GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY
“Innocent until proven guilty” may be the law of the land but it’s not the method of our minds or the way of our hearts. More often than not, we jump to a conclusion about someone’s guilt, in a criminal or social situation, and make a decision based on limited information at best. I’m certainly guilty of it too, but in the last few months I’ve become more aware of my tendency to do this and it has troubled me more than ever.
In essence, we are like the other eleven angry men in that deliberation room; we are not Henry Fonda in Sidney Lumet’s timeless film. It seems like every other day someone is accused in the media of bad behavior or a crime. It’s no surprise most of the “news” picks a side and projects their slant. Unfortunately, most of us do the same. Take the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard fiasco. Nearly everyone in my life had decided who was right or wrong, with little room for mutual complicity, long before the trial was over. The political scenario is far worse. It seems that any accusation leads the majority to an assumption of guilt based mostly on our political leanings. Not only do we make our minds up about the “other side” long before an outcome is delivered but our decisions are founded in emotion rather than an in depth analysis of the facts at hand. This is why Sidney Lumet’s classic remains so revelant. As I told my dad when we recently watched William Friedkin’s 90s remake together, for me the story of 12 Angry Men is about much more than a jury. It’s a metaphor for our cultural struggle and a continuing conversation about justice, about fairness.
Of course, this issue is not a new trend. From the history books, we can see it has been a problem for most of human existence. However, I think its recent evolution presents potentially worse outcomes. If we are to accept that the assumption of guilt is an unfortunate human trait, a new tendency may be a harder pill to swallow: that even after innocence is proven, guilt is still assumed. This seems to be the case more and more in the 21st century when evidence hardly matters. Positions are held firm based on past beliefs, not new information. And if you think I’m pointing fingers at one side or the other, you’re wrong. I’m pointing at everyone.
Imagine a new movie titled 12 Angry People set in 2022 in which a jury member tries to argue with logic and common sense against his or her eleven peers. It would probably be a short film because it’s hard to believe many (or any) of the jurors would change their minds and the one independent would be drowned in a sea of hardened opinions. Imagine if the case on trial was any recent societal issue and you end up with a stalemate. Therefore, Lumet’s film remains relevant but not applicable to our current times. And that’s frightening.
So what can be done if anything? The solution will certainly not come from on high as it has become more and more apparent that our leaders are no different than loud-mouthed and senile uncles barking at each other at family barbecue. The answer, if there is one and I’d like to still believe there could be, must come from within. As I mentioned before, months ago I realized my own tendency to assume guilt based on my biases and my inflexible positions in the face of new information. It’s something I’ve worked on since, something I’ve gone to battle over with ex-girlfriends, friends, family members, and my own self. The struggle has been worth it. I’ve gained ground. And I believe this is the only way we can defeat this new enemy, one that may otherwise tear us apart from the inside out.