It’s Halloween, as if the news of the past week were not scary enough. Pipe bombs to Democratic leaders. The largest massacre of Jewish people in on American soil in history. The murder of two black senior citizens by a white supremacist in Kentucky. Now let’s add to it with this nightmare scene from Idiocracy. Full disclosure: We’re covering technology as old as civilization here, so there won’t be any screen interfaces.
Joe is wheeled into the courtroom in a cage. There is a large gallery there, all of whom are booing him. One throws his milkshake at the accused. Others throw trash. The narrator says, “Joe was arrested for not paying his hospital bill and not having his IPP tattoo. He would soon discover that in the future, Justice was not only blind, but had become rather retarded as well.”
Joe is let out of his cage. The judge, identified by his name plate as The Honorable Hector “The Hangman,” stands at his bench in a spotlight in front of a wall of logos, grinning in anticipation at a new victim. He slams a massive gavel and shouts at the booing crowd, “Listen up! Now. I’m fixin’ to commensurate this trial here. [All of this is sic.] We gon’ see if we can’t come up with a verdict up in here. Now. Since y’all say y’ain’t got no money, we have proprietarily obtained you one of them court-appointed lawyers. So, put your hands together to give it up for Frito Pendejo!”
Frito, wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt with “ATTORNEY AT LAW” running down the sleeve, sits and looks at a paper on the counsel table, saying “Says here you, uh, robbed a hospital?! Why’d you do that?” Joe says, “But I’m not guilty!” Frito replies, “That’s not what the other lawyer said.”
When the trial officially starts, the judge says, “Shut up. Shut up! Now, prosecutor. Why you think he done it?” The prosecutor stands up and says, “K. Number one, your honor. Just look at him.” Most everyone in the courtroom, including, Frito, laughs at this. Frito stands up and says, “He talks like a fag, too!” When more laughter dies down, the prospector continues, saying, “We’ve got all this, like, evidence, of how, like, this guy didn’t even pay at the hospital and I heard that he doesn’t even have his tattoo.” There are collective gasps. He continues, “I know! And I’m all, ‘You gotta be shitting me.’ But check this out, man, judge should be like, ‘Guilty!’ Peace.” The gallery erupts with applause and cheers. There is one guy wearing a helmet with a camera mounted to the top and he takes it all in dumbly.
When Frito stands to raise an objection, he says, “Your honor, I object…that this guy, also broke my apartment and shit.” There are gasps from the gallery, and Frito feels emboldened. “Yeah! And you know what else, I object that he’s not going to have any money to pay me after he pays back all the money he stole from the hospital!” This last bit is addressed to the gallery. They shout in anger. Frito finishes, saying, “And I object. I OBJECT that he interrupted me while I was watching, OW, MY BALLS! THAT IS NOT OK! I REST MY CASE.”
Joe stands and says, “Your Honor, I’m pretty sure we have a mistrial, here, sir.” Hector looks confused at this statement. Frito gets hostile and says, “I’m going to mistrial my foot up your ass if you don’t shut up!”
Joe ignores him and says, “Please listen!” The prosecuting attorney simply mocks him, “Please listen!” Hector laughs. The lawyers high five each other.
The narrator says, “Joe stated his case, logically and passionately. But his perceived effeminate voice only drew big gales of stupid laughter. Without adequate legal representation, Joe was given a stiff sentence.”
For most Americans, the drafting and adjudication of laws feels like something that happens “out there.” But upholding the law is something that, through jury duty or being part of a court case, is something most citizens directly experience some time in their lives. So it may seem like familiar, everyday stuff.
But take that less trodden path to ask why it is the way it is, and you’ll eventually find yourself at the foundations of civilization and in the throes of philosophy. A key premise and promise of civilized society is having a fair and rational place for citizens to air grievances, and institutions that make and enforce just laws. In practice it’s far from perfect, but I’d bet most folks agree it’s better than the alternatives of lawlessness, personal violence, revenge, tribal feuds, and vigilantism.
Laws and courts are institutions that are so old and foundational, it’s hard to remember that:
- They were, in fact, invented. There was a time before them.
- There were reasons for the way they were designed.
- Their design, like all designs, aren’t perfect, and involve some trade offs.
- They evolve over time.
- There are alternate designs to consider.
Idiocracy illustrates how important its norms are, and how tragic it can be when those norms are lost, and everyone involved is a fucking idiot. It’s not exactly monster rampage, body horror, or torture porn, but this scene is as scary a thing as you could ask for Halloween.
Violence as a means
Frito threatens violence a lot. So do a lot of the people in Idiocracy. I’m not even sure if they mean it, but they think that threatening or beating or shooting someone into silence is a fine way to disagree. One of the key promises of civilization is to undo that might-makes-right bullshit that kept generations of peasants suffering while an aristocracy lived the high life peeing in hallways, flubbing courtly love, and stuffng birds into each other like meaty nesting-dolls. We’ve moved on.
