Your birth certificate is proof of guilt. -George CarlinIt will not surprise anyone who frequents this blog to know that I don't think much of the concept of innocence. It may be slightly more surprising to know that my distaste for the concept is fairly new. I didn't realize that innocence was a problematic concept until about a couple of years ago.
Up until that point, innocence had little grand meaning for me; it was merely the word describing a state of affairs in which someone was accused of something that they did not do, a legal definition. You could be innocent of walking the dog in the morning, meaning that you simply didn't do it. Whether or not this was a good thing would be totally circumstantial and subjective. Such an attitude reflects my own understanding of justice: there's nothing metaphysical to it, no objective good and evil, just positive and negative action when viewed through a lens of a culture's values.
I was unaware of how radically different my perspective was from the perspective of so many others. I'm not at all convinced now that I should be the one to change my view, either.
Innocence is a moral ideal, and core to innocence is not doing. Consider an image you have in your head of someone who is innocent by nature. The innocent are not aggressive, do not pursue whatever pridefulness or vices characterize many other people. They're just living and not doing anyone any harm. They do not play the dirty games of the real world. They might work but they are not the boss. They might love, but they are not jealous or possessive or cunning in any way. They are the embodiment of the most generous possible interpretation of what normal people are. They live by faith, if not in God, then in other people. They don't break out of the mold, but go with it, doing what they're supposed to be doing. They are perpetual bystanders.
They do not know much; in fact, ignorance is very much bliss from this vantage point, distinguishable from naivete only by the inclinations of the viewer. They are normal and relatable enough to apply for credit cards and take out mortgages, but in our recent financial chaos, few would characterize those who over-leveraged themselves as guilty of anything. They simply weren't financially savvy enough to protect themselves by knowing about contracts and risk and bubbles. That actually looks good, that they were dumb on the subject. It draws out pity. These are the kind of people that might stroll into the wrong side of town, then are shocked when they realize that's someone might mug them. They use drugs, but lack the strength to get off them when the shit screws up their life. They key is, they were manipulated, misled, trusted too easily. This kind of stupidity is what legislators and preachers of social justice want to protect. The innocent deserve support, don't they? Don't people deserve to be able to live without fear? Can't people be carefree?
The dependency of the innocent on the proactive guilty defines both groups. If you aren't watching your back and being at least a little suspicious of other people, you're an easy target; someone must help you. So those who subscribe to an innocence-heavy ethical system but still want to lead interesting lives with some sense of purpose often end up trying to valorize themselves as the shield-bearers to the downtrodden. Law enforcement officials, parents, activists, regulatory agency bureaucrats, lawyers, spokespeople of various types all seem to really enjoy the notion of being defenders of innocent people. This is deep in the nature of what we call "idealism".
The perception of innocence draws empathy with intense, religious fervor.
It's defending innocence that's the obsession, not being innocent. Almost no one sees themselves as being innocent until they're accused of something that could be problematic for them, and even then, they're more inclined to justify it instead of disowning the action outright. Being innocent can be incredibly boring, so while we idolize it, we do not pursue it. Despite our protestations of corrupting the innocent, we prefer to be the rough-but-noble fighter in their stead. There's an interesting pathos of distance going on here: the innocent person is an image with little connection to reality, as often the people who are held up as innocent victims are in fact much more like us than we think. They are aware of how the world works, they can understand risk and responsibility, and they take chances. They'll take help when it's offered, and can even come to expect it. But they are not who their supporters make them out to be.
You can tell someone balls-deep in this ethic by their constantly emotional portrayal of innocent people. They will portray a victim group as helpless every opportunity they get, and use this portrayal to empower themselves. It isn't cynical; they believe in what they're doing as much as the next guy. But they are more likely to be heroes in their own heads, whose contributions are crucial and required, than to see helping people as a matter of respectful mutual exchange. They need a needy recipient for their efforts. That's what they live for, and a world filled with more "innocent" people is practically their definition of progress.
The most obvious example of this innocence worship is the attitude so many people have towards children. There continues to be a perception that small children, uncorrupted by the greed and avarice of the world, are exemplars of innocence and that grown-ups should yearn to be more like them, with their awed and harmless wonder opposing the rapacious activities of the adult world. Kids are supposedly never bad; they're just made that way by adults.
This is ridiculous. First of all, the bullying issue gives lie to this thesis, and there seems to be no clear pattern of adult behavior that prods children into becoming little bastards. One popular way of explaining this has been finger-pointing violent video games, which turns out to be a bust. With violence, genetics are relevant, a result of uneven domestication of the human populace.
