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Sabotage: Part 8 - Reasonable Doubts
The process of repair is being sabotaged. The third step of the process of repair is confession. The third sabotage is denial.
Note: this essay was originally published on Revue on October 3, 2022.
Let me start with the leaning benches.
No wait. I want to start with a more personal story.
Recently I sat for jury duty, and was called in the very first pool. The defendant happened to be Black. So did his defense attorney. So did the judge.
So there you go about that.
We were in a jury pool, and we received instruction, to wit: The purpose of a jury pool is to form a jury. The purpose of a jury is to hear evidence presented and then after deliberation return to the court with a finding of either guilty or not guilty—which has to be based only on evidence pertinent to certain predetermined criteria with very specific definitions, which comprise the alleged crime. Unless the prosecutor (who happened to be white, since I’m already very divisively noticing race) was able to establish all points of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, we had a duty to find the defendant not guilty, and the defendant’s legal troubles pertaining to this case would end. If the prosecutor was able to prove all points beyond a reasonable doubt, then we had a duty to find the defendant guilty, and the defendant’s legal troubles would enter a new and exciting phase.
We all knew the truth, though: the real work of a jury pool is to hope you don’t get picked for the jury. So, we all did that. Some of us did better than others.
I did a great job at hoping, and was not picked. However, I had to stick around, because those who were picked could still be dismissed by either the prosecution or the defense or the judge. All three had pretty broad latitude regarding criteria for dismissing prospective jurors.
So the attorneys took turns asking the prospective jurors questions pertaining to the case, and some people were kept, and others were dismissed, and then replacements were called, and I did a very good job hoping again, so I wasn’t one of the replacements, and then the replacements were questioned, and a jury was appointed, and I went home.
Oh, one other thing. There was a question presented to each juror about whether or not they trusted the police.
One of the prospective jurors was a gentlemen with a well-trimmed mustache, who announced that it was his belief that if the cops arrest you, then that means you’re guilty, every time, case closed. He said it was the way he was raised, and maybe it was. Many are. Most of us know the truth, though: that the cops arrest innocent people all the time, and plant evidence all the time, and have proved themselves to be an institution given to endemic lies and distortions. Nevertheless, this was the gentleman’s claimed belief. Maybe he didn’t really believe this. Maybe was trying to get out of jury duty by saying this obviously untrue thing, a thing diametrically opposed to the workings of a trial.
If so, it worked. The defense bounced him.
Another of the jury candidates was an easy-going gentleman who answered questions happily and with a bit of humor, and who at some point claimed to believe that police routinely target Black people for enforcement—which is a thing we all know is true, not only from video after video after video, but from cold hard statistics, and probably some warm soft statistics too. The numbers confess to this truth is my point. Maybe the easy-going gentleman was just trying to get out of jury duty by claiming an obviously true belief—one which would certainly help him presume the defendant’s innocence, as he had been instructed to do, but which might represent an unacceptable bias for anyone prosecuting a crime in a trial.
If so, it worked. The prosecution bounced him.
The gentleman with the well-trimmed mustache happened to be white, about 60, neatly dressed. He looked as if Protestantism itself may have burst forth from his forehead.
The easy-going gentleman happened to be Black, perhaps mid-30s. He dressed OK, too, for what it’s worth. He claimed to be speaking from experience when it came to racially based harassment from the cops.
There’s no reason given for jury dismissals. Attorneys just dismiss them. They don’t have to explain why.
But we all know the truth.
One gentleman was dismissed for confessing a belief that is demonstrably false about police, because our court system quite rightly has no room for that sort of thing.
Another was dismissed for confessing a demonstrably true belief about police, because our prosecutors have little room for that sort of thing, either, and our court system lets prosecutors make decisions on these sorts of things.
It appears that for a Black person to sit on a jury, they either have to not believe the thing we all can see is true, or claim to have no opinion on the matter, or hope they aren’t asked about it—which they probably will be—and also hope that it isn’t just assumed about them because we all know that if they are Black it is statistically probable that this pervasive systemic racial harassment has touched their life in some way, and we all know it.
There appears to be a systemic denial of the truth happening in our justice system, around our beliefs about the police and how they behave. Our court system does what it does to Black people, but it doesn’t see race. It can’t. It isn’t permitted to.
Justice can’t begin with any presuppositions, you see. That’s the instruction. But we all know the truth, which is that all of us have presuppositions. Some are accurate, some are inaccurate, but we all have them. Yet in our courts, we have to pretend we don’t. We agree to try to suspend them—both accurate and inaccurate—for the time being. Maybe that’s best for a court of law. I’m not using this space to argue either way on that point. (Look how non-polarizing and neutral I’m being about our legal system! Rejoice, centrists!)
