Brief remarks on the concept of Innocence

Let me say a few words about the concept of "innocence," as it plays a rather nasty role in promoting and justifying (state) violence. To sum up, I would argue that if you recognize that sentient beings have intrinsic value, you should stop throwing around this word, for the same reason you'd want to stop using the notion of "desert" or "merit". Let me explain.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the noting that relative to this or that action or event, person X or Y is not responsible for some harm, and thus "not guilty" slash "innocent". And if that were the only way the phrase was used, it would be fine to use it. The problem is that we've learned to turn this into a character trait or permanent classification, and that we've all been raised to use and accept judgments like "guilty" and "no innocent" as blank checks that justify violence, including institutionalized violence, in the form of marginalizing "guilty" parties. As such, thinking of or framing people as "innocent" -- or, conversely, as "lacking innocence" -- is dangerous, because it makes it very easy to either shut people up or dismiss them ("who are you to judge me?") or to justify redemptive or retributive violence, by pointing to the fact that those you intend to harm 'weren't innocent', and that they therefore 'had it coming', that we 'have to defend the group from people like that', and so on.

Let me illustrate this with a few examples.

Consider how the US treats people convicted of crimes. Their use as forced labor (with very few protections, terrible to no pay and other rights) is still legal, and as such, convicting people is a very effective way to deny people labor rights and decrease their bargaining power. Furthermore, because employers ask for your criminal record, and many refuse to hire you if you have one, being deemed "guilty" in a court permanently affects your job chances, income level, where and how you will live, and so on. And of course, gang violence and bullying in prisons is thought of as "normal", while being harmed in prison is considered "what you get" for "being a criminal."

Relatedly, consider how, as land was being claimed as property by the nobility, many protestant countries chose to criminalize "vagrancy" -- the state of not having a house or "respectable" source of income. The main reason they did so is (a) to stigmatize and inflict (further) violence on people evicted from the land and communities they used to live on or be a part of, and (b) because this allowed them to press people into service in the army or in 'India companies', to encourage them to sell themselves into indentured servitude in the new colonies, to forcibly ship them there, or to set them to work to build canals, the Dutch "peat colonies". Similarly, when someone does sex work, many of us find it very easy to shrug off violence against them as "part of the job" or "to be expected, given your choice of career". I.e., out of the conviction that some people don't really count because they "aren't innocent".

Or to take a more obviously odious example, consider how those who invaded and colonized the New World reasoned: 'because some natives engaged in ritualized cannibalism, we may destroy their culture and society (and by extension, the people), take their land, rule them, and use them as slaves.' (While the fact that colonists and conquerors perpetrated that violence on the indigenous population never disqualified all westerners for behaving that way.) Or more simply put, it was sold using headlines like 'innocent European settlers were attacked by backwards and aggressive natives! We must and may defend ourselves!".

And as a last example, note how we reflexively only talk about "women and children" as the "undeserving victims" of wars, while boys and men (and defenders) are almost never mentioned as victims of wars. This is because of an implicit assumption that they are "guilty" or "deserving" of any violence inflicted, because they are or were (potential) 'fighters,' and/or given that they had taken up arms in defense.

I hope this makes clear that the concept of "innocence" makes it very easy for people with violence or conquest in mind to justify or dismiss violence towards others as okay because "no innocents here", "they had it coming", or other forms of victim-blaming. So the question we should ask is: given its propagandistic uses, and how it's tied up with notions like karma (one way of selling moral accounting to people), entry to heaven or hell, and punishment as a way to 'teach people lessons,' does it have a place in an egalitarian world? My conclusion obviously is no, but much more important than answering questions, is asking them, and questioning it when others use these terms, to see if they are using it honorably.

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