Yesterday, historian Rick Perlstein wrote an important piece about the Nixon pardon, which he shows was the true beginning of the political culture that holds that business elites and government actors cannot be held accountable for corruption and malfeasance because it will “destabilize” the system. From pardons of presidents to too-big-to-fail banks to torturers getting the benefit of “not looking in the rearview mirror,” it’s hard to come up with an example of elite, institutional players having to face the music.
But one of the more confounding aspects of this unaccountable culture of ours is the one that says the legal system has no responsibility to right its own wrongs or even admit to a lack of perfection even when it’s obvious they have made a grievous error (or broke the law). Yesterday I wrote about Justice Antonin Scalia’s rather shocking opinion that the Constitution provides no avenue for an innocent person wrongfully condemned to be released if all the proper i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed. That strikes me as a perverted definition of justice. But it goes even deeper than that.
The New York Times profiled the hard-charging prosecutor known as the United States’ “Deadliest DA” who tried the case of the two men who were exonerated in North Carolina last week after having been imprisoned for over 30 years for a murder they did not commit. He’s quite a guy, winning more than 40 death penalty cases over 20 years, an achievement that got him into the Guinness World Records book.
He’s 79 now and still punching. When told that his successor (a distant cousin) calls him a bully, his response was this: “Well, let’s say, if I was a bully, he is a pussy. How about that?” I think Johnson Britt has been hanging around too much with the wine and cheese crowd. So much for the dispassionate dispensation of the rule of law.
And despite the clear and overwhelming evidence that the two men who were released on DNA evidence along with a never processed fingerprint that implicated a known rapist in the crime, this fine representative of the people had this to say, “I thought the D.A. just threw up his hands and capitulated, and the judge didn’t have any choice but to do what he did. No question about it, absolutely they are guilty.” No, absolutely, they are not.
This attitude is pervasive among many prosecutors who all over the country pull out every stop available to them to keep DNA evidence from being tested and are unwilling to release wrongly convicted prisoners despite proof of their innocence. They refuse to admit they were wrong.
This piece by Sue Russell from a few years back examined why that is:
“The problem we face,” says social psychologist Carol Tavris, “is not from bad people covering up their mistakes and not wanting to face the truth. It’s from good people who deny the evidence in order to preserve their belief that they’re good people.”Unfortunately this is a common story across the world. So called human nature leads to situations where some suffer at the hands of others. Everyone is trying to protect their self image, but only some have the power to enforce their will on the things and people around them. Obviously if people were a little more aware of the nature of their thoughts and were willing to change them, then things would be different.
Anthony Greenwald, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, says it’s natural for most of us to see ourselves in the most favorable light possible; to picture ourselves as more heroic or good or honorable than we are. For some, accepting that they may have contributed to an injustice would be such a massive blow to their perception of themselves that it is simply intolerable to countenance. So they don’t.
“People perceive themselves readily as the origin of good effects and reluctantly as the origin of ill effects,” says Greenwald. “I don’t think there’s anything special in thinking that this applies to people who work in law enforcement. The only thing one needs to assume is that they, too, are human – like the subjects in all the research that demonstrates the phenomena.” - Salon
Scenarios like the one above start when someone in a position of power chooses to see themselves and the world in a certain way. It gets to a point where it transcends choice and becomes more like a need where their entire self image and world view becomes linked to their self worth. Obviously I don't mean that this is restricted to people holding positions of power, in this particular context those in power are simply able to enforce their views on the world and make the world fit into their perspectives.
When you start tying something into your self worth you must know that you're going to have a hard time untying it. Our self worth can become more important to us than many other things in life, so we may feel the need to defend ourselves to the ends of the earth and back just so that we can still feel good about ourselves. Obviously this is a problem, especially if it exists in people who hold positions of power and/or responsibility. These people will then start imposing their views onto the world in order to validate themselves.
It would be safe to say that at least a little bit of this tendency exists within all of us, but I can say with certainty that it is not fixed into our nature - it is changeable. The problem is that in order to change it you need to let go of how you value yourself - how you determine your worth. The solution is to understand that every living being has an equal and intrinsic value and that our self images and self worth's only serve to distort this equality.