Wednesday, November 25, 2009



Yesterday I saw the movie Doubt. In it, Meryl Streep plays a cantankerous Catholic schoolmaster who is determined to unseat the new parish priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) because she thinks he is abusing a troubled student. She has no direct evidence for her crusade. She has seen him hug the student in the hallway. But everyone else says there is nothing inappropriate about the relationship. The priest says that love is essential to the Christian spirit; he said he hugged the boy because he was enduring ridicule from classmates. In the end, the schoolmaster confronts the priest by claiming that she "spoke to his former parish" about his "history." This leads the priest to leave his post.

Ironically, the schoolmaster later admits to a friend that she never called the priest's former employer. The friend is horrified that her austere confidante would ever lie, even when pursuing a just end. She responds: "In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one naturally steps away from God."

What an incredible line. It made me think about proof and truth, as well as investigations into others' personal history. It also made me think about prosecutors. After all, prosecutions involve the "quest for truth" while "pursuing wrongdoing" through "investigation." Yet that quest--despite its good intentions--often leads prosecutors into serious ethical quandaries, just as it did to the schoolmaster in Doubt. And beyond ethics, investigating people for supposed "wrongs" often brings out the worst in everyone involved.

We all have histories. When someone wants to dig into them, he will always uncover something unpraiseworthy, embarrassing, scandalous or simply ugly.

Meryl Streep's character in Doubt represented a familiar "type:" The self-righteous investigator who wants to find evil in a person's past. Such types do not just appear in Catholic schools or District Attorneys' offices. Rather, they appear everywhere in our society. Whenever a person assumes a morally superior position above another and launches an "investigation" into that person for some "official" purpose, he or she effectively becomes the schoolmaster in Doubt. I have encountered them in private employment, in law practice, in academics and in State licensure boards. There is an inherent condescension in their work: They hold the power; they assemble the knowledge; and they pronounce a judgment on another person's history. All the while, they never acknowledge that they, too, may have "skeletons in the closet."

It is uncomfortable to undergo investigation. When I applied for admission to practice law in Illinois, I had to submit to a grueling "Character and Fitness" inquiry. For months, an entire committee combed through my past. They made me fill out an exhaustive "personal history" questionnaire in which I had to disclose all my addresses over the past ten years, as well as confess any disciplinary infractions, criminal convictions, criminal charges, debts and basically anything else "bad" I had done in my life up to that point. They also deeply wanted to know whether I had ever lied under oath or otherwise been "dishonest" when "investigated in an official capacity." Every question seemed to lay a trap: Should you answer fully? Should you answer everything? Should you try to get away with an omission? It was as if the committee wanted you to think they knew everything, but perhaps might overlook something. Every question radiated mistrust, as if inviting you to risk a lie. The whole process seemed designed to make you feel inferior and minuscule. It left you feeling like a specimen under a microscope. And it was your "character" on the block: You either had to confess or they would find out the "truth" by some other means.

Private employers do similar things when "vetting" potential employees. They want references. They want work history. They run credit checks and peruse public records. They compare your resume to other sources to see if you're lying. They even call former employers to get "outside impressions" about the "kind of person you are." Just as the Bar Committee ruthlessly investigates applicants, so too do private employers subject hopeful workers to a suspicion-laden process in an effort to "certify" them. They get to judge personal histories; it is a one-way street. They might be total scoundrels themselves, but they're not the ones applying.

But sometimes we need investigations, don't we? After all, we want to find out bad things about people so we can punish them, or at least prevent them from working, right? Of course we do. Still, that does not mean that investigations are noble. In fact, as the schoolmaster said in Doubt, the "pursuit of wrongdoing" moves us "away from God." In other words, it is somehow undignified to grub in the ground for bad facts about people. It leads to uncomfortable inconsistencies, awkward explanations and outright embarrassment. And taken to the extreme, it leads the investigator to employ dishonest means to accomplish his "honest" ends. Put simply, the quest to affix "truth" to an individual can quickly degenerate into an obsessive witch hunt. When that happens, we should wonder whether the value of "truth" about people is worth the ethical leaps we perpetrate to find it.

I mention all this because truth interests me. We cannot talk about investigation without talking about truth, because investigation aims to produce "truth." Yet it makes no sense to talk about truth without analyzing the concept. After all, truth is about human knowledge. Human knowledge, in turn, stems from human sense. There are comparatively few things in this world that an individual can sense, and those are the only things that he can really "know as true." We know the sky is blue because we see it; we know we are angry because we feel anger in our stomachs. But how do we know about others' pasts? We are limited to our own senses for knowledge and truth. If we do not see a person act "badly," what proves to us that they are truly "bad?"

Investigators set about assembling all the circumstantial facts that produce the impression that a person is "bad" or has "done wrong," even if we personally know nothing about it. That takes real effort--and it takes a lot of scavenging. That "scavenging" takes us "away from God." Scavenging is dirty; that's what pigs and vultures do. Yet this is also what investigators do, even when they have the best intentions.

Theologians say that only God knows the "truth" about other people. In that light, any human attempt to find it seems a hopelessly imperfect enterprise.

Leaving God to one side, modern-day investigations merely reflect power. The investigator sits back, asks questions, assembles facts and makes a judgment about a person based on his "past." The investigator has a past, too. But he need not answer for it. He's the one doing the investigating. He has his own truth; he keeps it comfortably concealed in his memory. But he gets to affix truth to someone else.

It is, after all, an immense power to declare the truth about others.

1 comment:

Edward G. Roberts said...

"It is, after all, an immense power to declare the truth about others. "

It can be. As a former investigator I witnessed many a "professional" pursuing a personal (or governmental) agenda. I might even declare this condition a rule over random occurrences. But it was most common in law enforcement circles, which surprises (read: angers) many when I state it.

I remember a comment made in a class early in my career. I kept it in mind:
Even scumbags have accidents.

The "instructor" (fire marshal) was using it as his bona fides in a case where he couldn't prove a biker set a fire, but felt he'd get him next time.

I think the quote speaks for itself.