The Witness and His Subjective Testimony
We have seen in recent years a long parade of recanting Communists, who have testified freely and openly about their pasts. Currently, we have still another kind of parade: the recanting recanters. How are we to know the truth from falsehood in all this morass of conflicting testimony? How are we to prevent ourselves from becoming confused by the contradictory testimony of men and women whose words can influence the course of our nation’s actions? How are we to learn to evaluate what they say? Psychologically, how reliable is their testimony, whether friendly or unfriendly?
In general, we can say that those who are most vituperative in their statements are usually the least reliable. Many of them are men and women who in the past adopted a totalitarian ideology out of their own deep sense of inner insecurity. Later there came the moment when they felt that their chosen ideology had failed them. Though it had held their minds relentlessly imprisoned for a long time, at that point they were able to throw off the system completely. This they did through a process of inner rearrangement of old observations and convictions. However, what they shed was merely a particular set of rigid ideological rules. Most of them did not shed, along with these rules, their hidden hatreds and early insecurity. They may have given up the political ideology which offered them defenses and justifications, but they retained their resentments.
It is extremely common to find such people seeking immediate sanctuary in some other strictly organized institution. Because they now see things in a different light, old facts and concepts acquire a different significance. Yet, all the while, the ever-present urge toward self-justification and self-exculpation, which operates in all men and which in these cases motivated the former allegiance to Communism, is at work. Now they must prove their guiltlessness and their loyalty to their newly adopted ideas. Their emotions, now in new garb, are still directed toward the goal of self-justification.
In the eyes of the convert, the fresh outlook — this new arrangement of inner demands and of ways of satisfying them — is just as logical and rational as were his former set of expectations and satisfactions. Now he rediscovers several experiences long since past. His former friends become his enemies; some of them are seen as conspirators, whether they were or not. He himself is unable to distinguish between truth and fantasy, between fact and subjective demand. Consequently, a complete distortion of perceptions and memories may take place. He may misquote his own memories, and this process is for the most part one of which the convert himself is not aware. I remember vividly one example of such behavior during the Second World War. A former Nazi became a courageous member of the anti-Nazi underground. He sought to rectify his past behavior not only by fighting the Nazis, but also by spreading all kinds of anxiety-provoking rumors about his former friends. By making them appear more cruel, he thought he could show himself more loyal.
Similarly, the denials and misstatements that may be made by the convert before the courts or the Congressional committees are often not so much conscious falsehoods as they are products of the new inner arrangements. Every accusation about the convert’s past may be twisted by him into a new tool for use in the process of self-justification. Only a few such men have the moral courage to admit that they have made real mistakes in the past. The distance between a white lie and selective forgetting and repressing is often very short. I discovered this for myself while carrying on investigations of resistance members who had been in Nazi hands. I found that it was almost impossible to obtain objective information from them about what they had revealed to the enemy after torture. Reporting upon their enforced betrayal, they immediately colored their stories by white lies and secondary distortions. Depending on their guilt feelings, they either accused themselves too much or found no flaw at all in their behavior.
The Right to Be Silent
Out of the action of Congressional investigating committees has recently come a serious legal attack on the right to be silent when the giving of information clashes with the conscience of the one on the stand. This attack can become a serious invasion of human privacy and reserve. Undermining the value of the personality and of private conscience is as dangerous to the preservation of democracy as is the threat of totalitarian aggression.
We have to realize that it is often difficult for witnesses to make a choice between contempt of Congess and contempt of human qualitites. Administrators may conceivably discover a few alleged “traitors” by compelling witnesses to betray their former friends, but at the same time they compel people to betray friendships. Friendship is one of our most precious human possessions. Any government or agency that, under the guise of “contempt of Congress,” can force confessions, and information can also force the betrayal of former loyalties. Is this not comparable with what the coercive totalitarians do? And at what cost?
We obtain a pseudo-purge resulting from weakness of character and anxiety in the victim. In addition we violate one of democracy’s basic tenets — respect for the strength of man’s character. We have always believed that it is better to let ten guilty men go free than to hang one innocent — in direct opposition to the totalitarian concept that it is better to hang ten innocent men than to let one guilty man go free. We may punish the guilty with this strategy of compelling a man to speak when his conscience urges him to be silent, but just as surely we break down the innocent by destroying their conscience. Supreme Court Justices Douglas and Black in their dissenting opinion about the constitutionality of the Immunity Act of 1954 [See “The New York Times,” March 27, 1956] emphasize the right to be silent as a Constitutional right given by the Fifth Amendment — a safeguard of personal conscience and personal dignity and freedom of expression as well. It is beyond the power of Congress to compel anyone to confess his crimes even when immunity is assured.
