Quote of the Day: WITNESS

March 10, 2019


To witness is to ignore as little as possible. Because a judgment so often impairs the ability to notice what doesn’t conform with it, the witness chooses for the time being to keep judgment at a distance.

If she watches a documentary about a singer’s alleged history of child abuse, she doesn’t fall back on the clichéd excuse that she couldn’t look away from it. She admits that she chose to look. Having chosen, she has a responsibility to herself to notice what she sees — the changing colors of the singer’s umbrellas as he goes each day into court, the leather chair in which the accuser sits before the camera.

It’s the thoughtless stare — agape, gawking, able to absorb only the most salacious aspects of the story — that leads to the quick high and nauseating crash of outrage. But the witness, by maintaining her sensitivity to these neutral details, and not only to the fraught allegations, breaks the habit of shaming and allows herself to fashion her own moral response.

Too often we may feel ourselves trapped in the jury box, but we put ourselves there, and we can choose instead to sit in the chair of the witness. Freed from the responsibility to deliver a verdict, our new role is to separate assumption from knowledge. Watching this way, whether on the page or on the street, releases us from the tyranny of our own estimations, even regarding people who have behaved in ways we might otherwise consider wicked.

It is a no less morally awake response than holding a person in judgment.

–Salvatore Scibona

illustration by Sarah Mazzetti

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