Saturday, December 10, 2011

To live peacefully together, we some times have to step back

Despite what you believe is right or wrong on a personal level, in a civil society you sometimes need to step back. Two different stories from the news make the case, even if they aren’t alike. One is institutional, the Supreme Court Justice’s responsibility to the community. It is a case involving a defendant’s right to face his accuser. The other is about an individual’s community responsibility. It involves a woman working in a department store that gets fired for her actions.

On the institutional level, Sandy Williams was convicted of rape in Chicago (Williams v Illinois). He was arrested on a separate charge and police had taken a DNA sample from him. Evidence on the rape case was gathered from the victim and was sent to a lab in Maryland. The lab created a profile from the evidence that included DNA. The DNA from Williams and the rape case matched. Based on this evidence, Williams was then picked out of a line by the victim. At the trial, no one from the lab was called to testify about the examination of the evidence, because the prosecutors thought it too expensive to bring someone from the lab. Williams was convicted and given a life sentence.

Williams’ defense lawyers appealed and took the case to the Supreme Court. Their argument is, that since the prosecution didn’t have the person who did the test at the Maryland lab testify, Williams wasn’t given his right to face his accusers. The court sat for oral arguments and the case will be decided in the spring.

It appears that Williams is guilty. The evidence points to him and the woman identified him. The justices on the court are aware of the facts. Yet, they can’t just say, “he is guilty and don’t let this misstep of justice happen again.” They need to step back from the situation and determine if he did receive a fair trial. Not just for him, but as guidance in the future for all the similar cases. (A ruling for the defendant in this case may mean that not only does he go free, but many others like him will also.)

The other situation is about the clash between an individual’s personal beliefs and the society around them.

At a major department store, a transgender woman finds an outfit she would like to try on in the fitting room. When she asked the clerk, Natalie Johnson, to use the fitting rooms, the woman was told that she couldn’t use the women’s fitting room. Johnson said that even though the woman had make-up on and wore women’s clothes, she was not a woman because of her appearance, say she had a beard. Johnson was fired the next day after a long meeting with her superiors.

Johnson is a Christian and followers her faith very closely. She felt that by letting the woman use the women’s fitting rooms she would be violating her faith.

“I had to either comply with Macy’s or comply with God,” Johnson said. She is a 27 year old student at San Antonio College. Johnson is also a member of Tabernacle of Prayer, a nondenominational church.

When Johnson was asked to help the woman use the fitting rooms, she should have stepped back for a moment. It may indeed violate her faith and the evidence that she observed may have been correct. Johnson should have found someone else to help the woman or directed her to another department.

People in civil societies and cultures don’t peacefully co-exist based on narrowly defined social norms. They live peacefully by stepping back and allowing others to make their own choices – as long as those choices, of course, don’t purposely injure someone else. Individuals do this not only so others may live the lives they choose, but also that the individual can live their life. This is true for the institutions that we create to help facilitate the goals of the community but also for each of the individuals that live in the community.

It can sometimes be inconvenient at best and ugly at worst. But, this is at the core of a responsible community. It is the individual and the community sharing the responsibility to help insure that everyone can fulfill their personal and community lives.


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