Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I'm innocent. Why don't you believe me?

Have you ever tried having a discussion with a really stubborn person? This process of beating one's head against a brick wall is not good for your health, in constrast to claims in Douglas Adams' "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", which would have you believe that two brain cells are created for every one that dies, therefore the fast way to a high IQ is to smack your cranium against the side of a Victorian redbrick.

A Jamaican friend and I were talking at the weekend. Now, he loves an argument, so we went around the houses for ages, but at the end we heard each other's arguments and came to an agreement about many elements. I am not sure if the bottle of "El Dorado" rum that we shared made us mellower in our opinions, but we sounded coherent all the time (at least to ourselves), so I think not. But sometimes no amount of argument can get a person to shift a position, even with overwhelming facts or counterarguments, and the dead horse is left lying there after being flogged fully. When this is a debating exercise such as in moot court, this can seem like fun. One side tries to pummel another with an unwavering barrage of accusations, while on the other side a person tries to make as many statements of innocence as possible or amass as much "evidence" to support that claim. But as my Jamaican friend said in another conversation during the week (and he is a qualified barrister),"It is very hard to disprove a negative".

This same friend and I discovered that we have lived through some similar situations. For example, we both lived in England for many years through the late 1960s/early 1970s and remember well the "suss" (short for suspect) laws, which basically profiled young black males as criminals and was used by the British police to take people into custody simply on suspicion. I recall being stopped on "suss" several times when I was at university in the mid-1970s. On each occasion the stop did not last long: my manner of speaking (very close to the Queen's English), my intelligence (including a little knowledge of the law--one day at law school counts), and to some degree my demeanour, usually convinced the constable that this was not someone to continue to harass. Nevertheless, I had to go through this process of trying to prove I was innocent. If suss cases went to court, often because some other charge was later brought, the phrase often used in court was, I understand, "He looked suspicious, m'lud, so I picked him up." The English courts did a lot to validate this practice by not following the presumption of innocence principle back to the original event. However, when I once challenged a policeman about his suspicion, he told me that I "fit the profile", which he described as "tall, light complexion, brown hair, and weighing about 210 pounds". I pointed out that I was at most medium height, very brown (some would say black), had black hair, and weighed no more than 175 pounds (I was playing football for the university three times a week then). He still remarked that "You looked like you were up to something". I knew then that I was on that familiar old road again. The "something" I was up to was walking home, albeit late at night: I was sober, smoke-free, tired from football training, and ladened with books, but with no buses running had little choice but to walk the five miles from Ealing to Southall.

Obdurate people (those "unmoved by persuasion, pity, or tender feelings; stubborn; unyielding" as the dictionary defines them) give you a lot of good practice at "head banging" but without the joy of any music you like. They are good at using "suss" and also love the general principle of "presumption of guilt", even with the "elephant and mouse" type fallacy of association of ideas or guilt by association: the car is gone; I left it where you are standing now; therefore you took it. Most modern democracies (and it is enshrined in English law)--and I would say true democrats--follow the opposite doctrine--"presumption of innocence": as put in criminal law, the prosecution must both produce evidence of guilt and persuade the fact-finder "beyond a reasonable doubt". The obdurate person tends to take the opposite position: guilty until proven innocent. It can be worse still in the Caribbean if your "guilt" is "confirmed" by some other well-known and forensically proven characteristics of hardened criminals (such as being a man, having squinty eyes, eyebrows too close together, long nose, curled lip, etc.). Remember how hard it is to disprove a negative?

It's interesting if one consults Wikipedia's explanation on these practices. It notes that in contrast to practices in many modern nations, "in many authoritarian regimes the prosecution case is, in practice, believed by default unless the accused can prove they are innocent, a practice called presumption of guilt. Many people believe that presumption of guilt is unfair and even immoral because it allows the strategic targeting of any individual, since it's often difficult to establish firm proof of innocence (for example, it's often impossible to establish an alibi if the person is home alone at the time of the crime)."

When free people (with or without the comfort of a latte or a glass of wine) think about and discuss injustices and the kinds of torture treatment meted out to prisoners at Guantanemo Bay or Abu Garaib, it's useful to remember that these forms of behaviour at the state level have their origins and parallels right there at the individual level of the human chain.

No comments: