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Sabotage: Part 9 - Exoneration and Clarity
The third sabotage is sabotage of confession with denial—a sabotage that pushes out any room for truth by means of distraction, false narrative, and lies. The big question is: How do we counter it?
Note: this essay was originally published on Revue on October 12, 2022.
Let me begin with a hypothetical.
Say there’s a knock at my door. I open it and a lawyer is there. He has good news for me. I had an uncle I’ve never met, a very wealthy man with no children. He just died. I’ve inherited $500,000. So has each of my brothers and sisters and all our cousins and second cousins.
Congratulations to me! Congratulations to us!
The money quite simply changes our lives. My mortgage is paid, my children’s college fund flush. I still have to work, but there’s savings. Stability. Security. My brother starts his own business, which is dedicated to cleaning polluted rivers. My sister goes on a year’s sabbatical; allowing her to do meaningful and fulfilling volunteer work.
Now say this: a year later there comes another knock on my door. It’s a reporter. He’s working on a story, and my late uncle is a part of it. My late uncle’s business was a front. He made his money on slavery, every dime, in chocolate and coffee plantations overseas. He wonders if I’d like to comment before he publishes.
Here’s what I say:
I didn’t intend to benefit from slavery. That has nothing to do with me.
I didn’t enslave anybody. That has nothing to do with me.
I didn’t break the law. That has nothing to do with me.
And anyway, what could I do about it now?
It wasn’t my intention, so how is it my fault?
Perhaps you’re sympathetic to my position.
What about the good that has come to my family because of it? Why do you want us to feel guilty about that? Why are you making me feel bad about who I am? Why do my children have to feel bad about something that began long before they were born?
And what about the good work my brother and sister are doing, that this money enabled? Is that to be thrown out and ignored?
And anyway, what do you expect me to do? Give it back? I already spent a lot of it. What’s left couldn’t possibly help each individual slave if we split it up. Why bring this up? Why cause trouble?
Are you suggesting I’m tainted by something I never did?
Are you saying I’m intrinsically evil?
Are you saying I’m beyond redemption?
Why are you ignoring all the good things I have done with the money?
And what about other people? How did they get their money?
And I grow very resentful with the reporter, and anyone else who refuses to understand that my intentions are blameless, and therefore so am I.
And I call my brother and sister, and they proclaim me innocent, and I proclaim them innocent, and so does anybody else who wants to stay on our good side. And most people who know us do want to stay on our good side, so they too proclaim us innocent of what we have inherited.
And so we are comforted.
After all, we didn’t intend it.
It has nothing to do with us.
We’re pretty deep into this series by now. Links at the top if you need to place yourself. Otherwise, a quick recap:
Most of us want to see what is broken get fixed, yet repair seems far from us. I propose it’s because the sequential progressive process of repair—awareness, conviction, confession, repentance, repair—has been sabotaged by a blameless supremacy that refuses to pay any of the natural costs of maintenance, improvement, and repair, or to accept any blame for refusing to make these improvements or repairs, and chooses instead to profit from making everybody else pay the much higher unnatural costs of brokenness.
And we’ve been talking about the sabotage of our confession of truth about things that are broken and our shared responsibility to be the sort of people who fix broken things.
As I perceive it, each sabotage is accommodated by its own enablement.
The enablement of the third sabotage—the sabotage of our confession with denial—is something I’d name exoneration.
We can see exoneration everywhere, if we look for it.
It’s worth thinking about how exoneration works in a blameless society.
In a recent interview on his podcast, Jon Stewart ripped the Attorney General of Arkansas a brand new one. Maybe you saw it. Maybe you’re the one person on the internet who didn’t. Google can help you if that’s the case.
It’s like this: Arkansas Republicans recently passed a law that makes it illegal for parents of trans children to seek recommended and often life-saving recommended medical care. This was done for a very simple reason: Republicans are dedicated to the idea that government is not the way we organize our shared life together, so they’re dedicated to making government fail, so they can take the money that would have been spent on our shared life together and funnel it to the billionaires who have bought them. And so as they make government fail, it fails people, and that makes people angry, so Republicans need to give their people somebody to blame, and then make them pay the cost of blame, which includes punishment. There’s always somebody to punish, and the more violent the better.
