Column: Liar’s proofs

Published on May 12, 2009; I was, unfortunately, under the weather.


As the reader can immediately tell from the dated allusions, I wrote this blog post in 2005—in August, to be more exact.

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 compliment-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 town mates 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.

A couple of days later, I wrote a follow-up post.

I may not have made myself as clear as possible in my recent post on “liar’s proofs.” I did not mean to say that there is no “other evidence” to prove the President’s participation in election fraud. I only wanted to discuss our tendency to judge an accused person guilty or not by the way he reacts to the accusation.

Perhaps I can make myself clearer if I zoom out, so to speak, from the topic. Let’s talk about the uses of the argument from human nature.

Consider what House Minority Leader Francis Escudero said when he found out that Michaelangelo Zuce, a former Palace operative, had surfaced to implicate the President.

“These are very serious allegations that I don’t think an ordinary person can come up with,” Escudero said, adding that he wants to get “details of Zuce’s potential testimony.”

This “ordinary person” line of reasoning is a familiar way of arguing from human nature. Let’s follow the underlying syllogism: An ordinary person has much to lose by accusing a powerful public official. Zuce is an ordinary person. Therefore, by the simple fact that he has accused the President, Zuce is telling the truth.

He may be; or he may not be. His affidavit, his statements, are pregnant with the possibility of verification. But his ordinary-personhood is not itself some kind of verification, or even a test of it.

Why is making this distinction important? Because it’s possible that our careless use of human nature as a kind of proof ultimately undermines the public discourse.

Arguing from human nature cuts both ways. Escudero’s illogical but skillfully persuasive reaction can be countered easily, using the same kind of argument. An ordinary person, one can say, may seek to escape his very ordinariness by challenging the powerful, even at great risk to limb or life. We know this; it happens all the time. But by the same token, it cannot be proof of the innocence of the accused.

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