It’s funny-terrifying that the case made against Joe is so stupid. There are crass appeals to emotion. Prosecution says that there’s “all this, like, evidence” but does not actually share any, like, evidence. Frito riles the Gallery up with insults “he talks like a fag” and personal grievances that aren’t germane to the case. (Ow My Balls! should not be evidence in, well, anything.) It’s emotional theater and the audience eats it up, because what they’re there for is hits to the amygdala bong: The emotional highs and lows that you might get from a sports show. People screaming in cheers when their confirmation bias is rewarded, or fury when there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance. There’s probably nothing like a Fair Witness left on the planet, and if it weren’t for Joe’s intelligence that gets him out of jail, he would wind up suffering in prison for no reason at all. The lack of skepticism, of applying doubt to all things—especially the things that thrill you emotionally—causes unnecessary suffering. Sure, it’s an unjust universe, but civilization was invented to try and hold a little light against that darkness. The citizenry of Idiocracy are gullible and blithely self-serving to a cruel fault.
The system that pits prosecution against defense and presumes is called “adversarial,” since each counsel will present opposing cases to an impartial judge or jury, who is presumed competent to sort through the competing claims to come to the truth. It’s contrasted with an inquisitorial (or nonadversarial) system where the judges run the line of inquiry. Congressional hearings, for example, are much more of an inquisitorial system. Congresspeople ask the questions, rather than the lawyers.
The adversarial system depends on the impartiality of the judge and jury. If they presume guilt or innocence from the start, why have the trial at all? (This is sometimes called a kangaroo court, where procedure and ethics are ignored, and the outcome is a foregone conclusion.) Only dispassionate, neutral participants can look past their feelers to find a fair and impartial truth. You need people capable of impartial, critical thinking to look past the tricks and their own cognitive biases. That’s out the window in Idiocracy.
Joe is presumed guilty by literally everyone involved. It’s not wholly their fault. Joe is brought in wearing prison fatigues. He is wheeled in a cage. On the surface, he looks guilty. Humans have an availability bias, wherein easily recalled information is believed to be true and representative, and for very stupid people, that can be strictly what they see. And Joe looks guilty. Everyone around me is shouting that he’s guilty. So, the idiot thinks, he must be guilty.
Posers, surface evidence, and meaning
One of the worst things about the scene—and this plays out in the movie generally—is how people’s status is based on stupid, surface markers. For instance: Why do they accept that the judge is smart? Well, he uses fancy, “faggy” words like “commensurate” (It’s a malaprop. He means commence. But the Idiocrats are too stupid to know this.) and “proprietarily.” (I think he means “properly,” but it’s marvelously hard to tell.) Investigating this moves us very quickly into the semiosis treadmill, whereby a sign comes slowly to become the signified, even when it stupidly contradicts the original thing that was signified.
How do courts protect against idiocy?
It doesn’t always. But generally, there are lots of checks against incompetence. Anyone can request a mistrial if it’s shown that counsel, a judge, or a jury is incompetent, prejudiced, or doesn’t follow the rules. Lawyers can be reviewed and disbarred. Remedy for judges varies by state, but judges can be impeached, or undergo judicial review and be removed from their office. Their cases can be overturned by higher courts. (Yes, even that one.)
But notably all these presume that the incompetence is abnormal, and that others are competent to review and judge their competence. When everyone either gets so stupid or so corrupt that they have no interest in checking each other for fairness, the system just collapses.
Can design do anything?
This blog is primarily targeted at people who work in technology and love sci-fi. (Like I do.) A natural question is: Can design do anything to help inoculate courts against Idiocracy? And normally, I try to offer some hopeful answer to these questions, but this one has me stumped. What design interventions could we impose to increase skepticism? Impartiality? Critical thinking? Understanding? Seriously, if you have something, I’d love to hear it, because as of right now, I’ve got nothing.
How’s that for a Halloween scare?
Trick or Treat
Any Trump acolyte who has gleefully shouted “Lock her up! Lock her up!” at one of their farrowing-crate rallies, despite Clinton’s exoneration by the FBI, despite Trump’s own ongoing litany of scandals (including that ongoing issue of security), is guilty of this same kind of mob mentality as these morons in Idiocracy. It is all raw hate without reason. Hits from the tribalism bong. It’s not just that the mob hasn’t heard reason, it’s not interested in reason, only in justification. Only in thinking of political conversations as hobo fights. Did our guy land a hit? Insult? Hur dur, yarp.
It’s pretty soul crushing. So let’s have some spooky, escapist fun tonight for self-care. But as of tomorrow we’ll have 6 days and we should hit it hard.