Trans people are currently the people that Republicans are most directly targeting for the sort of abusive harm and unjust cruelty that their supremacist voters want to see, and so they are using their power to persecute and terrorize and harm and kill already-marginalized children and their parents, in order to consolidate their power with a group of mostly Christian fascists who would like their own ideas about morality to be coddled and given supremacist consideration above all others—which involves making sure that anyone who doesn’t conform to their way of living suffers, as proof to others that suffering awaits anyone as a natural consequence of failing to conform to their way of living, and as satisfaction to themselves that their way of living is the best way of living as they claim, specifically because it does not result in similar suffering, and as justification to them that any punishment and suffering they deliver to people for not conforming to their way of living is not the product of their hate but a proof of their deep, guiding, paternalistic love.
It sounds bad, because it is bad. It sounds cruel, because it is cruel. It sounds bigoted, because it is bigoted.
If I am a person who votes for Republicans, I support all this, by the way.
All of it. All the theft and atrocity.
I might tell a story of denial. I might say I disagree with this aspect or that aspect of it, and I might craft some alternate reason for my support, and my reason may grow more and more complex the more I have to defend my self-exonerating position, but that’s very much beside the point.
It is a fact to say I support all of this theft and bigoted atrocity if I vote for Republicans, because theft and bigoted atrocity is what Republicans are doing, whether I agree with it or not, and voting for Republicans is support, no matter what I may tell myself.
It is simply a statement of fact that anyone who votes for Republicans supports many, many bigoted atrocities, much deliberate injustice—that anyone who votes for Republicans, in fact, supports a popular, politically empowered, authoritarian supremacist hate group.
We all know it, as long as we want to know it.
People who want to know it don’t pay attention anymore to what Republicans say they intend, because they’ve seen more than enough of what Republicans actually do, every chance they get, as much as they can, wherever they can, as quickly and as ruthlessly as they can.
Their excuses are complex, but the complexity is in service of disguising reality, not explicating reality.
Their stated intentions are good, but their actions reveal deeper intentions.
Many of them are very nice, very admirable, very kind, which tells us that goodness, kindness, and many other admirable traits can just as easily be used as tools to disguise atrocity as they can be put to any other use—which is something people who want to know true things have always known.
And we could be talking about many other things. We could be talking about racist structural restrictions that make it harder or impossible for minorities to vote. We could be talking about restrictions on women’s right to reproductive health care, which among other things forces 12-year-old girls to carry their rapists’ babies, while Republicans argue in favor of healing … for the rapist. We could be talking about deliberate acceleration of climate catastrophe and pandemic, and strategic structurally racist sabotage of relief efforts. We could be talking about many things.
Republicans know how this all sounds to people outside of their voting base, by the way. So they go out and tell their own story about their intentions—a story of denial. They claim that what they really want to do is allow more choice, even though what they are really doing is constraining it. They claim they want to protect kids, even though they are targeting kids. They claim to be interested in fostering health, even though they’re preventing health.
So anyway: the AG of Arkansas.
She went on Stewart’s show, in order to put this narrative of denial out there. Now, Stewart is known as a liberal guy, and the AG certainly knew this, so I think she expected Stewart to oppose the bill, and debate her on it.
I don’t think she was expecting what happened, though.
In the interview, Stewart didn’t debate her, as such. He simply, calmly, repeatedly refused to accept her lies, and called them out as such. He told her that what she was saying wasn’t true, and that he knew she knew it, and then he told her why he knew she knew it, by continually returning the conversation to the facts of what was actually happening: that there is a medical consensus that Republicans are not only ignoring but criminalizing, that the data they offer in support of their position is cherry-picked and manufactured, the stories they offer as rationale are specious outliers, and their claims about their true intentions are, quite literally, unbelievable. He used examples that laid bare the fact that she, the Attorney General of Arkansas, would never permit herself to be treated the way she was treating so many others. He didn’t make much attempt to disguise his contempt, as is appropriate when encountering a deliberately cruel person engaged in deliberate acts of cruelty.
