Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Doubt

This blog contains spoilers about the movie "Doubt", so skip it if you don't want to find out about the movie.

What an interesting movie. Gena and I saw it together, and we had the same conversation going home that I suspect most couples did after seeing it: "Well, was he guilty or not?" Gena says yes. I say no. Gena says she is about 80-20 sure he is guilty. I say I am about 60-40 sure he is not.

In the aftermath of all of the priest sex scandals over the past decade or so, it is easy to see why many would decide Father Flynn is guilty. On top of that history, consider things like the clues that are dropped, his clear abuse of his power in little things like taking Sister Aloysius' chair when he comes to her office, Donald's mother's suspicions/intuition, and Father Flynn's own resignation in the face of the accusations, and you can see the point of view that says he is guilty.

On the other hand, there is no evidence of his guilt. Not an iota. Even Sister Aloysius admits that.

Add to that the fact that we like Father Flynn and we don't like Sister Aloysius. Add to that the fact that we like Sister James. And of course you cannot forget the consistent denials of the priest, a man who otherwise appears to be honest and righteous. You can see how the movie makes the case for his innocence, or at least for our finding a way to find him innocent.

I am addicted to evidence. That is of course a function of my job as a trial lawyer. It is also a remnant of my debate training. I think evidence is crucial. Before we toss somebody out on his ear, before we accuse him of immorality and of abuse, before we conclude that he is a pervert, we need evidence.

On the other hand, we absolutely must protect our children. Is it wrong to act on "certainty" based on your experience, as Sister Aloysius does here? Shouldn't we err on the side of protecting the innocent?

I hope that the confusion generated by this movie and the resulting conversations we have after we see it teach us all something about how we treat other people, about how we reach our conclusions. Are we gossip-mongers? Are we guilty of listening to and relying on gossip? Do we ignore the facts because of our preconceptions? Or, do we ignore the obvious because we don't like the source? Do we choose not to see what is there to be seen because we demand a level of rigorous proof that is unreasonable?

I am fascinated by talking to Gena about this movie. Here is a very intelligent person, more well-read and better educated than most jurors I will ever see, and she concludes that it is much more likely than not that this man has horribly wronged young Donald and, by extension, his church. And, more importantly, she is willing to reach this conclusion while admitting that there is no real evidence to support it - rather, it is a "feel", a reaction to body language and indirect suggestion, a reliance on experience and understanding. And she may well be right. I am, after all, reaching my conclusion based on my "feel" as well, for the movie gives no evidence, other than his own bare denial, of the priest's innocence either.

That teaches me a lot about talking to juries. It is not enough for me to paint a clear picture based on the evidence. People need more than evidence... they need to know that they are right. They need to feel it.

Life is rarely as clear as we would want it. How do we deal with the cloudiness, the imprecision, the guesswork? How do we treat other people? How do we react to problems that should be apparent?

Obviously, I don't have the answers to all of this. Just questions right now.

But I do know these two things: On one hand, I know that innuendo alone can never be enough to create a value judgment when it comes to another human being. I know that gossip is destructive. I know that preconceptions are often misconceptions.

On the other hand, I know that we have to act when we find injustice. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

Life is not simple. To paraphrase the movie, life is full of doubt.

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