On Words: Complicit

Apparently the word of the year for 2017 is complicit. 

choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others

This simply means that it is the word, according to Dictionary.com, that has had the most clicks over the year. Considering the hyper partisan-politicization of the US since the presidential election last year, I am not really surprised. When all you hear on the news is a call for the impeach of a dully elected President, then you want to understand the illegality of his actions, and how he might be “complicit” in crimes against this country. Truth be told right now, there is no evidence that there was any illegality on his part to swing the election. Illegality would be where he colluded with the Russian government to subvert the course of the Presidential election. It seems, as they have done for decades, the old KGB habit of disinformation was a factor in how people viewed the democratic candidate.  But so far, there is no evidence of anyone in the Trump campaign being complicit in supporting the Russian agenda. In all honesty, Trump seemed more surprised than anyone else that he actually won the election.

In fact, and this is not a popular opinion, it is not illegal to receive or even procure information on your opponent from a foreign source. It is simply not done. Precedence in the system means that if a foreign source offers you information on your opponent, past campaigns have told the FBI. Political savvy people understand that a foreign entity, that is not a friend of the US, may have some ulterior motives for handing you the information. But unless the investigation can find some kind of smoking gun that the Trump campaign actually did anything untoward during the election, unlike the now famous knowledge that the DNC rigged the primaries for HRC, then quite frankly those who have been carrying on for over a year now, are going to have to be satisfied with a few republican heads on the chopping block for their own uncampaign related activities.

But it is interesting that there is renewed interest by people who want to understand our system of government, and how it works. They want to understand the law on this matter of impeachment, and they want to understand basically how the Constitution, which was supposed to protect the nation from the clutches of a demagogue, actually failed.

It’s an interesting concept, being complicit. There is  being an active participant in any illegal activity. But then the issue becomes what about those that ignore illegality and simply do nothing to stop it. In law, to be complicit, you have to have an overt act. Meaning simply doing nothing to stop an illegal activity does not make a person legally complicit. Following that idea though, the issue we should discuss is, what is an moral and ethical underpinning of being complicit?

While there is no affirmative requirement that people act to save someone they did not endanger by their own actions, either directly or indirectly, and there is no affirmative requirement that people act to stop an illegal act in which they had no part, there is a moral concept that if you know something is egregious, and you know that it is occurring, you should do something, if you can, to stop it.

In other words, you do not have to risk your own life to save a drowning person if your actions did not result in them being in that precarious position in the first place. Also you are not required to do anything about illegality at your place of business unless you are involved somehow. Whistleblowers, for example, are people who are generally known to come across information pointing to issues or problems and unlawful actions. They have no obligation to go to the police, and many suffer consequences if they do, that is why there are whistleblower protection laws. But they are not considered complicit in the illegality simply by learning about it, and doing nothing about it. Only if they take an affirmative action to continue the illegality then they become complicit.

Another question that we need to ask ourselves is, exactly at what point does our inaction become complicit?  We are not required to report a crime. We are not required to help someone who is a victim of a crime or situation. We are not required to give testimony, nor appear as a witness even if we see a crime in question. There is no moral affirmative duty to reach outside our own sphere and do anything that is in essence, an inconvenience to ourselves.

That is why, going back to the 1960s case of Kitty Genovese, none of her neighbors were ever charged with a crime. They did not call the police to help her, or try to stop her murder. They had no duty to. But there was the moral and ethical soul searching of society and our baser nature that came later. In all honesty, the question then becomes what if anything has even changed since then? Who steps outside themselves to do the unexpected? Not many. That is why those that do are given medals and accolades, because they go beyond the requirements of the social contract and do something unexpected most of the time even putting themselves in harm’s way.

In reality, it is at this point, that the concept of moral and ethical complicity comes into play. If you join these two concepts with the theory of a social contract between the government and the governed, i.e., a contract of mutual dependency, then in order for a society to function at a healthy level, there needs to be more than a legal concept of complicity in action. There needs to be a healthy ethical and moral understanding of what it means to be complicit in wrongdoing.

If you as a citizen of a nation/state/city/town/village expect that the police and government are there to protect you and your property, you basically rely on your neighbors to do what is right, to come forward, if they see an illegality being committed against your person or property. Government, which uses the police and the prosecutors office to provide their end of the social contract, still needs to rely on people to do the “right thing” and to tell what has happened. So the question becomes, what happens to the social contract when citizens do not keep up their end of the agreement, and does it behoove society to make a person who does not come forward, complicit in the crime, or negligence being committed?

Yes there are obstruction of justice laws, but to be guilty that means a person has to take an affirmative step to impede investigation. And in the case of a “drowning person,”  you become complicit if you stop someone else from going in and saving the victim if they could. But we are talking about something different here. Can society demand of people that they do what is morally and ethically correct even if there is no benefit to themselves?

Expanding the concept of being complicit is an interesting ethical and moral conundrum. Our laws have tried to restrict and prod people in an ethical and moral way since we, as a society, do not look toward religion to dictate to us right and wrong. However, the reality is that laws do a very poor job of providing guidance. Most of our laws, come from English common law, which are there to protect property rights. While we do have the Bill of Rights, and an acknowledgement of individual sovereignty, laws are there to make society work better, not necessarily help us understand moral obligations. The reality is that laws rarely seek justice. In it’s place law seeks redress either in the area of financial compensation, or society’s imprimatur through imprisonment for wrong deeds.

In the past  it was through societal shaming, banishment, or shunning that people actually understood their moral and ethical requirements. True, we do not use town stocks anymore (we do have the perp walk, but several jurisdictions have held that that practice is unconstitutional), there are religions that use excommunication, yet in the wider context of the world, that holds very little sway (unless you live in a religious sect where you are not taught individuality, or survival skills), meanwhile, there may be ways to make certain that people live up to their social contract obligations, if only by holding up those that do live a more moral and ethical life as examples of a societal good. The more positive reinforcement towards those that do the moral and ethical choices, the more the average person is going to want to follow suit. It is human nature afterall, to want to be accepted by the society at-large.

Unfortunately, the problem that we have here, is that naming and shaming does not always work, and in fact, society can devolve and conflate issues and actions, casting a wider net than is logical, realistic, or factual. Look toward any societal panic over the past several hundred years, and you can see the devaluation of actual evil and illicit behavior into something that becomes systemic, when it is not necessarily so, ensnaring many innocents in the frenzy from Salem to the present say. So holding out the shaming experience is not always a way to elicit a more moral society. Social panic is not called a witch hunt, because it elicits positive reinforcement by the masses.

The question in the end then, is how do we as a society take inaction and turn it into something to be ashamed of? How do we make those who lack a moral and ethical underpinning, that turn away and ignore wrongdoing that they are complicit in those actions? How do we make people understand that simply because you do not have a legal affirmative requirement to do something to help, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

It is also the appearance of impropriety that creates a floor of ethical and moral behavior. Simply because you are not guilty of being complicit in a crime, such as  subverting the US Presidential election, your actions may appear to be an impropriety. We should demand of those that are elected that they hold themselves to a higher level of morality and ethics. They are supposed to be leaders, and they are supposed to show society the right way to behave. Perhaps that is the end of the discussion after all. While certain actions are not considered illegal, and a person may not be complicit in derailing the election, if there is the appearance of impropriety that hovers overhead it destroys any credibility in their leadership. And if they cannot effectively lead, then they should not be in a position of command.


About Elise "Ronan"

#JewishandProud ...
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