We have to let go of some of our interpersonal obsession with innocence and guilt and see those concepts as what they are. Having facilitated conflict and transformative justice processes I can feel how programmed we are to grasp for innocence. Innocence offers safety, while guilt leaves you at risk for expulsion and isolation. Neither are fixed states, identity traits, but we treat them that way. And so many times in supporting people to wade through hard feelings, hurt feelings, harm, I’ve found that so many of us want innocence separate from accountability. We want an independent party to deem us innocent so we don’t have to look further, feel more, or understand ourselves. On the other side we do everything we can to avoid guilt, we stretch truths, obscure intentions, omit information, build alliances to prevent ourselves from being seen as culpable.
We have been trained this way by systems that penalize truth telling, make high the stakes of vulnerability and treat innocence as an all encompassing home base, an unreflective space of safety. We’ll do almost anything to get there because we’ve needed to. Especially poor people, especially Black and Brown, innocence is a rarely awarded prize. The legal system almost guarantees some tax from your bodies regardless of what has or has not been done, regardless of verdicts or sentences it will cost you, the never innocent.
Innocence as it has been practiced by courts, but also by us, has been almost emptied of meaning and usefulness. And for so many people we forget that innocence was not created as a concept for our safety, but to safeguard against us. White people have always been innocent of crimes against Black bodies, even from those most willing to acknowledge all that has happened, white people are still seen as victims of their time. Innocent of wrongdoing even inside the white supremacy they created and reproduced. Black people “in those times” aren’t offered innocence or even compassion. They are unreachable and unreal, collateral. Innocence is a concept that protects some people from becoming that, the banished and perpetually guilty, the Black. Innocence is the always afforded benefit of the doubt and constant, far reaching extension of humanity. At its’ worst, the insistence on innocence becomes the barrier to true humanity itself and to real reflection, growth and maturity.
This is not to erase that harm happens. And it happens sometimes in ways that are brutally unilateral. We harm each other for reasons that have nothing at all to do with each other. We destroy parts of each other on a memory we can’t shake, or a feeling we can’t tolerate. That happens every day. And yet, innocence won’t stop it and won’t heal us. Neither will guilt. What changes us are the processes of making amends, incorporating another’s reality into our own, of knowing ourselves, our motivations, of being in practice that interrupts our unconscious and violent flailing. What changes us is letting people know that’s possible.
We could come to re-inhabit the word, innocence, and use it where it can still have meaning. To talk of those whose bodies are unknowingly threatened by war, by drones that hover overhead, caught in the expansion of empire. Or places where children are made to suffer violence, in their homes and in colonial cages. There is innocence there, or maybe more usefully, there is powerlessness in the face of that kind of force. Those are the places where innocence might matter the most, when innocence should be a call for us.
But between us, interpersonally, relationally, true innocence is more evasive. Often that determination becomes the focal point of our efforts instead of tending to the pain, instead of protecting who and what needs protection, instead of all and any parties having space to learn and transform. What if we could see ourselves less as innocent, but as harmed and harming, more or less honest, more or less able to be conscious when triggered, more or less manipulative, more or less taking responsibility for our own change, more or less caught in patterns. What if we knew that about ourselves, would we be better able to create and respect boundaries between each other? Would we be more likely to interrupt our own violence if we didn’t insist on our innocence, insist on our justifications? Could we let the word have meaning again? Allowing ourselves to pay real attention to places where what we’re told is collateral are people, families, communities, life. Can we ween ourselves off of the myth of purity, of innocence embedded in our supremacist and exceptionalist structures? Can we tolerate knowing ourselves?