But it occurred to me in the moment, that it does mean that the more the police target Black people for harassment and violence, the less likely it is that a Black person will be found acceptable by our courts to sit on a jury.
It’s just something I noticed. I thought it was interesting.
But we were talking about repair, and sabotage of repair.
What else is happening?
I mentioned reparations on Twitter the other day, and I got a pretty typical response. Let me replicate it verbatim: Reparations!?!?! I don’t owe anyone a damn thing! Neither do my kids, and will never be guilted into thinking any different. I thought that was interesting, since I had been talking about the collective responsibility to repair broken things in our society. I hadn’t brought up guilt or fault or their kids. But it was on their mind, apparently. Certainly it’s where they immediately went. It’s a confession, of sorts, about what repair means to them, in an instinctive sort of way, and what suggesting repair brings up in them.
I’ve noticed there seems to be a growing desire among conservatives to not only claim ideas of tradition and normalcy as their sole property, and not only brand as unacceptable decadence any acceptance of difference and diversity in our culture outside of traditional norms, but also now to use Weimar Germany as a warning example, framed in such a way that posits that the citizens who voted for the Nazis made the only logical choice any normal people would make when faced with the unacceptable growing acceptance of the existence of others. I don’t want to link to these fuckers, but here are a couple images to give you an idea.
I guess for Dreher freedom of boobies is not freedom from boobies. And I guess for both of them the rise of the Nazis was the fault not of the Nazis, but of the people that Nazis don’t like and intended to make disappear. The crime of “decadent” people is, apparently, simply them existing, visibly enough to be offensive to bigots, who are normal precisely because of their bigotry. The perfectly understandable and appropriate answer to this crime of existance is, apparently, the rise of Nazis.
Gobry is a popular Christian nationalist crank, and while the “crank” part might relieve us, the “popular Christian nationalist” part should alarm us. But then again, he’s a contributor to Forbes, and a fellow at something called the “Ethics and Public Policy Center” in Washington DC, so cranks aren’t really cranks these days. Rod Dreher, meanwhile, is a bestselling author and senior editor of The American Conservative. And we could also point to the recent viral video, showing likely future Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy bopping his head along to the idea that diversity, equity, inclusion, gender identity, and anti-bullying programs are all Marxist threats targeting “our” children.
It seems to be mainstreamed within conservative circles, this confession of an ever-tightening alignment of purpose with monstrous authoritarian supremacists of the past and present. In 2017, President Trump defended the Unite The Right marchers but made clear distinction between the open Nazis and the “very fine people” who marched with them without making Nazism their exact cause. It was a horrendous exoneration, but it was a gesture toward a commonly held belief that the Nazis at least were in the wrong of it—a gesture that (for right-handed people anyway) is getting more and more perfunctory and vague every day. Republican politicians and propagandists are broadcasting their belief in the Great Replacement myth every day, by the way. It was the thing the open Nazis were chanting about back in 2017. It was the motivation of the shooter who massacred Black people in Buffalo earlier this year. It’s a very mainstream conservative belief in 2022.
On the supremacist conservative propaganda outlet FOX News, host Jesse Watters called homeless people “an invasive species.” If you’re the sort of person who gets alarmed, that might strike you as alarming talk. It seems to me to be a public confession of how conservative supremacists see unhoused people—not as people in desperate need, demonstrating a great brokenness in our society requiring repair, but as the problem itself, a danger and an expense, a species requiring a more final solution that is almost stated, but not quite, not yet.
Which finally brings me back to the leaning benches. Return to the image up top if you want to see what these suckers look like.
See, the thing is, many Brooklyn subways no longer have benches, they have these leaners, which are pretty much useless for any tired commuters to rest on. However, they are also useless for any unhoused person to sleep on, which is why they exist.
So: our economy is leaving more and more people without shelter—a basic need—and our government seems aligned with those who share the prevailing belief that any relief sent the way of unhoused people is a moral hazard and a theft. So the civic solution has become to make our cities inhospitable and violent to people who are homeless, in order to drive them out. However, if a city is successful at that, then unhoused people will not stop existing; they’ll merely go to other cities, which—because those cities also share the prevailing belief—choose to also make their cities inhospitable and violent. If a city doesn’t make itself inhospitable, it risks being proclaimed as a place run by dangerous fools, with its glut of unhoused persons in their public spaces made to represent not that city’s alignment with basic human hospitality, but its incomprehensible accommodation of a swarm of pests.
