Sunday, May 11, 2008

A question of Innocence

On her blog, One Lap Around The Sun, Julie Morrison posed the question, “What is innocence?” I thought this was a good question – had, in fact, worked through this issue a few years ago, and without a satisfactory answer.

Here’s what I thought at the time, and a few of the pitfalls I encountered. Maybe, with your help, together we can at least point this question in a better direction.

Let’s start with our old friend, Noah Webster. He defines innocence as following; “(a) a freedom from guilt or sin through being unacquainted with evil: (b) chastity: (c) freedom from legal guilt of a particular crime: (d) freedom from guile or cunning: (e) lack of knowledge.”

So, okay, that all looks good. But one thing is left out of the equation, and that’s perception. Webster says innocence is “being unacquainted with evil.” (Point a). But isn’t the perception of evil subjective? For example, we consider slavery to be evil, but we didn’t always feel that way. Were the founding fathers of this country evil?

Here’s another question regarding perception. A few years ago there was a backlash by Christians against the Harry Potter books. Many people argued that these were occult in nature. (And several of these same people argued that Halloween falls under the same heading.) At the time I was interested in these questions, and read every article and book I could find which addressed these issues. Here was the (general) conclusion. The Harry Potter books are evil if you think they are evil. In other words, if you read something that in your mind you consider as evil, then it is evil. (Point e) Although I thought this response was simplistic, there was a grain of truth here.

Here’s another way to look at it; a person who is naked is regarded as anywhere from pornographic to embarrassing, at any rate lacking in chastity. (Point b) But a nude person is considered to be Art. You could say I’m arguing semantics here, but I’m not. I’m arguing perception.

In this same regard, you can’t even use the Bible as a reference point. (Point c). In Matthew 5 it says that “everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court …” In other words, our debate here is seemingly moot – no one is innocent.

And that, my friend, is as far as I got. Where innocence is concerned, my vague and unsatisfactory conclusion is that this quicksilver quality is largely illusion. A specific society in a specific country at a specific time determines what or who is innocent within the framework of that society, at and in that time and place. And this society as a whole is made up of cell groups – perhaps a large number of them. In turn, each cell is membered by individuals, each with personality scarred by both heritage and experience.

Is innocence, then, like beauty, determined in the eye of the beholder?

What do you think?


Julie Morrison said...

Pondersome. I liked the direction. These questions make it all the more difficult to protect, yes?

Nicki said...

I would agree with your idea that it's a matter of perspective. I know for my own part I felt a lot more "innocent" than a lot of my friends for a long time--I kept some of my childlike enthusiasm for events and meeting people and I wasn't worried about material things the way I am now. That's when I started to feel old, when I couldn't work up the same level of excitement about stuff, and when I started to worry about things.

I thought about this for a short story I wrote about a woman who can see unicorns in modern times. Traditionally, only virgins could see unicorns--but there must also be an element of pureness to the person. I thought a lot about how one could move through life and be an adult but still be pure enough to see unicorns, and I came to the conclusion there must be some kind of sheltering device, whether it's other people, or enough money so you don't have to worry or not a lot of exposure to the news, to keep that attitude. Because, as we all know too well, once innocence is lost, that's it.