America has, and has always had, an “innocence” problem. That is, an obsession with exoneration that suggests that all actions are either innocent or not, with the consequences of said actions somehow divorced from admissions of guilt. The obsession naturally protects those who hold the reins of power in any given sphere of influence—meaning those who are white, privileged, wealthy, and well-connected. Titans of industry who “mean well” often like to claim their “innocence” almost as a right, regardless of whether or not their actions actually hurt others (and here, those impacted are most likely non-white, less privileged, less wealthy, and less connected). But there comes a point when giving someone the benefit of the doubt causes more harm than good, and this is the point that America as a whole is still reluctant to interrogate.
Take, for instance, recent big ticket court cases that have been playing out on the national stage: the Facebook data breach, the comically redacted Mueller report, and most especially the college admissions scandal. The breadth of institutions that these three cases represent—technology/business, government/politics, and higher education—is telling. Corruption and its arch-nemesis, accountability, play cat-and-mouse in just about every aspect of our lives, in every institution that we pay deference to, hence why shining a light on these three in particular may feel uncomfortable for those who have benefited from their inequities. Privilege is predicated on inequality. In other words, these scandals have caused us to think about how we have all been complicit in helping to uphold the institutional injustices that these court cases highlight, whether it’s by taking advantage of the system or idly giving offenders a pass.
I have been thinking a lot lately as to why these high-profile court cases feel so frustrating, aside from the fact that they have bloomed not unlike moldy cheeses bloom: together, and into an impenetrable crust. And what feels true is that a big part of my annoyance comes from the fact that the individuals who are knowingly trying to game the system feign innocence once they’re caught. They even, in some cases, get defiant. There is an insistence that those who have wronged others “didn’t mean any harm”—as though purity of intent is what will grant these people a pass. As though justice can be served absent of action, reaction, and reality, and just based on the “innocent” intentions of a few privileged, rich folks.
The reality is, though, that this is how justice has been defined in the past, and so there’s no reason for any of us to believe that this tactic won’t work again.
There is a certain kind of language that is being used by the defendants in each of these three cases, and that is the language of mistakes. A sort of “oops, our bad” mentality that absolves wrongdoers from their guilt and presumes innocence in a way that doesn’t leave very much room for accusations or accountability. Facebook, for instance, released a statement admitting that it “unintentionally uploaded” the email contacts of up to 1.5 million users on its site without their permission, suggesting that this gross invasion of privacy was the result of a slip-up, a human error.
How, then, to punish the company when it is admitting fault, but claiming that it was just an accident? Some 1.5 million users were left extremely vulnerable because of this “accident,” and yet this harmful outcome isn’t enough to warrant some sort of legal punishment for Facebook as an entity. America as a whole likes to forgive those who err, to be seen as generous of spirit, and to point to systemic breakdowns for the rise of corruption, racism, sexism, and beyond. But when there are actual individuals who might be held accountable for an entire ecosystem’s rot (see: Mark Zuckerberg), we’re still failing to hold them legally accountable.
In the long-anticipated Mueller report released earlier this month, there was “insufficient evidence” to accuse President Trump of outright criminal conspiracy, even though there was plenty suggesting that there were “multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government.” Based on how the 448-page document was read, this can either be understood as an appeal to Congress to do due diligence and put Trump on trial for criminal obstruction of justice, or sweet vindication after a two-year witch hunt. No surprises here, but Trump chose to believe the latter. The language used in the report suggests that there is no way to verify whether or not Trump Campaign officials met with Russians with the intention of influencing the 2016 elections; Trump’s veritable “innocence” prevails.
And in the ongoing college admissions scandal, Lori Loughlin has been a prime example of a supposedly “innocent” parent who claims to have gotten swept up in the hubbub of college mania, trying to signal her relatability to other parents who are contending with the competitive demands of the college market. She may use what a defense attorney referred to as “parenting on steroids” as a defense in court, framing her actions as woefully manipulated, her intentions always pure and good. “To her, it wasn’t egregious behavior,” a source told People. “Was it entitled and perhaps selfish? Perhaps. But she didn’t see it as being a legal violation.” Given that she’s already pleaded not guilty in court, forgoing a plea deal that would have lessened her and her husband Massimo Giannulli’s jail time, it’s going to be interesting to see how her story changes as more evidence is unearthed. The $500,000 payment to USC. The staged photos of her daughters Olivia Jade and Isabella Rose next to crew equipment. The wiretapped phone calls that reveal just how entrenched she was in plotting the fraud. Through it all, she’s maintained her innocence.
The takeaway here is that the disconnect between these claims of innocence and the harm that is being done as a result of these offenders’ actions is only growing bigger. This obsession with innocence and exoneration of the accused (see: Brock Turner, George Zimmerman) relies so heavily on intention that it fails to actually consider the damage that has resulted from their wrongdoing. And by protecting those individuals who are already in a place of privilege and wealth—as is most commonly the case—we are allowing corruption to fester in these institutions, to the detriment of others and to the institutions themselves. Innocence by default is honorable in theory, until it begins to stymie actual systemic changes. America may still claim that we live in a meritocracy, but such scandals as these prove otherwise, and the theory soon becomes little more than a lie. After all, no one’s ever sorry they did something to get ahead; they’re just sorry they got caught.