Back in November 2014 a new podcast was taking the world by storm. It was barely 2 months old at the time, but Serial, a new podcast from the creators of This American Life, hosted by Sarah Koenig, become the biggest podcast hit ever. Here’s how their website describes the show…
Serial will follow one story – a true story – over the course of a whole season. We’ll follow the plot and characters wherever they take us and we won’t know what happens at the end of the story until we get there, not long before you get there with us. Each week we’ll bring you the latest chapter, so it’s important to listen in order, starting with Episode 1.
In typical fashion of other extraordinary storytelling podcasts (like my all-time favorite, now retired show, The Story with Dick Gordon), Serial has superior production elements, but mostly a compelling story.
It’s Baltimore, 1999. Hae Min Lee, a popular high-school senior, disappears after school one day. Six weeks later detectives arrest her classmate and ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for her murder. He says he’s innocent – though he can’t exactly remember what he was doing on that January afternoon. But someone can. A classmate at Woodlawn High School says she knows where Adnan was. The trouble is, she’s nowhere to be found.
The case of this first season of Serial focuses on a single accuser named Jay. Jay tells police a story with vivid details about how Adnan murdered his ex-girlfriend, Hae. Without any DNA or other hard evidence, a jury quickly convicts him of first-degree murder. Is Jay telling the truth? What about the other testimony that came out during the trial. Sarah, the host of the show, reveals how so-called facts can be used and misused when accusations are made.
Is Jay a false accuser? Adnan is in a Maryland maximum-security prison. There’s not much he can do about it other than continue to proclaim his innocence. Well, there’s actually quite a lot more he can do inside his own head. He can grow increasingly angry, bitter, resentful, and cynical. Who could blame him?
Why Do People Falsely Accuse?
It’s ancient going back to the beginning. According to the Genesis record of the Old Testament, the first false accusation was the devil, disguised as a serpent, lying about God to Adam and Eve. God warned them to not eat of the tree in the midst of the Garden, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God pronounced the punishment, “Thou shalt surely die.” With the insertion of one word – “not” – the devil falsely accused God by telling them they would not die. Since then, the number of false accusations is beyond our ability to compute. Christians understand the biblical truth that Christ was crucified on the basis of false accusations. The Bible says it was for envy.
In the Old Testament, the 9th commandment of the 10 is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” Then why do people do it?
I don’t claim to be smart enough to know all the reasons, but I think we’ve all got quite a few good ideas based on our own experiences, the experiences of friends or family, and all the stories we’ve heard or read.
Judas betrayed Christ for some money. That continues to be a big player for some I think. Greed and covetousness are major drivers for lots of people. It’s manifested in divorce courtrooms all across the world I suppose. And like that sound clip from Serial, people can use kernels of truth mixed in with gobs of deceit to spin an accusation that will play to their favor. In an ugly divorce battle where the husband wants to hang onto more of his wealth and the wife wants to gain more of it…both can amplify the negative behaviors of the other. Dollars drive deceit.
Finger-pointing isn’t just child’s play. Grown up’s do it, too. All the stories we’ve seen on TV of the cellmate who enters a courtroom saying he heard a confession that never happened. He testifies against the defendant in exchange for a lighter sentence or some other benefit.
Sometimes finger-pointing can be even more sinister when the guilty person deflects their own bad actions by falsely accusing somebody else. It smacks of a bit like what defense attorneys call “plan B” – the practice of giving a judge or jury another plausible scenario involving somebody other than their client.
Hatred and other emotions can drive some to falsely accuse a person. Jealousy, envy, contempt, vengeance, and every other negative emotion you can name have been drivers behind false accusations.
But the real reason – the bottom line behind why people falsely accuse others is pretty straightforward…to harm them. False accusers are determined to inflict harm and pain on the people they accuse. The more specific reasons and motivations aren’t terribly important I don’t suppose because, in the end, it’s all about harming somebody. And it’s made worse because it’s all based on deceit and lies.
Suffering Wrongly vs. Suffering Rightly
Governments exist to maintain order and punish wrongdoers. Sometimes they get it wrong. The Innocence Project defines itself as a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. According to their website, they’ve been able to exonerate 321 people since they began in 1992. Governments sometimes get it wrong.
But they don’t always get it wrong. Guilty criminals are convicted daily for their crimes. If society is dangerous, it’s made much safer because some people suffer rightly. They deserve it.