The result is that our cities appear to have entered an inhospitability arms race, with each state and city scrambling to be the most inhospitable to unhoused people, even as our dedication to inhospitability configures our society in ways that make unhoused people not only likely but inevitable, and which almost always costs more in dollars and cents than simply providing housing to people without housing. Nor are dollars and cents the only cost—because now we all have to live in cities that are making themselves deliberately unhospitable and violent to human beings, which can be a problem, if we also happen to be human beings.
Anyway, that’s why tired people in Brooklyn can’t sit down while waiting for the train.
We don’t say it out loud, but look to the benches and you’ll see who we are. The leaners are a gesture toward function, without providing the actual function. Homeless people are a confession that we have decided to make growth of capital a far higher priority than caring for the basic needs of people. Our leaning benches are a confession that we have decided to do without a functional city in order to be cruel instead of kind to the people we’ve failed. They are a confession that we believe there are some people who matter and others who don’t.
The benches are confessing our alignment toward unhoused people, the same as policing statistics and conviction statistics and incarceration statistics confess our alignment toward Black people.
And yet somehow we never get around to knowing what we’re confessing, because all these confessions seem to be shrouded in a deep institutional denial that has created and enforced in our minds a reasonable doubt that we are doing what we can all see we are doing.
And I think that’s sabotage.
Here’s my experience with confession.
Some years ago, Twitter made it possible to quote-tweet people by pushing a button, and people across this land have rejoiced ever since. The GIF reactions alone—such joy! We Twitter users have really gone to town when it comes to quote-tweeting. I sure have.
There came a day when somebody pointed out to me that by quote-tweeting toxic people and their toxic statements, you’re actually teaching the Twitter algorithm to boost their toxic platform and message, even if your intention is to criticize them and their message. And I remember being annoyed by this suggested imposition on my behavior. After all, clicking the RT/QT button is easy. I like easy things.
But I started doing what a lot of other people did around that time, which was to take screenshots and comment on those instead. It took a few more steps, but it did rob the toxic account of juice from the algorithm. Take that, toxic accounts! Take that, algorithm!
And after a while, I noticed an account who would comment on every tweet of mine containing an image, to the following effect:
Please make your content available to blind and low vision people, who do use social media, by adding alt-text when tweeting images, especially when they’re the point of the tweet. OCR isn’t equitable, nor always accessible.
They were polite. They were also persistent and repetitive. They reminded me every time I forgot. And I remember being annoyed by this suggested imposition on my behavior. God, I thought. Where does it end?
But in time I started to put the alt-text into my images. It’s a few extra steps. It’s a confession I make that low-vision people matter. Sometimes I still forget. Sometimes, honestly, I just decide not to, because I’m rushed or just decide I don’t feel like it. And I suppose when I do that, low-vision people correctly assume that in the moment I make that choice that I am confessing I value my own time more than I value their perspective.
But I can’t say I don’t know.
Also, around this same time, there came people who pointed out that even screen-capping toxic accounts and people promoted them, and put their views in the feeds of people who were being directly targeted for harm and abuse by those comments, and so maybe it would be better just to comment on their message without spreading it.
And I remember being annoyed by this suggested imposition on my behavior. God, I thought, probably. Where does it end?
But also, these days, I put toxic people into other people’s feeds less than I once did. I comment on their stupid idiot messages without displaying them. Not never, it should be noted—but less. And now, when I do it, I usually pause to consider why I am doing it, and to what purpose.
And sometime later, I remember reading a series of messages from various people—polite but firm—that suggested that words like stupid and idiot and moron actually turned learning and developmental disabilities into invective that equated the people who struggle with those things with bad behavior or even evil, and were best not used at all.
And I remember being annoyed.
Really? You can’t even say “stupid?” But what if something is stupid?
Where does it end?
But somewhere along the line, I’ve noticed that I don’t really use those words very much anymore. I’ve found more precise ones. When someone is being ignorant or foolish, I tend to call them ignorant or foolish, which is what they’re being, rather than equating their deliberately harmful behavior to people who have learning disabilities. It’s my way of confessing that people with learning disabilities exist and matter.
I guess, because I was listening, I stopped asking myself “why can’t I say ‘stupid?’” and started asking myself “why do I want to?”
Sometimes I still say “stupid,” because I want to say “stupid” and I don’t want to think about all that. You’ll never guess what: it turns out I still absolutely can. Nothing is preventing me. And, when I make that choice, I have my justifications, and some of them might even be good. Hooray for me! But … I’m still aware of those meanings and those effects, and I’m still passing on their use as normal. And what I’ve discovered is, knowing that makes me want to less, even though I still can.
