Commitment #8: Assumption of Innocence:
Even when others’ actions or words make no sense to me or frighten me, I want to assume a need-based human intention behind them. If I find myself attributing ulterior motives or analyzing others’ actions, I want to seek support to ground myself in the clarity that every human action is an attempt to meet needs no different from my own.
The assumption of innocence is not to be confused with condoning any behavior we see as harmful. I see no contradiction between assuming innocence and working to protect what is dear to us. Both Gandhi and MLK fully saw the full humanity of people they were resisting, insisting on loving them even while fighting.
Assuming innocence doesn’t mean a naïve belief that no one ever intends harm, only a way of continuing to see their humanity even when they do. Then we can understand the underlying experience and needs that might lead someone to want to harm, whether or not that person can know or recognize such needs, whether or not we’re even accurate.
The full embrace of the assumption of innocence, that radical practice of compassion, requires us to imagine ourselves into the experience of another, beyond attributing it to historical circumstances, psychological motives, or suffering. We are asked to really grasp and appreciate from within how a human could make the choice we find so hard to comprehend. For example, James Gilligan’s primary understanding of what leads people to acts of violence (in Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes) points him to shame. He doesn’t stop there. Without quite calling it a need, he sees violence, always as an attempt to right a wrong and create justice, however ill-conceived and fantastic the connection may be. My own inquiry had added dignity to the list, seeing shame as pointing to the intensity of the quest for dignity, which can, sometimes, override other needs and lead to extreme actions without care.
Excavating the humanity of another doesn’t mean I must choose to engage with, befriend or support that person. It only means that I will not give up on their humanity and the in-principle possibility of redemption and healing.
On a daily basis, choose someone – whether a head of state or your intimate partner – whose actions you currently judge. Imagine yourself as that person, having taken the action, and ask yourself what could possibly have led you to this choice, what human needs might be at play here. Leave no stone unturned until you can have a 3-dimensional understanding of that person. Then check your own heart, expand it and open it as far as you can to take in the human needs you have identified, to see the other person as similar to you rather than different. Start within your reach, and, over time, you may choose to take on greater and greater challenge in terms of who you choose. Ultimately, this practice can bring you to unity with everyone.
About the author:
Miki Kashtan is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication (BayNVC). She is inspired by the role of visionary leadership in shaping a livable future, and works toward that vision by sharing the principles and practices of Nonviolent Communication through mediation, meeting facilitation, consulting, and training for organizations and for committed individuals. Miki blogs at the Fearless Heart. Her articles have appeared in Tikkun magazine (e.g.Wanting Fully Without Attachment), Waging Nonviolence (e.g. Pushing the powerful into a moral corner at India’s Barefoot College), Shareable, and elsewhere.
New to this blog? Read Miki’s Introduction to this series ‘All -in: fully committing to a life of nonviolence’