False accusations disrupt the system of justice. Instead, people suffer wrongly, undeserving of their punishment.
1 Peter [3:17] “For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing than for evil doing.”
As bad as it would be to suffer under a false accusation, that’s better than suffering because you’re guilty. If the main character in Serial, Adnan, is innocent and stuck in prison…that’s awful. But if he’s guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend, that’s worse.
This doesn’t make suffering easier. In many ways, it makes it more difficult. You know you’re not guilty when you’re falsely accused, but others may not know it or believe it. Coping with the injustice is hard. I know. It’s happened to me before. And I don’t mean all those idiotic teenage drama sessions or pre-teen versions. Kids aren’t the most perceptive people on the planet. That makes the story of this season’s Serial podcast even more disturbing. The people involved were 17 years old or so when this drama unfolded. We’ve all see it and maybe even been part of it. Thankfully for most of us, those youthful dramas aren’t as serious as a murder charge.
When you’re a kid the stakes seem high ’cause you’re a kid. All you know is what you know and you don’t know what you don’t know. Your view of the world is pretty small really. That makes a false accusation – “Randy likes Sarah” – when Randy doesn’t like Sarah, seems like a devastating thing. In real-time, it is. A few years later it’s laughable though.
Kids can be cruel, but adults tend to behave far more sinister when it comes to false accusations. The stakes can be much higher, too. Careers can be ruined. Marriages, too.
Things Aren’t Always What They Seem
A man goes to lunch with a group of women from work. It’s completely innocent. Until a friend of his wife sees them and lets her imagination run free. At one point during the meal the group is laughing and in a single instance, the man puts his hand on one woman’s forearm. He doesn’t grab it. He just barely touches it. Before he gets home that evening his wife’s friend will have reported the incident to his wife, driving her suspicions to question him when walks in the door. Shocked that anybody would dare think he’s acting inappropriately with a co-worker or that he’s behaving badly toward his wife by flirting with other women, he attempts to convey what properly happened.
A joke was told by the woman seated to his right. As the table was laughing he reacted by what he describes as “pushing her arm” in a gesture used by many people so as to say, “Stop it.” Besides, he argues, how crazy would a man have to be to dine with 3 female co-workers and publicly behave inappropriately with any of them? Well, his wife is overly sensitive and quite paranoid. And depending on how much he loves him or trusts him, this seemingly innocent lunch can quickly spiral out of control. I know because such things have happened to men I’ve known. No, not me. I don’t eat lunch, silly!
Haven’t you seen something or heard something and drawn an incorrect conclusion? Sure. Everybody who is old enough to have any self-awareness at all has done it. We hear a fragment of a conversation and assume people are talking about one thing, only to find out they’re talking about something completely different. It happens. And we feel foolish when we find out we had it all wrong.
Now, think of the times that such things might be happening, but we never find out we have it wrong. We walk away thinking we know exactly what they were talking about. Maybe we repeat it to somebody. Then they tell somebody. All the while, we’re all spreading something that is completely inaccurate.
Sometimes People Convince Themselves They Know The Truth
But sometimes they’re wrong. People have the capacity to convince themselves of many things. Remember, men used to think the world was held by Atlas whilst standing on a turtle. Then sophistication kicked in and they thought it was flat a much better truth. Okay, don’t hate me for using two more Bible verses, but I must because they fit.
Isaiah [40:22] “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.”
Job 26:7 “He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.”
Oh, if men had only read their Bibles they’d have known. But instead, it seemed wiser to create a truth and wasn’t the truth at all. And so it goes with delusions and suppositions. We’re sometimes convinced we absolutely know the truth. Sometimes we’re wrong.
Dealing With False Accusers Requires Understanding Context
I’ve never been hauled off to jail and been charged with a crime. When you’re falsely accused and arrested, that’s in a category that’s far more serious than anything I’ve endured. But if it happened, I’ve watched enough cop shows to know I would not open my mouth except to say, “I want my lawyer.”
Then I’d do whatever I had to in order to secure the services of the biggest, baddest criminal defense attorney around. I wouldn’t want just anybody. Not if my freedom was at risk. I would not rely on my innocence to bring me a victory. Again, I’ve seen too many cop shows to know that doesn’t always work out. I’d mortgage everything I own to defend myself so I could stay out of prison. And so I could defend myself from a wrongful conviction. Even then, I might find myself behind bars. It happens. But you’ve gotta give it your best shot, right?
