Liar’s proofs

Can we fix guilt or innocence merely from the way the accused reacts?

Common sense tells us the answer is a daily feature, even a habit, of ordinary experience. That witty ad for an anti-diarrhea pill comes to mind: Observers in a courtroom see a man sweating profusely while testifying on the witness stand, and one of them says, "Mukhang guilty!" We understand where that courtroom observer is coming from; we live there ourselves.

There is also Susan Roces’ eminently subjective Rule of Eye Contact: You’re telling the truth if the truth shows in your eyes. Truth, essentially, is something that you can see.

There are other rules of thumb, each one allowing us to carry on with our lives. We really don’t have time to process each true-or-false statement we receive; if someone greets us with a compliment in the corridor, we don’t stop, deconstruct the compliment, and then run after the compiment-er, asking, Excuse me, but what did you mean by "good"? If we see a smile on the face, or a smirk, a particular way of nodding the head or shrugging a shoulder, that is often enough to go by.

In certain disciplines, some rules of thumb have hardened into principles. Flight as an admission of guilt, for example. That lawyers’ maxim is a legal fiction; that is, it is a construct that allows the wheels of justice to grind, however slowly. Or silence means consent: another useful construct that is based on experience (that is to say, the past) and designed to help us act in the future.

These and other considerations have been knocking around in my head for some time now. In part this is because political players like lawyer Frank Chavez have said things like:  "A libel suit is oftentimes the refuge of the guilty because they threaten people from speaking the truth." (He was talking about Rep. Iggy Arroyo filing a case against his accuser Sandra Cam.) I am astounded by the cynicism coiled tightly like a snake around this statement, especially in its first part. (Who says journalists have a lock on the cynics’ market?) If I correctly understand Chavez (whom I voted for the first time he ran for the Senate), what he’s saying is that, by using a remedy provided by the law itself, a person reveals himself as guilty. This is, surely, a new legal maxim.

I have also been struck by the commonly held assumption (include me among those occasionally holding it) that the President is guilty of the crime of election fraud because she has been, well, acting guilty. I am leaving aside the question of other evidence (that is a completely different matter); I am also not saying that she is not guilty. I am only considering the very limited question: Has she been acting guilty?

To my mind, that question raises another one: How does one act innocently?

Isn’t it possible that an innocent accused of a crime (or a sin, or an error, or indeed of any shortcoming) can act in such a way as to seem to prove that very accusation? I am reminded of a story by Guy de Maupassant, titled "The Piece of String," which narrates the story of a man falsely accused of theft; his attempts to prove his innocence are dismissed by his own townmates as "liar’s proofs."

I know, I know. When Abe Margallo and Jojo Abinales talk about Gramsci, all I can do is reach for my … de Maupassant. Doesn’t exactly have the right ring(tone) to it, does it? And yet, really, when we think about it, isn’t our own life full of behavior we cannot quite explain rationally? (St. Paul, of course, has a very definite take on why.)

That is perhaps why that little courtroom scene in that amusing commercial strikes us so; we identify not only with the courtroom observer, but also with the witness on the sweat-stained stand.



Filed under Notes on Readings, Readings in Politics

8 responses to “Liar’s proofs

  1. Mario

    There are many pitfalls in concluding guilt merely from the behavior of the accused. Having done my fair share of professional acting and coaching professional actors, I know that lying can be done with inner truth that defies detection by mere observation of the behavior. One exercise we used to do in acting worshops is called “policemen do not smell flowers”, which challenges an actor to do things uncharacteristic of a person’s background but in a manner that is entirely true and convincing.

    It is, however, harder to cover up guilt using an organization or a whole machinery. With regards to the cheating contained in the Garci tapes, for example, the behavior of the GMA administration thus far may be argued from different angles but it is hard to explain from the standpoint of GMA being completely innocent of cheating in the last elections.

    Maybe, if our perspective is to determine the guilt of an accused, mere behavior in response to accusations may be hard to use outside the direct evidence on that guilt. If the perspective, on the other hand, is to establish the innocence of a leader who needs our trust in order to govern, the standards of behavior are more easily defined. In other words, I may not have a level of proof to convict a suspect but I certainly have more than enough for a vote of no confidence. and maybe enough as well for a popular rebellion against this leader.

  2. Nandy Pacheco

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    I find it instructive and wholesome and
    is a “must read” for me.

    More power to you.

  3. Abe N. Margallo

    One caution against invoking “The Piece of String” defense for GMA is also given by in editorial of Aug. 8, 2005 about “witness weakness.”

    “The answer,” according to the editorial, “in part, lies in our tendency to build cases on personal testimony rather than physical evidence. (It is a tendency shared not only by opposition leaders but by police officers, NBI agents, government officials, even journalists in search of a good story.) The problem with depending on just the words of witnesses is that a lone witness’ recantation undermines everything else; physical evidence, such as the paper and electronic trail deposed President Joseph Estrada actually left behind, does not have that kind of vulnerability.”

    Hence, if the supposed malfeasance or lapse in judgment were captured on tape (that is, if Guy de Maupassant’s character, Hauchecorne, had a video film to prove that what he actually picked up was a string and not a purse) that would have been the end of the my-word-against-your-word story plot weaved by the author upon the silliness of the peasant Hauchecorne and his detractor, Malandain, as well as the silliness in general of the French peasantry in Mauppassant’s time.