He ended by hoping that she, the Attorney General of Arkansas, never had to deal with the sort of terrible cruelty being caused by her, the Attorney General of Arkansas. And then he sincerely hoped that the vile Republican bill she was supporting would get struck down. These are the sincere hopes of any decent person in this country today, and in my opinion can serve as a litmus test as to whether a person is decent in the first place.
Now all of this was very cathartic for anyone who knows the truth about what Republicans are—which is a hate group energized by every kind of bigotry. It perhaps didn’t convince many people who refuse to acknowledge that basic truth, and certainly there are conversations to be had here regarding Stewart’s ability to be heard where trans people are ignored. But that’s not my primary focus today.
I want to focus on the Attorney General’s reaction to Stewart’s approach. She was visibly flustered to encounter this sort of opposition, clearly unprepared to talk about basic details in support of her position, and even said at one point that she hadn’t prepared to have some sort of legal discussion about this … law. She was caught totally flat-footed by the sort of basic opposition to counterfactual nonsense and malicious self-exonerating lies that ought to be a baseline standard of any journalistic endeavor.
It’s almost as if she were expecting something else.
It was almost as if she had become used to getting something else.
It’s almost as if she were expecting her goals to be opposed in the abstract—what would you say to those who claim…?— but on some level she expected her claims about her intentions to be accepted at face value, and passed into common currency by a polite but curious interlocutor. It’s almost as if she was expecting to be allowed to have the truth of what she and her party were actually doing to be smoothly ignored, in favor of a framing that treated her vile abusive bigotry as the sort of normal and reasonable position a decent person could hold, about which decent people could calmly and pleasantly disagree.
Maybe she should have seen it coming. Maybe she could have remembered another time Stewart famously refused to play ball, when he went on Tucker Carlson’s show Crossfire and told so much truth about the nature of toxic shows like Crossfire that it may have resulted in the cancellation of Crossfire.
But maybe she had seen Stewart’s jokes casually employing anti-trans slurs from The Daily Show from past decades, or his recent defense of his friend Dave Chapelle’s repeated almost pathological trans-targeting material, whereby Stewart defended Chappelle as a person he, Stewart, was sure held different intentions than the ones Chappelle had already proved himself to have. Or maybe she saw one of many Daily Show interviews Stewart conducted during which he was chummy with Republicans about the atrocities they were committing back then, or some of his sound bites following Trump’s election, about how Trump voters aren’t all hateful people. Or his speech at his “March to Restore Sanity” where he said that what needed to happen was for “both sides” to come together.
But it seems that Stewart’s perspective may have changed in recent months and years. Certainly his approach changed in his interview with the Attorney General of Arkansas.
It might have been a warning sign to her, when he started his program by calling himself out for some of his own previous ignorance. It might have seemed a clumsy attempt to some, and it might have been “too little too late” for others, but it also might have served as a flashing red light to the Attorney General of Arkansas, that this was somebody who had achieved enough clarity about what was broken in our society to even begin his show by picking apart his own unearned blamelessness, and confessing it as part of a larger confession of the truth he had received.
But we were talking about repair, and sabotage of repair.
We were talking about exoneration.
Let’s go back to me and my hypothetical inheritance from my hypothetical uncle, and my reaction to it.
I didn’t intend that.
That has nothing to do with me.
Two different concepts, often expressed as one connected concept, whereby the one naturally leads to the other. A neat trick.
Again, maybe you’re sympathetic to my position. It’s reasonable to be sympathetic. After all, I didn’t enslave anybody. And even though I have money from it, I never intended to get money from it. It came to me.
I inherited it.
But here’s the thing: even though I didn’t intend to inherit it, or to benefit from it … I did. It’s not something I can separate from myself.
There’s what I intend. And then there’s what is.
There’s what I’d like to think is true about me. And then there’s what is true about me.
Sometimes those two things are even the same. But sometimes they’re different—there’s a gap between what we intend and what we do. We all know this. It happens all the time.
