Twelve Citizens (and Fake News)

I generally prefer not to sit for on a plane for twelve hours. The generally poor array of movie options is somewhere on my mental list of reasons why. But given that I’ve been in the process of practicing Chinese characters, watching a Chinese-language film is a productive use of time regardless of quality. Not long ago, I gave a movie called “12 Citizens” (十二公民) a try. Apparently the story is based heavily on 12 Angry Men, which I admit I haven’t seen. I largely spoil the movie below.

Image result for 12 citizens

Nearly the whole movie consists of twelve Chinese men of varying geographic and socio-economic backgrounds debating a highly publicized murder case. They must debate until their decision is unanimous: you-zui (guilty) or wu-zui (not guilty), based on the Western model. It is immediately clear that ‘everyone knows’ the alleged killer is actually guilty, because it has been “all over the news.” One sees how the media-influenced biases couple with personal biases to make nearly all the jurors certain of the boy’s guilt. One man argues that the boy is from a bad province with lots of problems (Henan). Others, that the evidence is overwhelming. Another uses the classic ‘kids these days’ argument, noting that the boy is one of China’s rich second generation (富二代). Our hero is Juror Number Eight, who is the only one to raise his hand for “not guilty.” Throughout the day he attempts to convert the rest of the group to his side. The most crucial argument of his is one of the most obvious for those of fortunate enough to live in the West: You don’t have to prove his innocence. You only have to demonstrate reasonable doubt.

We see in the film that in spite of multiple witness accounts, a poor alibi, opportunity, and motive, there is in fact reasonable doubt of his guilt. So reasonable in fact that after every aspect of the murder is picked apart and the evidence dealt with, the most stubborn supporter of a “guilty” vote is revealed to have a powerful emotional motivation. “I felt him stab me” he says of the killer, after telling the group about his son’s disrespect toward him. Juror Number Eight is the most sympathetic character of the film; in his demeanor, his looks, and his consistent and genuine openness to hearing out the opposing side. While most of the other ‘jurors’ want to get the discussion over with so they can leave, Juror Eight keeps things in perspective, reminding the others that were this a real trial someone might end up executed as a result of their decision.

Juror number eight

Of course, the perception by Juror Eight happens to be correct from the start. But those who support him have biases as well. An old man recalls the miserable poverty in the 1950s (which I found notable, not knowing a whole lot about Chinese film, given the strictness of the Chinese government in regards to information about itself available to its own people) and tells a story about a woman who had offered moral support. This old man wants the chance to pay it forward to an innocent boy, if there is a chance that the boy is indeed innocent. There are personal motivations on both sides.

I did not think this movie was worth writing much about for its own sake, though it is mildly enjoyable. Nor for the ethics surrounding the death penalty, which don’t really interest me that much. I found it valuable because of the reminder that certitude of guilt is necessary in order to condemn. That such openness to facts and evidence is portrayed both positively in a sympathetic protagonist, and as quintessentially Western is no coincidence. The slogan “Equal Justice Under Law” on the Supreme Court building in Washington is a tribute to a world-historical achievement no matter your nationality. Naturally, it is a challenging ideal to reach. The rich generally do not get handed the death penalty in the United States, for instance. There are obviously people who juries fail to convict for some of the most heinous crimes.

Such an ideal is nevertheless one of the best products of Western thought, and indicative of the type of broad-mindedness that enables technological innovation, care for the natural world, history, philosophy, and on and on. Learning new tricks is the well-honed habit of this particular dog, old as he may be. The kind of dynamism necessary to both act in the world, and also be open and conscientious enough to see reality, and even change course when one is wrong—is an formidable balance of energies.

But this attitude is rare anywhere in the world. What if one were to apply this same logic of “reasonable doubt” to our contemporary media? What if conspiracy theories, so-called, were subjected to a similar type of discussion? That they could not be condemned or ignored unless they received a unanimous “guilty” vote by twelve people after a thorough discussion? My favorite piece of dialogue in the Harry Potter series, Xenophilius Lovegood (the older I get the more obvious a lot of these names become. We never do get introduced to Xenophilius’ evil twin Xenophobius, now do we?) argues for the existence of a resurrection stone by saying:

“Prove that it is not [real]” to which one of the protagonists Hermoine responds:

“But that’s — I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist? Do you expect me to get hold of — of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!” Xenophilius then says:

“Yes, you could,” said Xenophilius. “I am glad to see that you are opening your mind a little.”

Internet debate-seasoned atheists will usually respond that a claim needs at least some evidence in order to be worthy of investigation. But this is rarely ever the logic employed by the masses of people who receive their information from the news media. In response to conflicting information, one usually gets some variation of “it’s obviously not true” as if to suggest that the media’s information on a recent issue is verified by its information about everything it reported on before. The narrative-construction and maintenance by our contemporary priesthood behind the screen and on the newspaper is enough to take hold of millions of minds without much investigation.

In freshman-year religion class, our religion teacher told us that had you told someone in medieval Europe that God didn’t exist, they’d look at you “like you had three heads.” Yet most people in the industrialized world either disbelieve in an all-powerful God, or behave as if they do. The mere circumstance of living with the ideas we do today appears as proof to the casual postmodern citizen. Like water to a fish, what we are taught is supposed to be the first time in all of human history that we have it right.

But to form contrarian opinions just to counter the mainstream is hardly the mark of an educated mind either. I don’t suppose all such conspiracy-theorists live in their basements wearing tinfoil hats. But taking a position in-between the mainstream narrative and its opposite is hard, and getting it perfect is near impossible. Is someone wrong because he lacks the proper credentials? Is something off about his appearance? Maybe he isn’t neurotypical enough to engage other people normally. Maybe he flunked history in tenth grade. Maybe he has tattoos on his face. What are the criteria for dismissing someone’s ideas? Likewise, what are the correct criteria for believing the words of a newspaper? The aesthetics of the presentation cannot be the answer, and yet they succeed. They do not need to convince upper-class ‘citizens’ of the ancient Roman sort. They only require the credulity of the majority.

What could you say today, that would receive “you-have-three-heads” looks, even from intelligent people of sound character? Are they so obviously false as to invalidate discussion? Are they automatically guilty? Does there remain a reasonable doubt? Like Juror Number Eight, can we weigh the evidence and put our biases aside?

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