    So, how does one prove the innocence of a young wife lying with another man on the matrimonial bed if the tryst were captured on tape? If she doesn’t say she was waylaid against her will or the woman on the bed was only her double or, maybe, that she lost her balance and fell into the arms of the hunky neighbor who was repairing the bed at her behest, wouldn’t she be in big, big trouble?

    Supposing that the recording device was just an audio not a video one but the voices, the moans and the groans recorded sounded like the young wife’s and the hunk’s, will silence on the woman’s part be enough to assuage a broken-hearted man? Can the wife, instead of confronting the physical evidence that is the recording, effectively counterclaim her husband is simply foreshadowing an elicit relation of his own (some sort of scheming to “grab power” defense)?

    Now that the children threaten to leave the family if the mom does not clarify the whole affair to their satisfaction, should her continued silence count against her profession of innocence?

    Does GMA really have to wait for her “a day in court” to proclaim her innocence if waiting undermines her vital role as president to serve as the symbol of national unity, to reassure the citizenry in time of crisis or to obtain crucial consensus on her promise of building a strong republic?

    Shouldn’t GMA’s obligation to the nation to prove her innocence NOW by some rational conduct take precedence over her right to remain silent or to be presumed innocent until shown otherwise in a forthcoming impeachment?

    On the other hand, can the members of the House and the Senate, if the case above were before them, decide the matter on mere “gut feel,” as constitutionalist Fr. Bernas would have it, without insulting the people, their “silliness” notwithstanding?

    Walter Lippmann, justifying the rule of the specialized class in his version of democracy also called the people’s silliness as the un-thinking of the “bewildered herd”; in Manuel Quezon III’s eulogy for Raul Roco, he made some reference to the folly of the “terrified sheep.” Maupassant characterization of the great crowd was one of “mingled multitude of men and beasts.”

    Hasn’t the Filipino people proven their capacity to be other than a “herd,” a “sheep’ or one who acts and smells like a “beast” whose function in some snobby form of democratic community is supposedly only to elect (or sometimes un-elect) but not to participate in an un-silly way, because in such a conception of democracy even common sense thinking about the common good eludes them, not to speak of thinking like Roco, Lippmann, or Mauppassant?

  4. Thanks, Mario. I think you do understand where I’m coming from. Abe, I’m afraid I may not have made myself as clear as I had thought. I brought up the topic of “liar’s proofs” only because I am interested in the psychology of reaction; I wish to “bracket” (to use the language of phenomenology) the “other evidence” such as audio tapes from the very limited question I wanted to answer: Can we tell whether a person is guilty or innocent simply from the way he reacts to the accusation?

    The use of “human nature” to make political points: I’d like to dwell on this topic in the next post, if I may. But thanks for bringing it up.

  5. Abe N. Margallo

    JOHN: I wish to “bracket” (to use the language of phenomenology) the “other evidence” such as audio tapes from the very limited question I wanted to answer: Can we tell whether a person is guilty or innocent simply from the way he reacts to the accusation?

    (The original question was also framed thus: “I am only considering the very limited question: Has [GMA] been acting guilty?

    The follow-up was:”To my mind, that question raises another one: How does one act innocently?”)

    ABE: John, what I’m also trying to convey is that assessing the behavior of a person accused depends on the nature of the accusation. For instance, if one accuses another without any proof, then the person accused can also deny the accusation without any proof. That behavior of the accused should be acceptable to any one of reasonably prudent mind.

    If the accusation is only supported by testimonial evidence, the accused can deny the accusation by adducing a counter-testimonial evidence (their words against ours) and that would be sufficient too, i.e., not to react any further or not to explain any other behavior on the part of the accused that may be construed as contrary to the conduct of an innocent person.

    Now, if the accusation is accompanied by some convincing proof (like a smoking gun with the accused fingerprints on it), the standard of behavior required of the accused to negate the accusation is expected to be higher or at least at the level of the new nature of the accusation.

    If the accusation is an “act” and the behavior of the accused is a “reaction” where do we bracket? If the focused interest is one about the “physiology of reaction,” shouldn’t the question really be: “How does one REACT innocently?”

    “Can we fix guilt or innocence merely from the way the accused reacts?” was in fact the very first question.

  6. Jojo

    I think we have gone beyond the question of who lied. And the reality out there is that GMA will survive this crisis even if she will admit she lied. The question is, given all these “concrete conditions” (as the Maoists are fond to call them), what to do next? May I suggest that some of us focus on monitoring how fare the so-called “reforms” that this president promised she would accomplish during her term. Someone should set up a balance sheet that will plot the development AND/OR retrogression of her reformist promise.

    Someone (John?) could set up a — via a blog or a website similar to that one that tracks how much the US has spent in Iraq and comparing this how much is spend on education, healthcare, etc.). For me this is probably one of the ways that those arrayed against GMA can EFFECTIVELY hit back at her.

  7. You beat me to it, was going to post letter, too. But you know, it makes me think, the reason Civil Society loses out until it engages in a long-haul fight is encapsulated by the phrase,

    “sunflower greetings…”

    Eek. Not to mention cabinet secretaries who use emoticons.

  8. Jojo

    Manolo, back when I was still a Maoist believer, one of the things which made regard with disdain the social democratic politics of the people like Dinky was their sweet but politically tacky positions, of which emoticons and flowers appear to be the recent mutations. Of course, EDSA 1 showed that flowers and tears do work — but only partly since equally important was the breakdown of the AFP and the “defection” of military fencesitters to the RAM-Ramos side.

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