The individual’s need NOT to betray his former allegiances — even when he has made a mistake in political judgment at an age of less understanding — is morally just as important as the need to help the state locate subversives. Let us not forget that betrayal of the community is rooted in self-betrayal. By forcing a man to betray his inner feelings and himself, we actually make it easier for him to betray the larger community at some future date. If the law forces people to betray their inner moral feelings of friendship, even if these feelings are based on juvenile loyalties, then that very law undermines the integrity of the person, and coercion and menticide begin. The conscience of the individual plays an enormous role in the choice between loyal opposition and passive conformity. The law has to protect the individual also against the violation of his personal moral standards; otherwise, human conscience will lose in the battle between individual conscience and legal power. Moral evaluation starts with the individual and not with the state.
The concept of brainwashing has already led to some legal implications, and these have led to new facets of imagined crime. Because the reports about Communist brainwashing of the prisoners of war in Korea and China were published widely in newspapers, they aroused anxieties among lay people. As mentioned in Chapter Three, several schizophrenics and borderline patients seized upon this rather new concept of brainwashing, using it as an explanation for a peculiar kind of delusion that beset them — the delusion of being influenced. Some of these persons had, as it were, the feeling that their minds had been laid open, as if from the outside, through radio waves or some other mystic communication, thoughts were being directed.
The Judge and the Jury
What about the people who are called upon to sift truth from falsehood, to arrive at just and impartial verdicts? The judge and the jury are themselves influenced and affected by the external facts and inner needs that lie behind the behavior of the other principals in the case. Yet they are supposed to rise above their background, their personal needs and desires and to render a verdict strictly on the evidence, unswayed by any prejudice or subjective desires. And let us bear in mind that it is not only those officially connected with a case who make a decision about it, it is everyone who knows about it. You and I, the public, are judge and jury too.
Judge and jury face the difficult task of finding and asking on the basis of the facts alone, and yet even in them, under the influence of strong group emotions, an emotional rearrangement of remembered facts may take place.
Judge and jurors are affected by the collective emotional atmosphere surrounding controversial issues, and it is difficult for them to maintain their much-needed objectivity. The average juror already submits to the popular emotional demand before the trial is started, as several trials about racial persecution proved.
Lately two authorities on law attacked the system of trial by jury, one because of its delaying action on the process of justice (Peck) and the other because he considered it an outmoded means of administering justice (Newman). Trial by jury is a relic of the thirteenth century intended to replace the magic trial by ordeal — the gods and coincidence decided the guilt — and to replace the trial by battle — physical skill and power decided which of two parties was guilty. The trial by a jury of peers, by all those who knew the accused and the circumstances of the alleged crime, served its puspose in rather simple organized communities for a long time. But in our compliated society, where people know less about each other and where a thousandfold communications intrude the mind, things have changed. “The average juror is swayed by the emotion and prejudice of his heredity and background training.” (Newman) Our juries are not always able to follow the intricacies of pros and cons, of interpretation of facts. In addition, many a trial lawyer knows how to fascinate a jury, how to catch their minds and influence their judgment. Beyond this, the selection of jurors delays more and more the process of justice.
As a simple example of how individual, personal, and social conditioning can affect a juror’s current reactions, let us look at the inner confusion usually caused by the word “traitor.” Here we have an emotionally loaded trigger-word. If somebody is accused of being a traitor or a subversive, on the basis of undeniable facts, any attempt at a scientific, psychological explanation of this person’s behavior is already considered a treacherous intellectualism. The consensus is that the traitor should be punished; he belongs to the scum of society, better let him die. Even the lawyer who defends him before the court may be accused of collaboration in treason.
All of us know many other trigger words which immediately provoke confusion in our objective perception and judgment because they touch unsolved, unconscious feelings. Words like “Communist” and “homosexual,” for instance, can become confusing trigger words which bring a reservoir of dark feelings into action. Demagogues like to use such words in order to stir up mass feelings, which they cannot control but which they believe are very suitable for the strategy of the moment. This can become, however, like playing with dynamite. Any one of us may be swayed by allusive cliches such as “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” or “Once a thief, always a thief.” I once saw this most interestingly in a hot debate where someone had once been scolded for being a “dirty monogamist.” As soon as the accusation was made, public opinion turned against him.
