Saturday, October 18, 2014

Peel the Label

It's a frequent refrain during intakes at the public defender's office.  Despite clear and overwhelming evidence that facts, if proven at trial, would result in a conviction, despite the security or dashcam video that would likely persuade a jury that a client's conduct satisfies the elements of a crime, despite the actual truth of the matter, some clients can't get over labeling themselves something that they abhor: a criminal.  They may not dispute the facts at all, but they sure dispute the label.

I strive to offer no moral judgement in my capacity, only legal advice.  I, literally, presume everyone innocent. But the moment the conversation turns to a person's conception of themselves, ("I'm not a criminal...I'm not like the rest of these people in your lobby...") I have to rethink the advisement.

In its simplest terms, the problem is a quasi-Cartesean confusion of behavior with identity.  "I [behaved badly], therefore, I am [a bad person]," goes common logic. Or, when judging others, "You [behaved badly], therefore, you are [a bad person]." I believe that's a common mistake.  Our actions define us in the minds of others, of course. But, there is still a flaw in the decision to define a person solely by their negative behaviors. It's an all too easy moral shortcut.

People do terrible, despicable things.  People may behave with appalling disregard for the consequences of their actions. People may require punishment in a just society for their victimization of others. But, I have always viewed behavior and identity unrelated terms in the lexicon of moral responsibility, as connected as apples and oranges. Each of us is more than the sum of the worst things we've done. Those simplistic definitions we have of one another diminish the other, as well as ourselves.  Each of us deserves the dignity of a thoughtful, multivariate analysis of our actions, and the events that led to them.  "Label not, lest ye be labeled," I suppose.

But there is something more at stake here:  If we define people, label them this way or that, then the capacity to change fades away.  "This is who you are, and we're all stuck with you, because people never change," goes conventional wisdom.  But what if conventional wisdom uses the wrong lexicon?  People change their behaviors all the time.  Behavior modification is no mere cottage industry; it's a staple of our economy.  Call it what you will...advertising, the power of suggestion, propaganda, persuasion, we are its audience.  And as the world we live in changes at an accelerated rate, we must adapt to it.  Change our behaviors to succeed or survive.

I suspect those who find defining themselves unpleasant, if truth be told, are also those who all too often use the aforementioned all too easy moral shortcut.  Go easy on them, though. They haven't, yet, comprehended their own capacity for change.