Some people need to be reminded something here: little kids are often bossy, aggressive, totally self-absorbed creatures. They see the world their way: they want things, they cry for them, they hit, they grab, they are exhausting. They're little bastards, with no natural sense of concern for the welfare of others out of the womb; that's something that gets trained into them by adults. One dad created an interesting way of showing this: having a grown man portray his 2 year old daughter in a series of viral Youtube videos.
Innocence, here, is a very intuitive thing, a perception mostly shallow in its realization. Little kids fit the superficial mold because they are so obviously harmless; when they get bigger, they're terrifying. England in particular seems to experience paedophobia or ephebiphobia as a cultural trend. Check out the "Mosquito" device; kinda neat, like a teen punk dog whistle.
That Guardian article, of course, finger-points the adults for not being tolerant enough of the children, as if they were fully developed human beings who just need love and unquestioning respect from their elders to be be good citizens. The cry of children being little bastards is incredibly old, of course, but in the past, the ways of civil society handled it with heavy doses of reality. When kids get older, they have real problems and must adapt to adult challenges. Now, we seem to think that the challenges are the problem, and what they need is greater support. Maybe it's a defensive reaction: in a culture that has lambasted fathers like Western society has, lots of people should be expected to refuse the idea that what children need is a father's discipline and authority, or to take on the responsibility of being fathers themselves. But we would never admit such a thing.
Now, don't get it twisted: I actually like kids and get along famously with them. But I'm not very protective of them and I have no problem telling them when they're doing something stupid. I'll swat one on the butt occasionally. Some parents like this about me, some parents don't. But whatever: I'm pretty sure it's helping them more than hurting them. They aren't delicate. Regarding the "tiger mom" controversy, I would identify as being more pro-authority than pro-fawning, and decent cases have been made for both approaches despite a media that can't shut up about self-esteem.
Kids are undeveloped. They don't come from the factory with perfect settings. The attachment to the notion of innocence today sometimes seems to have gone so far that parents won't develop them. Evidently, we're stifling children, refusing to let them bloom however they like, painting them as victims. Is there any place here for an expectation that these innocent little kids learn to deal with the world instead of constantly trying to remake in to their desires? This is a cultural problem that's more prevalent in the West than elsewhere, so can you really separate it from the moral heritage of this society?
The Christian Influence
The reason it took me so long to come around to the importance of innocence is because I hadn't come around to how deeply Christianity affected our moral worldview. When I read Nietzsche early on, his blatherings about Judeo-Christian ethics didn't seem to be all he made it out to be. I saw morality as being, in a roundabout way, rational self-interest.
But the cultural dominance of Judeo-Christian moral ideas becomes all too obvious after you really start to look at all we do morally and figure out why in rational terms. Until you do, it's one of those things that's so obvious and omnipresent that you never notice it. Judeo-Christian ethics remind me of the Taoist story of two fish talking to one another, and one asks, "What is this 'ocean' I keep hearing about?"
In the years prior, I did not understand that a scientifically enlightened society could view aggression as something freakish, despite its obvious evolutionary value in any but the most controlled circumstances.
I did not understand that people had such deep issues with empowerment, simultaneously hating it and being obsessed with it.
I did not understand that so many people saw their moral outlook as Natural Law universal.
I did not understand, at the time, that "good versus evil" was something so many people took so seriously. I thought the dichotomy was a narrative device, a storytelling mechanism that reinforced society's conventions as to what cultural trendsetters thought people should do. I thought people saw this.
I was kind of oblivious back then. And I had a lot more faith in the intelligence of people. Now... well...
Today, stupid people can call anything they want good or evil, innocent or guilty, and their pronouncements just enter the propaganda stream of culture with no vetting. Whether people buy it has to do with the design of the packaging; there's no standards.
It's one thing to say that your ways are better than the other guy's, and quite another to say that the other guy's ways are evil. Innocence is a core concept in the kind of mentality that breeds stridency, crusades, and a false faith in a form of legitimacy that somehow reaches beyond the realities of power in this world. The cause of defending the innocent adds to that power, fuels it, feeds into the mythos of righteousness that prop up the stupid with their own unwarranted egotism.
It isn't an insult to religion that people take some of its ideas too seriously. It's a credit to religion that it has a history of putting an individualistic society on the same moral page. But the very context of the concept of innocence requires institutional control, with the regulation of some kind of ideological supervision; it's too easy and too risky to use it with no rational grounding at all, no sense for consequences. Of course, supervising moral ideas is antithetical to modern moral ideas, but that's in the nature of innocence, too: the powerful are not innocent and therefore not good. We might end up paying for such ridiculous ideas for a long, long time yet.