Even a judge can be swayed by his own emotional difficulties, especially by slanted testimony of witnesses who may be attempting to mislead. In Great Britain the courts are more aware of the effect of a prejudicial attitude on the part of jurors. There the trial process is extensively protected, mostly through prevention of pretrial discussion and deliberation, regardless of the unpopularity of the accused.
An open official interrogation affects those who watch it — and the fact that they are affected may influence its outcome. Various crime hearings in this country, for instance, were brought before the people by means of television. Citizens sitting comfortably at home far from the scene could see how defense lawyers maneuvered facts or instructed their clients (among whom were well-known crime bosses) so that they would appear in a favorable light. Even though their actions may have been transparent tricks with the appearance of a fixed wrestling match, the result was that some of the not-so-jovial-looking victims of the criminals were made ridiculous, while the criminals, calm, assured, self-possessed, seemed more admirable. The victims often couldn’t stand being in the limelight; it made them feel ill at east and embarrassed. The criminals, on the other hand, either denied every accusation in tones of righteous indignation or made confessions which degenerated into hysterical quests for pity. The magic effect of all the anonymous onlookers — because the witness or defendant imagined their approval or disapproval — influenced the outcome of the hearings. All of us who watched them brought our own subjective expectations to bear on these hearings.
Television makes a mass trial of such a hearing, and unwittingly not justice but the variable feelings of the public become part of the courtroom atmosphere. Every piece of evidence in such a hearing is colored by rumor and emotion, and the shocked onlookers are left with feelings of suspicion and deep misgivings that the hearing has not really gotten down to the condemning facts.
The Quest for Detachment
Man’s feeling for justice has very subtle implications. As soon as “Justitia” flirts with powerful friends or becomes completely submissive, people feel insecure and their anxiety increases. But man’s feeling for justice needs more than mere security for its satisfaction and gratification. The sense of justice is an inner attitude aiming at the realization of ideal rules of law that can inspire the community and raise it to a higher moral level. It requires not merely that minimum of decent behavior that is enforced by law, but more than that a maximum of personal initiative and mutual fair play. It asks for personal and social justice, for mutual limitation of demands in the service of the mutuality of relations between men, and between men and their government. Any ideal feeling of justice requires sacrifice and implies self-limitation. Emotionalism is its enemy. This ideal of justice is not only valid for individuals but should also rule communities and countries. Only in such an atmosphere of free mutual sacrifice of power on behalf of growing justice can democracy grow.
Can people learn to see objectively and in a manner detached from their personal feelings? Yes, they can. Preconceived ways of seeing and witnessing can be changed. Many people realize the damage men do to themselves and others when they submit to collective passion and prejudice. These people then learn through astute investigation and observation how to be less prejudiced, how to see events with constant readaptation of mind and eye and with a search for reality.
Prisoners in concentration camps or P.O.W. camps are so constantly bombarded with rumors and suggestions, their observations are so distorted by their necessary self-defenses, that they are hardly able to give an objective report regarding the actions of their fellows. The mass attitude of the day directs their opinions. The fellow who has become a scapegoat, whose function it is to alleviate for his fellow prisoners their common anger, will never be able to neutralize all later reports about him, simply becasue the number of so-called objective witnesses is against him. It is very difficult to separate the rumors from the facts and to neutralize ingrown mental toenails. There is in man an instinctual need to take sides with the majority, to conform to the opinion of the strong. This need is rooted in a biological urge for safety. That is why a strong feeling of participation grew among soldiers in a P.O.W. camp. The result was complete unconscious falsification of what happened. The individual observation got lost in the strong impact of mass opinion.
In the future age of psychology, when insight into man’s behavior is more generally understood and applied, we will be more aware of the importance of dependable witnesses. Every report and every piece of testimony pro or con will be examined and weighed in the light of its psychological and historical background. The citizen of the future will laugh as he looks back at the time once lost during trials because obvious facts on one side were not brought out to challegne equally obvious facts on the opposing side. These future citizens will understand that we only revealed our mutual hostilities and feelings of fear and insecurity by our behavior, feelings which moved us compulsively and subtly to make subjective rearrangements of our memories and impressions. He will point out that objective thinking was in its infancy in those days.