feelings still persist. And unlike guilt, which has as its basis the idea that one did not act in the most desirable way (either through omission or commission), shame has an aspect of helplessness to it. I remember lectures by Bernie Weiner, a great social psychologist, which focused on the notion that the difference between guilt and shame comes down to the locus of control to which we attribute events. Guilt depends on an ‘internal locus’ – or the idea that one has some level of control over an event or outcome. Shame, on the other hand, depends on an ‘external locus’ of control – the idea that an event occurs due to circumstances beyond one’s control.
My shame is somewhat vicarious in nature. Simply, I am ashamed to be a human being right now, and not because I feel that things are beyond my control. I do my best to control the things I can, such as my health, my moods, my responsibilities and reactions, and my contributions to both my own household and to society at large. I do my best to be a good citizen, to respect my neighbors, to not impinge on the rights or happiness of others. And so far that’s worked for me: I don’t have any huge issues weighing on my conscience.
For the last two years I’ve watched as otherwise-reasonable people have flailed in self-righteous indignation, hurling themselves and anyone who gets in their way at the pillars of systems they obviously do not understand. A complete lesson in civics is not possible here, but certain principles should be clear to every citizen.
The first issue is how our electoral systems work. Rather than allowing for simple majorities based on population, we have a system that prevents certain groups from dominating. The Electoral College considers not just the population but the demographics and geography being represented.
The second principle is the system of checks and balances. There are three branches of the federal government that are intended not only to oversee each other’s actions but to make sure that the people of this country are fairly and evenly represented. The three branches – the executive, the legislative, and the judicial – are responsible for certain aspects of the governmental process, and are answerable to the other branches. This prevents our government from becoming a dictatorship.
The third principle is the Constitution and its Amendments. The Constitution, an extensively detailed document, provides a blueprint for maintaining the laws and liberties of the country. This blueprint is intended to protect the citizens of the country from both domestic and international threats. It allows our citizens freedoms and rights that may not necessarily apply in other countries.
When the last election was completed, it was painfully obvious that a great many people were not pleased with the outcome. And now two years later, they are still registering their anger – to the point where they have rendered themselves ineffective, even in their own lives. Rather than accepting that in a democratic system they might not always get their way, they have chosen to cry, scream, and hurl objects at those they deem responsible for their disappointment. They have ignored basic laws, interfered with governmental processes, threatened the safety of others and caused the country to grind to a halt, all in the name of some sort of misguided ‘resistance.’ People instantly called for the abolishment of the Electoral College, refusing to understand or accept the idea that not all would be ‘fairly represented.’ As far as most of them were concerned, what they wanted was the only ‘right’ thing, and anything else needed to be destroyed.
To that end, we’ve seen the deterioration of our checks and balances. Instead of serving as measures of fairness, justice, and constitutionality, civil servants have decided to enforce their own interpretations of the law, usually based on personal and emotional influences. Checks and balances are no longer considered; there is no more oversight.
Because of that lack of oversight, we now face an attack on our constitutional rights. We can see so many examples nowadays, but two issues seem to have prominence. The first is the question of free speech. The second is the notion of innocence.
We have a set of Amendments in the Constitution that address more specific issues related to our personal freedoms. The First Amendment reads: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ That applies to everyone. Everyone is entitled to say what they think, even if it’s not pretty, or popular, or even ethical. They are not guaranteed the right to act on everything they say, but they certainly have a right to say it. If they choose to say things that bring about certain reactions in others, then they need to be prepared to deal with the fact that they may be in discord with others. But they still have the right to say what they think. They cannot be punished inappropriately, and there is no basis for silencing them. If they create imminently dangerous circumstances based on their words, then they must be responsible for them – but they still have the right to say them.
As for innocence, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees every citizen equal protection under the law. That means that everyone is entitled to due process, both its privileges and its immunities. We have a right to be heard; we have a right not to have to incriminate ourselves; we have a right to defend ourselves, we have a right to expect that the laws in place shall be equally applied to all. We are not expected to prosecute ourselves. The notion that we are innocent until proven guilty is assumed within this Amendment – otherwise we would not have equal protections. Again, this applies to everyone, not just those that fall on the side of popular opinion.
Despite all of this, the court of public opinion now appears to have supplanted the laws we live under. We are no longer required to provide evidence to support our claims against others, we need only to accuse them, and depending on the nature of the accusation, they are likely to be considered guilty until they themselves prove themselves to be innocent. What so many people do not realize is that this creates a very bad precedent with far-reaching consequences. If the assumption of guilt is applied by default, there is almost nothing one can do to defend oneself, because all actions and statements extending from the grievance will be deemed dishonest, as merely an attempt to appear innocent; all actions and statements are then ‘questionable.’ And of course, when all else fails we need only to apply an inflammatory label (e.g., racist, homophobe, xenophobe, Nazi) and the public will take it from there, by instituting an informal campaign of public accusation and denigration that the accused may never be able to recover from.
So where does this leave us? We are standing at the edge of a frightening precipice, where truth and justice exist only at the whims of public scrutiny. And if we think that because we hold the popular opinion we need not be concerned with being stigmatized ourselves, then we are truly opening the door to chaos. How long will it be until we have given up all our rights, all our freedoms, and can no longer be trusted to think for ourselves, or to make decisions about our own well-being? How long will it be before each of us finds herself or himself in direct conflict with whatever ruling body has been instituted?
Just in time for Halloween ... Frightening, indeed….
October 1st, 2018
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