Benefit Of The Doubt
By Dr. Devika Brendon
It takes generosity of spirit to give another human being what we call the benefit of the doubt. If we look at the phrase, we can see that it suggests that the best ‘benefit’ we can offer other people is a moral and social space created by our decision to withhold or suspend initial judgment of their actions. This space, a gift from us to them, enables them to explain themselves, to add factual detail and context others may not be aware of, and to remedy the situation.
The word ‘benefit’ itself comes from the Italian word ‘bene’ - meaning something good, as in the words ‘beneficial’ or ‘beneficiary’. A blessing. I suggest, at this stressful time in human history, we could all do ourselves a giant favour and start to consciously give each other this universal benefit.
Because it truly is a gift we give ourselves, when we give others the space to make mistakes and own up to them, instead of rushing to judgment on them with very few facts and all our own biases on show.
Jumping to conclusions
What we gain (possible affirmation of our correct assumptions) in jumping to conclusions is far less than what we lose: Our peace of mind, our fluidity and grace, our compassion, our willingness to suspend our disbelief, and temporarily quell our skepticism and cynicism.
Being rigidly judgmental of others is a full-time job, as every human being makes mistakes. Perfectionism is a compulsion, and often those who are cruel to others, condemning them publicly and vocally for their faults, are harsh in their assessment of themselves as well. This sort of mentality is a curse to the one who carries it. There is no rest for the hyper-critical.
Many of us in this mirror maze of social and community life judge others superficially for what we hear about them, and do not make the effort to withhold judgment till enough facts are available to give us a fuller picture. We want to feed our appetite for sensational news. We silently say to ourselves - as Shakespeare’s Othello said to the person he believed was his best friend: ‘Give thy worst of thoughts the worst of words’. He paid dearly for his tendency towards the superlative.
And this bias towards retributive justice, punishment and exposure is what we call - in the age of the rapid fire technology of the internet, and especially social media - ‘cancel culture’.
With a few well placed words, any person’s reputation can be tagged for ‘exposure’ and ‘revelation’.
It’s a quest for a visceral jolt of dopamine or serotonin, observable in those who pride themselves on condemning others. Like a demolition game. People find it amusing to see other people fall from great heights, and those who engineer that downfall frequently pride themselves on having performed a social benefit, tagging their attacks as PSAs (Public Service Announcements). It also means the crowds and pileups on Facebooks and the flash mobs on Twitter can go after other people; And there’ll be free space on the banks of the rivers of self righteousness for those who - having targeted others - feel unlikely to be targeted themselves.
But is it not an indulgence on their part, to allow their inner critic loose on the world? Not in acts of defence but of aggression?
When the facts of the matter are finally in, the scandal mongers and panhandlers are also exposed, with their unkindness publicly apparent. In their fervent (and sometimes sadistic) wish to take down their externalised target, they over-reach, and are often themselves confounded.
Dislike of that kind
It is such an apparent gift, ‘to have a dislike of that kind’, as Elizabeth Bennet says in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But the true gift in my opinion would be self-giving and self-renewing: To hold back our own hand with the sharp, self-styled sword of justice in it. To not pursue justice, or seek self-righteously to be an instrument of it, in the life of another human being. But rather to give people time to register and address the true facts of the case, instead of exhausting ourselves in cutting the pieces of a picture to make them fit - into an explanation that was created by our own pre-existing and persuasive beliefs and assumptions.
When we look at the parables and teaching stories of the Buddha and of Jesus in the Jataka stories and the Christian scriptures, we see human cruelty and hypocrisy very openly showcased in the everyday incidents that come up for discussion. People in every age and culture are quick to stand in judgment over others.
Capacity to forgive
But at the heart of human happiness is the capacity to forgive. To let go the ties of memory and hatred and revenge and shame and personal dislike and moral disapproval that compel us to point the finger of retribution at others. To let the fate of others be determined by external forces, instead of taking it upon ourselves to condemn and criticise them.
A very wise person once told me that it’s good to remember that when a person offends us they are usually not behaving aberrantly. We are only offended by their particular behaviour in our own encounter with them, but their larger life is likely to be cumulatively filled with encounters like this. And they will go on offending others until the negative consequences to themselves start adding up - and they realise that there is a pattern to their experience which they should pay attention to.
Because we are such self-focused and self-referential creatures, it usually takes intense suffering and discomfort on our own part before we realise we need to act to make changes in our way of thinking and behaving.
The most interesting people I know are people who reserve judgment and observe before they act and speak. They are the most likely to be able to contain themselves, and to weigh and balance contrasting facts and ideas.
They use their faculties of intelligence and wisdom to evaluate, assess and question their own biases. And they understand what a weight judgment carries, and what an act of violence imposing it - without concern for the consequences - can be, on our fellow human beings.