Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and Herzog’s “On the Absolute, Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth” both discuss a fundamental part of human experience: the search for truth. Plato’s work makes it clear how our understanding of the world is limited by the way in which we perceive it. If all we can see are shadows, then that’s all we can know. As we’ve discussed in this class before our sensory systems are not perfect. Our brains do not take a photograph of the world and imprint it. We are, in fact, bounded by our need for emotional salience (ask me after class and I’ll talk your ear off of the neuroscience behind the role of emotion in sensationg, perception, and memory), creating a necessarily biased view of the world. Similarly, Herzog makes the distinction between the facts of a situation and the truth of it.
The Thin Blue Line (1988) is a documentary about the arrest of an innocent man for a cop’s murder in 1976. There are two main characters in the film and the crime, Randal Adams and David Harris. In the beginning of the film, the filmmakers make sure to appear objective. First Adams gets to state his opinion, then Harris, and then the many cops who believed Adams was the murderer. However, as the film progresses, there are many choices that make it clear that the filmmakers believe in Adams’ innocence. By participating in this progression, the film allows for the viewers’ sense of skepticism (Of course an accused man will plead innocence, but that doesn’t make it a fact), while eventually convincing them of the filmmaker’s version of truth.
This film very clearly shows the difference between objective facts and perceptual truths. Adams’ lawyers provide the version of the truth that appears to be most closely tied to the facts of the situation. They sit their, dumbfounded that others’ couldn’t see the logical progression from the real facts of the case to the truth that it was Harris and not Adams who killed the policeman. They are the ones’ to point out the biases inherent in the case. The facts were that Adams was a 29 year old man with no history of violent or criminal behavior, and no true tie to the gun or the car, and Harris was a 16 year old boy with a violent past and a stolen car. However, the truth of the situation, as told by the lawyers’, was that a cop’s murder deserves the death penalty, and a 16 year old would not, at this time, be tried as an adult.
The police never mistrust their beliefs throughout the film. For them, it is the truth that Adams committed this crime. As the viewer, we see this belief distort their perceptions of Adams’ behavior. They claim he seemed heartless and unemotional, as if they were talking about something meaningless instead of a cop’s death. They claim this reaction means he had no remorse, that he was a cold-blooded killer. However, without the assumption of his guilt, what that might mean is that he had nothing to do with the killing. Our biases lead to our perception of truth. Our understanding of man’s behavior is colored by our own behavior and emotions.
Even more disturbing is David Harris’ truth. When he kills a man after breaking into the man’s house and kidnapping his girlfriend, he blames it on the man himself. It was the man’s fault for coming after him with a gun. Towards the end of the film he blames his father for his shortcoming, claiming that he felt unloved and his crimes were just a cry for attention. Finally, in the last scene, he makes it clear that he feels no guilt for Adams’ situation. He calls Adams an unlucky man, and says that maybe if Adams’ had let him stay at the hotel, none of this would ever happen. No matter what the facts say, for Harris the truth is that he is not responsible for these actions. He was pushed into them by other men’s actions, his lies were the result of injustices done to him. This kind of retelling of the truth suggests that Harris was not just a scared 16 year old. He was a young sociopath, ready to manipulate the world.
Apart from the story, I found my immediate negative reaction to Harris to be very interesting. From the first interview with him, it felt as if something was off. This is before he became the clear suspect in the case, before he made callous and unconscionable remarks. There was just something in the way his mouth moved, something in his eyes. For me, the truth was that he was guilty before I even knew the crime. Now, consciously, I told myself that this wasn’t fair, that I didn’t know what happened, perhaps he’s an innocent. Maybe I watch too many of these kind of documentary shows, maybe I’ve watched too many interviews with serial killers, and am therefore seeing the signs in too many places. But even if he was innocent of THIS crime (which he wasn’t), there was still something off. This is a phenomenon I have even in my real life, and from anecdotal evidence I assume many others do as well. However, it’s clear that not everyone does this. The cop who kept looking up and taking care of Harris is an example of this. No matter what Harris did, the cop would look kindly on him. He was just a troubled teen, deep down he was really good. He just couldn’t control is actions sometimes. I’ve received this is in real life as well. They’re not bad people, they just are troubled. They can’t control themselves, it’s not their fault. They’re just a scared 16 year old boy. But in many cases, they’re not. This poor, damaged 16 year old boy has a body count of 2 people, and purposefully accused the wrong man of his own crimes, leading to his incarceration. And, because of his version of the truth, he doesn’t feel a lick of remorse.
How do we know if our truths will lead to crimes such as these? Will the pursuit and focus on facts that is pervasive in our culture help or hinder this?