Crawl before you walk, goes the popular maxim. My variation for columnists is: “You have to make sense before you make dollars.” The most recent instance where opinion journalists arrived at the truth way ahead of the reporters pounding the pavements was the Duke Lacrosse case, now recast as the Mike Nifong case. The rest of the world has finally caught up to my colleagues in vindicating the students and vilifying the prosecutor. Ironically the coverage is again in black and white — oops! — but now in the other direction.
Between ourselves, we might take a moment to ponder some of the nuances that elude the conventional wisdom.
There are insights to be gleaned here on the nature of credibility. It becomes clear in this story that trustworthiness needs to be husbanded. The Mishna says there are three crowns that elevate a person’s stature, the crown of clergy, the crown of public office and the crown of scholarship. Then it adds a postscript: “But the crown of a good reputation exceeds them all.”
Let us begin with the complainant. We know she hires herself out as a stripper to entertain at parties. We know she has children out of wedlock. We know she drinks and takes drugs. We don’t know if she engages in actual prostitution. Now, does this girl deserve the protection of society against corporal assault and degradation? Absolutely. But can we be as effective in delivering this service as we can to a woman who works as an executive or as a secretary? Absolutely not.
That may be an uncomfortable fact, but no less true for that. When you engage in illegal activities involving other people, with those others being stimulated by various substances and images that erode self-control, you are assuming increased risk. If someone present decides to ratchet up the crime level beyond your comfort zone, even if you are only a witness and not a victim, it becomes difficult to put your foot down. If you try to summon the authorities, or your bouncer from outside, you may be restrained. If you do get the police, they may arrest you along with, or instead of, the offending party.
Putting ourselves in the cops’ place, we can see how treacherous a territory that is to navigate. Who do you believe? First you look for blood, for bruises, for scratch marks. When those are not present, then what? So we want to protect this girl from the blended consequences of her folly and the viciousness of others, but we can only do so much. And although Nifong went outrageously overboard before he sunk, future prosecutors of high integrity will be reluctant to pursue like scenarios.
The “he” side of this he-said-she-said also suffers from a curtailed credibility. It is a much easier sell to say “I would never hurt a woman” if you do not have to preface that with “Although I do for entertainment purposes hire a woman to disrobe while I sit there inebriated and make crudely complimentary remarks about her anatomy…” Every line you cross in behavior is a line you surrender in credibility.
The Talmud tells a tragic story about a Yeshiva student who had to use the outhouse on his way home from prayers. It was considered disrespectful to bring phylacteries inside, so he left his outside on a ledge. A prostitute noticed and stole them before he came back out. She then went to his Yeshiva as a prank and told the dean: “One of your students engaged my services and gave me these as payment.” The young man was so humiliated, he went up to the roof and jumped to his death. Afterward, the rule was changed, and people were permitted to bag the phylacteries and take them in.
We all feel for the Duke kids and their families, and it is wonderful to see them deservedly exonerated, but they are hardly in the class of that humble student long ago. High-class behavior is more than an affectation, as was thought in the 1930s, or an inhibition, as was thought in the 1960s. It is a strategy for conducting the transactions of life in a zone where trust can prevail, and only where there is trust can there be security. If you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas, goes the popular maxim. My variation for columnists is: “If you look for the leaks, you may wind up in hot water.”
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