Why are we so eager to decide another person's guilt or innocence?
By David Mann
David Mann is a Twin Cities theater artist and business consultant.
That's what I heard one night when I stepped onstage dressed in priest's vestments. I was playing the role of Father Flynn in the play "Doubt." This was the first moment of the play, and I had yet to utter a single word. The play presents the question of whether Flynn is guilty of a crime, but never offers a definitive answer. Apparently one audience member had already decided.
Recently, Lance Armstrong was stripped of seven Tour de France victories because he's a cheating lowlife who drugged his way to hero status. At least that's what some will believe. Others will believe he's the victim of a witch hunt. But you know what? We'll never know for sure. After all, he's passed hundreds of drug tests. And even if his teammates come forward with stories of Lance drinking steroid smoothies, we still won't really know. They could be out to get him.
At the moment, there's not a shred of tangible evidence against Lance. Yet to many, his decision not to fight the charges was a clear admission of guilt. Let the hissing begin.
Now a Mankato football coach faces felony charges for videos he took with his cell phone. News reports described the videos, but we haven't actually seen them. Our perception of the videos relies entirely on those descriptions. We don't have enough information to make a sound judgment. But no matter. We'll decide how to fit those videos into the version of the story we want to believe. And we will defend or vilify the coach with equal fervor.
Why do we do this? Humans are fully capable of considering facts and coming to a rational conclusion. But that sounds boring! We're far too impatient for all that nonsense. Let's get to it! Let's all have strong feelings and express them loudly. We want the story to always be exciting! And if the facts don't add up to more than a few story fragments, we'll just fill in the rest with our imagination.
We'll form a mental image of Lance Armstrong injecting himself with pedal power juice. We'll play the coach's videos in the screening room of our imaginations. We'll see these things so we can react to them.
A 1997 study showed that the brain prefers incomplete information. Our success as a species depended on our ability to create meaning from fragments of knowledge. With a 24-hour news cycle, we often get our facts through the filter of opinion. So we're left to create meaning from another person's impression, which may itself be based on filtered facts. Yet we demand the truth. We find ways to turn fragments into certainty.
In the lobby after performances of "Doubt," people would rush to me to find out whether Father Flynn was guilty. They often seemed uncomfortable with my answer: "I don't know." The play simply doesn't contain enough facts to definitively prove or disprove the alleged crime. I had my secret actor's back story, but I didn't have the missing page of the script where all the answers were revealed.
So night after night, couples would leave the theater in a heated discussion, one defending Flynn and one hissing him, both certain they knew the truth.