And somewhere earlier than any of this, I put my pronouns in my Twitter bio, which is apparently reason enough for many fine people to ignore me.
And somewhere earlier than that, my wife and I decided put one of those signs in our yard, which proclaim the sort of things about basic decency that people like me used to believe could go unsaid, before so many very fine people in our lives proved they can’t go unsaid at all. The sign is sort of embarrassing in its sincerity, I must say, but it says what my family and I want it to say, so it stays.
And then somewhere in there, we hung a pride flag. And there came a day when we were told by a realtor who was taking pictures outside a house in my neighborhood, that a deciding factor in the sale she had just made of that house was that rainbow flag in front of mine. It seems that flag said something to the new owners about openness and welcome and freedom and liberty and equality for all, something that the stars and stripes no longer seem to say—if indeed they ever did.
I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, here. In fact, I’d like all of us to focus more on what I get wrong these day than the fact that I’m getting a little more right: the times I don’t use alt-text, the times I do feed the algorithm beast, the times I still say ‘stupid’ when ‘ignorant’ is more precise, the times I still do use words I’m beginning to suspect aren’t really appropriate, because I’ve decided to prioritize my own comfort and ease.
And I’d like us to focus on the progression.
The main thing I want to point out is that all of this started with awareness, and led to conviction, and then finally led to me actually changing the things I communicated, and the way I communicated them. And I’m inconsistent, and sometimes I’m clumsy, and I’m sure sometimes it’s what the god damn kids today call cringe, which I think means that all too often my actual actions and my actual life confess to the fact that this presentation is performative rather than substantive.
But first there came awareness, and then conviction, and then an actual change in the things I said and how I said them, along with as close to a clear-eyed look as I can manage, at what it means for me to have participated in a blameless supremacist society, and how I still participate even after.
Which I think is a sort of confession—a confession of what is broken and what needs to be repaired.
And people who prefer to confess their alignment with lies and atrocity really, really, really hate that.
I think it’s because confessing the truth exposes the lies they confess to awareness and conviction. Confessing to guiltiness exposes the guilt of those who refuse to be guilted.
The opposite of confession is silence—a refusal to speak a demonstrable truth, an unwillingness to know or understand one’s own involvement or association with harm or abuse, or one’s own benefit from it.
The opposition to confession is denial—a deliberate repudiation of the truth, and a physical demonstration of the lie, that reinforces both the lie and the social license that the lie bestows.
Denial might be best thought of as a confession of something untrue, to force confession of truth out of the public sphere. It’s a leaning bench of discourse, a gesture toward truth with nowhere for truth to actually rest.
This can be propaganda, or a book promoting a lie, or a literal demonstration—like very fine people marching in solidarity with actual Nazis in defense of monuments erected to honor traitors who fought a murderous war to maintain and expand the institution of human slavery. Or, it can simply be defending the people who elected to march in common cause with Nazis. It could be insisting that the cause of the war to expand and preserve slavery, and those who fought for that cause, are a blameless part of your heritage—an inheritance that only delivers the parts that redound well upon you. It could be insisting that everyone else accept your definitions of your heritage, and your exclusive license to define it.
Yet denial has its limits. However we deny it, the results of our actions confess to some truth.
We’ve been talking about repair as a progressive process with sequential steps, moving from awakening to conviction, and ending with doing the actual work and paying the cost of repair.
And we’ve been talking about a blameless society, opposed to all natural costs of repair, including the cost of blame—that is, the cost of being exposed as people aligned toward maintaining brokenness, making others pay its much higher costs.
If you are aligned against paying natural costs, the first things to sabotage are an awakening and conviction. But if awakening and conviction begin to creep into the public sphere, it will become imperative to sabotage confession with denial.
Denial depends on a framing whereby known things cannot be known, as applied to solvable problems that it has already decided cannot be solved. Denial uses this position of unassailable ignorance and impermeable complacency to ensure that it keeps itself blameless for any of it.
Blameless supremacy, then, will be desperate to mis-frame any confession, not as awareness of systemic brokenness and conviction of collective responsibility, but rather exclusively in terms of individual guilt, and individual accusation.
Guilt, because guilt must be proved, which means it can also be disproved.
Accusation, because a false accusation is a crime wherein the victim is the accused.