The question before me is not whether or not I get to intend my association with abuse and injustice and all the brokenness it’s caused. That ship has sailed. The question before me is what I intend to do with my knowledge of that association, or whether I intend to not know, or to find some reason—any reason—to override the natural human instinct to care.
And how I answer that question reveals my deeper intentions—the intentions that truly matter, because they govern what actually happens in the world.
I didn’t intend to inherit money built on slave labor. But notice that I only want my lack of intention to come into play when it comes to the slave labor. I still want the money, even though I didn’t intend it. I just don’t accept the blame, the shame, the implications, the responsibility.
I could choose to repair, but I choose to exonerate instead.
And if you want to stay on my good side, you’ll choose to exonerate, too.
Notice, I say exonerate, not redeem—because as any good conservative Republican Christian can tell you, redemption involves somebody paying some cost … and blameless supremacy opposes paying any cost of repair.
Exoneration is what happens when the process of repair stagnates at confession. We are aware of the brokenness in our society; aware of injustice and abuse, caused by a belief in supremacy—that is, a belief that some people matter and others do not, and those who do not matter should be punished and used. We agree that what is broken should be repaired, and we share a collective responsibility to join in the repair. We even are willing to say so.
But we don’t progress from there. We don’t realign ourselves away from blamelessness, and as a result we make our first priority our own comfortable relationships with people aligned against repair. We extend forgiveness to people enacting abuse, and we extend it from unabused safety, as self-appointed proxies for the people they actually abuse. We ignore what is actually happening in favor of self-aggrandizing stories of personal intent. We take the complexity of their rationales as evidence that the issue is complex.
We see the supremacist society clearly, but we insist on keeping supremacists in their place as the central protagonists of society. So, when we hear about abuse, we turn our attention first to establishing a redemptive path back for the abuser, before thinking of a restorative path for their victims, before even acknowledging the fact of the abuse, before noticing that the abuse is ongoing. We immediately jump to redemption before doing the work of repair, and never think to establish whether or not the abuser has the slightest interest in any sort of redemptive work.
We say things like “we don’t want to make forgiveness impossible” and fail to notice if forgiveness has even been asked.
We treat a true accusation of abuse not as a revelation of brokenness to repair, but as if it were an attack on the future potential of the abuser.
We find a person from a marginalized group who has a perspective that flatters our own comfort, and we use their perspective as a pretext to ignore all other voices from that group.
And I think we do this because even though we see the problem and want the solution, we don’t want to pay the cost of our own supremacy, wherever we intersect with supremacist identity.
We want to repair the brokenness caused by blameless supremacy, but we need to keep our own blamelessness.
We look at a confession by women of the harm male supremacy does to them in the world and we say “Not ALL Men.”
We look at a confession by Black people of the harm white supremacy does to them in the world, and we say “Not ALL White People.”
We look at what Christian supremacy is doing in the world, and we say “but those aren’t REAL Christians.”
We use the framing of ignorance to challenge awareness.
We use the framing of complacency to challenge conviction.
Our alignment with exoneration demands that our own personal intentions be considered ahead of any structural injustices. It demands as a prerequisite that we be seen first and foremost as the good guys, and makes establishing our personal goodness a higher priority than actually doing the systemic repair. And so we enter into an agreement with blameless supremacists, and agree to see only their fine qualities, which ensures a continuance of comfortable relationships with blameless supremacy, and ensures that repair never happens.
Exoneration forgives abusers on behalf of the abused.
But more than anything, exoneration exonerates itself.
Blameless supremacists know this, by the way.
You’ll know that confession of truth has been sabotaged, because you’ll find that even very fine people who seem to agree with progressive motion toward repair begin to accept a blameless society’s stories of its own intent.
Supremacists sabotage our confession with denial of great fundamental truths: that society is a shared thing, that wealth and harm are inherited, that our choice to deny awareness and conviction reveals intentions deeper than our stated beliefs. But the accommodation is the supremacy, and our exoneration is the accommodation that makes denial successful.