Thankfully, most of us don’t have to endure that degree of false accusation. We suffer at much lower levels, involving much less risk.
Somebody at work says something about us. They falsely accuse us. What do we do? What should we do?
Well, it depends on what it is and the context of it. I mean, if I’m accused of stealing somebody’s parking space once and that accusation was made by one co-worker to another in casual conversation…I’m ignoring it. Why respond and pick a fight? It just doesn’t seem worth it.
If I’m accused of stealing office supplies by a co-worker who submits a written report to a supervisor about it, I’m lining up my defenses and going on the attack.
For me, I guess false accusations made against me involve a few factors.
1. How serious is the charge?
I know people get wrapped around the axle of justice and all that, but do you really want to devote your entire life to answering every false accusation? I just don’t think it’s profitable to treat them all equally, so I don’t.
If the charge is serious, then I weigh that. If it’s insignificant, I don’t even bother to weigh it. I just let it go.
2. To whom is the false accusation made?
Is it closely held by one person to another? Is it more widespread? Again, if it’s insignificant I’m likely to not care how widespread. But I’m going to likely consider one more factor first.
3. What are the consequences?
Sometimes molehills turn into mountains because we fail to do what Barney Fife was always urging Andy Griffith to do.
Even innocuous false accusations can mushroom out of control until we extinguish them early. Consequences are mostly determined by the first two factors. A seemingly minor false accusation may require some proactive handling because of the scope of people involved. This is where wisdom in judgment helps. Carefully survey the people involved, the magnitude of the accusation, and the potential downsides to letting it linger.
A Clear Conscience Laughs At False Accusations”
That’s a popular notion, but I don’t agree with it. There’s nothing funny about false accusations. And many times we’d better do a lot more than laugh at them if we’re going to properly handle them. It’s like so many little ditties that sound smart but are really stupid. For a long time I’ve thought of doing an entire show on nothing other than the things people say that sound smart, but really aren’t. Right off the top of my head, I can think of 3 that you hear all the time.
“Life is a journey, not a destination. The journey is the reward.”
Really? I don’t think so.
Counterpoint: Go on vacation and tell the kids to enjoy the trip more than arrival to Disneyland. They know that’s not right. You do, too. That’s why you can’t wait to get there!
“If I can do it, anybody can.”
It depends on who you are. We’re not all created equally. Einstein discovered some things that I couldn’t. I’m betting you couldn’t either.
“It’s always darkest before dawn.”
Here in Texas, we get thunderstorms and tornados. It can get dark quickly. Then comes the thunder and lightning. We rank right behind Florida in injuries and death from lightning strikes. But high winds and tornados are more devastating.
It’s dark before the storm. And besides, before dawn, the skies always grow lighter…not darker.
Well, that’s how it is with this witty phrase about laughing at false accusations. Adnan of the Serial podcast appears to have a clear conscience, but no amount of laughing is going to get him released from a prison sentence. We’d all be foolish to simply dismiss every false accusation. That doesn’t mean we jump on all of them like a famous brand might defend even the slightest trademark infringement. Some fights just aren’t worth it. But others are! Some false accusations can eat you alive. Others just annoy the snot out of you.
Once I was facing a false accusation from somebody who believed the earth was flat. There was no convincing him otherwise. And the hardest part about it was that it didn’t involve a specific false accusation. In fact, the person refused to say what it was he had against me. He simply objected to my being approved for something because he “knew things.” I went to him privately asking him to tell me what I had done so I could make it right. Nope. He refused. I invited somebody to mediate and sit down with both of us. This poor person tried for more than an hour – and I did, too – to facilitate a peaceful remedy. Again, the person refused to budge. He still objected but without any specific accusations. Eventually, I just had to let it go. I didn’t know what else to do.
During this time my son, who was still living at home, was talking with me one day. We were talking about the topic of being falsely accused of things. I told him what I believe is true and wise.
If you’re going to do anything to make a difference, you’re going to upset people. People are going to aim arrows at you. But the option to do nothing just doesn’t work. So prepare to defend yourself if you must and grow thick skin.
It’s been over twenty years since my son and I had that conversation, but nothing has changed my mind. I still think it’s the way to go. For me, it’s no longer about justice or injustice. It’s about being able to do the right thing and refusing to let the false accusers get in your way. Sometimes people and things get in your way. You just have to find your way around those hurdles and keep doing what you know is right.
Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you and your family are well.