And always, always, always individual—because someone making a confession of the blameless system is making a systemic confession, and while a blameless society will of course defend their blameless system, they’d much rather defend the reasonable doubts surrounding their own unknowable and unprovable individual motivations, and never even touch the systemic brokenness that was the subject of the confession.
You’ll know you’ve found someone aligned with the blameless society when any confession of systemic abuse and damage immediately turns into a courtroom, within which they simultaneously play the aggrieved victim, the innocent defendant, their own defense counsel, the sympathetic judge, and the exonerating jury.
A confession of truth identifies harm and victims of harm, and an expectation of reparation. Denial converts the confession into an accusation, which changes not only the forum—from something that has been observed to something that must be proved—but even redefines the victim and the crime.
The crime is no longer the abuse—now the crime is the accusation of abuse.
The victim is no longer the person harmed by the abuse—now the victim is the abuser.
Because the abuser has been self-established as the victim of accusation, the abuser can now counter-accuse. The abuser’s accusation is against the act of confession itself. The divisive thing becomes noticing the lie, pointing out the injustice, seeing the abuse and confessing to it.
Look what’s happened. Look how far we’ve strayed from the point.
We’re not even arguing the subject of the confession—which was systemic abuse of brokenness. Now we’re arguing whether or not the abuser has been psychologically or reputationally harmed, and how quickly we might repair that damage.
This a framing that casts anyone making confession as both accusatory and defensive, in order to cast confession as the actual cause of the trouble—because look at how much trouble it’s causing. The blameless society would listen to you, it insists, but it can’t stand your tone. (Ugh, “woke” scolds, am I right?)
And it’s designed to keep us talking about guilt and blame, rather than what we were talking about—which is turning ourselves into people who are aligned with repair instead of brokenness.
Remember that thought I told you I had, again and again?
Where does it all end? is what I asked myself.
Denial keeps us locked there, inside where does it all end? so that we’ll never realize that the topic is repair and improvement rather than making a critic shut up, so we never ask the question: why would we want it to end?
It keeps us frozen in a fear of being wrong, rather than a desire to avoid staying wrong.
The real answer is, it never ends.
If action leads to result, and result confesses the truth, then you’ll always be confessing to the need for the next improvement, the next repair.
Which is actually good news, if you’re doing the work of repair.
If you’re engaged in the work of improvement, why do you want it to end?
Think of it. You might never stop improving.
I’d suggest only somebody who thinks they’re blameless already would fear such a prospect, or experience the call to it as a guilt trip.
Above all, a blameless supremacy sabotages confession in order to claim the right to define fault and blame as its exclusive property. It insists on drawing the fault lines in ways that create doubt as to what it is doing, and then insists that we find the doubt it has manufactured reasonable.
And I think that’s sabotage.
Why sabotage? To make confession of lies popular. To borrow against that popularity to lend credibility to denial about the results. To use that credibility to further increase the popularity of the lies it enforces. To force people to engage in a daily fight to confess the truth about what is broken—in order to frame the people who engage in that fight as annoying guilt-tripping scolds, as a pretext for further suppression of confession.
To make confession hard, and painful, and draining, so that people stay away from confession, and resent those who enter into it.
It all amounts to sabotage: a refusal to accept any true confession; a demand to receive reconciliation having done anything to reconcile, and redemption without reparation.
This is a sabotage that makes denial inevitable, and an inevitability that makes the cost of truth high—high enough that people will choose lies instead.
And remember, it’s all to avoid the threat of improvement; all to avoid the costs of repair; all to preserve the profits from the higher price of brokenness.
This is denial of truth: the third step in the sabotaging work of blameless supremacy.
Why would people of awareness and conviction allow a sabotage that makes denial of truth inevitable? I suspect the answer isn’t so comfortable. Those of us who accept it do so because we are in the blameless society, too. We want to confess the truth, but the cost has been made too high. We’re instinctively optimized against paying our share of the lower cost of repair, provided somebody else remains to pay the full higher cost of disrepair—and blameless supremacy will always make sure that the cost of confession is high, and that there is somebody else to pay the cost of denial’s lies.
Sabotage of the process of repair is a supremacist process, and supremacy offers its enablers temporary limited membership in its supremacy, in exchange for enablement.
And while supremacists may indeed be hateful, I think enablement of their hate is what creates the supremacy. The accommodation is the supremacy.
So we will always find that very fine people have decided to accommodate our blameless society’s complacency by agreeing to abandon confession for a more comfortable and convenient exoneration.
That’s next time.
A.R. Moxon is the author of the novel The Revisionaries, available in most of the usual places and some of the unusual places, and co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media. He get what he get and he don’t get upset.