Once we’ve agreed to occupy the frame of the blameless society, we remain inside their picture. We never take the journey our compasses have set, because we have agreed that sabotaging the process of repair, creating injustice and abuse, and making societal collapse inevitable are reasonable positions to hold, as long as the people holding those positions insist that their intentions are good.
So now I want to answer the big question, which is what do we do about it?
I want to talk about moral clarity.
Moral clarity is when you see things as they are, and refuse to see things as they are not, even when seeing the way things are calls your own privilege into question, even when it would be more comfortable for you to see things as they are not.
I wrote about moral clarity once before now, in a series about the atmosphere. You can read the whole thing here, but there’s a quote I’d like to pull from that earlier piece.
With moral clarity, you first look within. You begin to see the ways that you yourself interact with injustice that are unacceptable. You start to understand your own complicity, and your own imperfections. You begin to push against your own moral simplicities: the belief in your own moral purity, your own impunity, your own unassailability, your own terror of ever being thought wrong. In other words, you find your own sense of supremacy within yourself and begin to demolish it—which teaches you about how to recognize and demolish supremacy outside yourself. You begin the fight by working on yourself—which will teach you how to conduct the fight outside yourself.
I tie moral clarity to confession because moral clarity is, like confession, an outward expression of an inner journey. When you confess to the truth, it’s the opposite of demanding blamelessness. It’s entering blame and finding yourself there, too—not to live in the guilt, but to see things as they are with enough clarity to leave blame behind through actions that will confess your true intentions, which are the ones that actually matter, because they govern what actually happens.
Which is why it’s not accusation, but confession.
It’s an observation of an observable thing.
And it starts within.
It no longer says that has nothing to do with me.
It asks, at long last: what does that have to do with me?
Clarity is what happens when you combine witness with hope. You are acting as a witness, implicating not only yourself but your system, pointing to a brokenness that anyone can perceive, but which the system has agreed not to observe. You’re delivering an awakened belief that things are not as they are, a hopeful declaration that better things are actually possible despite the costs and difficulties, and that better things will happen if we all work toward them.
Clarity frees you to speak with authority from exactly the place where you profit blamelessly for the suffering caused by unnatural configurations of our natural human system. And, because it establishes you as somebody willing to pay the price of entering blame, confession frees you to speak with even greater authority than you had before, about places where you yourself have been made to suffer from similarly unjust configurations.
Clarity is like a vaccine to the great virus of supremacy, delivering awareness and conviction of brokenness throughout the system, allowing the system to recognize supremacist blamelessness wherever it appears, and to demolish it by fixing what it has broken.
Instead of exonerating abusers in place of the abused, clarity confesses abuse from the position of an abuser, not because of guilt, but because of awareness and conviction. It’s a confession that an abusive society cannot deny, because it comes from within.
It’s not about guilt. It’s about healing. It’s about fixing broken things.
A blameless society, founded in supremacy, hates this, because it inevitably makes supremacy pay a higher cost—and supremacy is, above everything, opposed to paying costs.
Exoneration makes denial cheap, and maintains comfortable relationships with profitable abuse.
But moral clarity demolishes exoneration, and increases the cost of denial—and might move to your cause many self-exonerating people whose only goal is to avoid cost.
To speak with moral clarity about yourself and your place in the world is to fight the blameless society’s sabotage of confession. You’ll know this, because as you confess your awareness of truth and your conviction to repair with moral clarity, blameless people will begin to attack that clarity as divisive and polarizing and dangerous and wrong. They will make sure the price for speaking with clarity is as high as they can make it—so you’ll know you’re there, once you start to pay.
I think moral clarity is a powerful tool in our fight against sabotage, available to everyone.
It changes the frame. It changes the atmosphere.
It tells a new story.
And that’s what I think repair looks like.
A parting question: why do we need confession, anyway?
The same reason we need to confess the truth about what is broken and our conviction that it should be fixed—because it realigns us, one by one, away from being an unsustainable society organized around avoiding the cost of repair toward being a sustainable society organized around seeking repair whatever the cost.
We need to confess, because confession leads to repentance.
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. You remind him of the babe.