Once a year I attend a local fund-raising event where the raffle promises “Everyone a Winner”. I buy my ticket knowing that very shortly I will be handed a bar of Lily of the Valley soap which was someone’s Christmas present, circa 1970, and which I shall generously hand back for inclusion in next year’s raffle.
We inherit traditions that tell us that we are all sinners. As a result, in the Catholic confessional there must be many dull days for the priest which nothing would brighten so much as the confession of a half-way decent sin. It must be very difficult not to hand back some of the sins offered. Maybe there is an online forum somewhere where priests can let off steam about time-wasting confessions, just as the police vent their exasperation by publicising examples of time-wasting 999 calls.
The tradition is not kept alive only, or mainly, by the Roman Catholic church; it is central to all evangelical versions of Christianity some of which expect us to make our confessions, however trivial, in public so that we can be Saved by someone who is probably engaged in serious financial or sexual misconduct or both. After all, we are all sinners.
Social media have been turned into an extraordinarily powerful vehicle for that doctrine, a space where no sin is too small to be publicised and “Called Out” by people who are usually no more than unpaid vigilantes for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice.
I’d like to put a stop to it all, but I confess, I don’t know how. Everyone a sinner? That’s uninteresting, in the way that We Are All Going To Die is uninteresting. What matters is when and how, and some whens and hows are more unfair, more cruel, than others.
The Roman Catholic church did do a half way decent job in trying to grade sins but Protestant versions of Christianity got their original impetus from insisting that it was important to lay on the guilt as thickly as possible, and that has become the modern consensus position. There is no escape from sin!
It now results, among other things, in the tendency for the number of legislated-for criminal offences to constantly expand. No one seems to realise that there may be some tension between creating a civilised society and creating one where every citizen is a criminal. If you are going to be criminalised anyway, why bother trying to be civilised? It’s the old dilemma: Why let yourself be hanged for a lamb when it could have been a sheep? It’s true, I agree, that there are some offences which should be on the statute books in order to indicate what counts as uncivilised behaviour - but which should rarely, if ever, be pursued.
It is damaging for the morale, and the sense of perspective, of the Police and the Courts if they are made to spend time dealing with what are called Minor Offences. Worse, it provides an excuse for the more indolent kind of police officer (the kind who traditionally did not pound the beat in Neasden) to avoid the unpleasantness involved in tackling Major Offences.
As a general rule, Minor Offences - like Minor Sins - should be ignored. But not only by the police. They should be ignored by the victims. Here is the argument.
A car or house insurance policy usually includes what is called an Excess. Below the amount you pick, you cannot make a claim and are expected to deal with the matter yourself. If your time is precious, this makes sense - who enjoys reporting things, filling in forms, answering questions, waiting for the reply? Not many of us and not me: ask me for an Excess figure and I will reply, “The highest possible”. If someone then scratches my car, I am perfectly satisfied if I can manage the kind of comment which, thanks to modern attempts to curb Sin, can now only be only be printed as, You ****! As for the targets of such linguistic virtuosity, they can take comfort in the fact that I am someone who is not going to make them report things, fill in forms, answer questions …. We can both forget about it and get on with our lives. (In truth, I am unlikely to have managed much more than an “Oh dear!” but I am trying here to appeal to an audience which may include the less virtuous).
When we are victims of crime, the sensible thing is to consult our personal Crime Excess. Is the offence to which I have been subject worth the cost of reporting it and dealing with the consequence of reporting it: making a statement, potentially going to court as a witness, and so on? Do I really want to go after the criminal? My answer tends to be, No. My culture expects me to say, Yes.
A few years ago my office was burgled, a door forced, some quite valuable things stolen - uninsured, of course. I had other worries at the time and thought, I can’t be bothered and the chances of the police finding my stuff are very small. So I did nothing and just got on with my life. Then a year later I got a phone call from a colleague: I’m looking at something in an auction which looks like something of yours. It was. The police had recovered it as “Proceeds of Crime” but did not contact me because I had not reported the loss. The police had consigned the material to auction, as they do. But it did have my name and contact details all over it, which is what alerted my colleague, who then helped me recover my stuff. I made a donation to a charity of his choice, since with no exertion on my part I had been helped to recover things worth a few thousand pounds. A very satisfactory outcome.
© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019. An earlier discussion of this theme is in my essay "Crimes and Punishments" included in The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2106)
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