The Benefits of Not Giving the Benefit of the Doubt


Teaching children to give others the benefit of the doubt is good parenting. Adults who give their neighbors and co-workers the benefit of the doubt are better citizens and lead happier lives than those who don’t.

Ordinary interaction between people is often subject to misinterpretation. Did that person rudely cut in front of me or did she think I wasn’t in line? Was I given a lousy seat because the hostess didn’t like me or was it a compliment that she thought I could add some life to the table with the dull in-laws? Was my boss intentionally ignoring me when we passed on the sidewalk or did he truly not notice me?

Misinterpretation is the coin of the realm whenever humans come into contact with one another. From the pulpit to sidewalk soap boxes, we are constantly told that giving the benefit of the doubt can heal a lot of egos and save a lot of emotional pain.

On another level, our legal system takes giving the benefit of the doubt to the extreme. Premised on the assumption that one is innocent until proven guilty, we force the state to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It is an essential component in life in these United States.

Should we have given Clippers owner Donald Sterling what we ourselves would like most to get—the benefit of the doubt? In a perfect world, maybe. But we are not perfect and the “rush to judgment” was, in this particular case, the right course of action.

Were we sitting in a philosophy class discussing moral imperatives as a purely intellectual exercise, we might posit that all men are entitled to “their day in court.” It troubles me (in theory) that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, acting as both judge and jury, gave into a mob mentality and metaphorically hung Mr. Sterling from the nearest oak tree with barely a smidgen of due process. Yet why do most of us agree that he did the right thing?

The right to confront one’s accuser; the right to a trial by one’s peers; the right to due process—each of these is essential to our legal system, the survival of the supremacy of the rule of law, and the vital role an independent judiciary plays in ensuring a just, equal, and free society. Theoretically, Commissioner Silver cast those important safeguards aside.

Of course, if you go by the book, Donald Sterling broke no local or federal laws. (In fact, the gal who recorded his conversation and leaked it to the press probably did violate California statutes regarding two-party permission to record conversations). But he broke a higher law, and for that he needed to be punished harshly and swiftly. By uttering those words  — and getting caught — he abdicated his right to the benefit of the doubt.

The purist in me wants every American to get the benefits of due process, equal protection, and his day in court. And I cringe (though I don’t know the specifics of the NBA bylaws) at the prospect of any man—no matter how odious his actions—being deprived of his private property at the whim of the mob. And hey, we cherish freedom of speech in this country and assume that Mr. Voltaire’s dictum, “I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” is applicable here.

Repugnant as it was, Sterling had the right to say whatever he wanted. That being said, the league also has the right to say, “This is unacceptable. You can say what you want, but you can’t continue to be a member of our club—and because, in accordance with our bylaws, we can fine you up to $2.5 million, we will.”

Now, Mr. Sterling may fight all this in court. He may win. Maybe no one can force him to sell his team. If he doesn’t pay his fine, what are they going to do? Kick him out of a league he is no longer a part of?

But all of that is besides the point. Mr. Sterling’s words were symbolic—and Commissioner Silver’s punishments were just as symbolic.

Symbolism matters in any civil community. Had Silver waffled, that too would have carried symbolic significance.

The punishments may not stand up in a court of law, but they triumphed in the court of public opinion—and that’s where this ugly side of human nature is being played out. In America, you won’t be hauled off to the gulag for offensive remarks (Jesse Jackson’s comments about “Hymie Town” come to mind). But when you hit a nerve and members of the community have the power to institute social retribution, they are entitled to do it.

Much as we might want to, we cannot hang Mr. Sterling by the thumbs in a civil society. But at least we can do it metaphorically and (hopefully), in the NBA’s case, financially. The ancients knew the societal power of banishment and exile. It can be worse than a jail cell.

Commissioner Silver exercised good judgment by acting swiftly and decisively. It doesn’t happen often, but this is a classic case where the exception proves the rule. On rare occasions, there are major societal benefits from refusing to give someone “the benefit of the doubt.”




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  1. Mountain Mike Inactive
    Mountain Mike

    And what if Stirling  had said: No pictures with Mexicans? Or Chinese? We know the world would have fallen if he said No Gays.  Where does it end?  No Democrats!  No Jews!

    Exactly where is the line?

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  2. user_924313 Inactive

    What is frightening here is the power that a well-coordinated media mob has to absolutely destroy someone accused of racism. The left is actively extending that power to delegitimize those who believe in traditional marriage, religious believers and, in fact, all of conservatism as merely the political expression of racism. The legal system offers no protection from this kind of mob.

    One can fear and loathe this dynamic without having an ounce of sympathy for the cretinous Donald Sterling.

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  3. Contributor

    Mountain Mike:

    And what if Stirling had said: No pictures with Mexicans? Or Chinese? We know the world would have fallen if he said No Gays. Where does it end? No Democrats! No Jews!

    Exactly where is the line?

     The line (be definition) can never be defined before hand.  It is defined by the vox popoli’s response to the outrage.  When Jesse Jackson talked about Hymie Town, it wasn’t offensive to enough people to make a difference.  Mr. Sterling’s remarks were extremely offensive to the powers that be–i.e. the players and sponsors (read monied interests).  It was clear there were going to be boycotts and withdrawn sponsorships, meaning losses of gazillions of dollars if the NBA waffled.  

    Granted that makes for a meek moral imperative–i.e. Mr. Silver did the right thing because big bucks were involved–but at least the right thing was done.  One could argue that we’re headed down a slippery slope–letting mob rule dictate our moral actions–but I’m not sure.  Sometimes, a good “punch in the snoot” is necessary–even though that violates certain codes of civilized behavior. 

    Again, in a perfect world, Mr. Sterling deserved his “day in court.”  But like someone who rudely insults your wife at a party, or attempts to molest a child, the punch in the snoot is more powerful than the long drawn out legal battle.  Civil societies cannot due without (too many double negatives?) physical short cuts at times.

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  4. user_494971 Contributor

    Disagree in the entirety.

    We give everyone the protection of due process because that’s the only way to give everyone the protection of due process. We’ve all seen the cop show where the bad guy’s caught at the end, but he makes one last reach for his gun, and the good guy cop is forced to gun him down. It works because he’s a bad guy and we know he’s the bad guy, but real life isn’t always that certain. We hear about no-knock SWAT raids on the wrong house, the homeowner’s a veteran who reaches for his gun when he hears someone breaking in, and he ends up dead. Saves the taxpayer the expense of a lengthy trial.

    Not everyone accused of racism is going to be legitimately racist. Jumping on everyone accused of thought crime is a great way to ensure the left’s favorite debate strategy of “racist racist RACIST” remains effective for years to come. It might be justified in this case, but you’re excusing a terrible precedent.

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  5. user_494971 Contributor

    And seriously, we’re going to define racism as so beyond the pale that saying the wrong thing strips you of your right to due process? You know, we tried the Nazis at Nuremberg, and they went a damn sight further than just saying offensive things.

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  6. Eugene Kriegsmann Member
    Eugene Kriegsmann

    I don’t like Sterling or the things he said. However, I have heard them all before in one form or the other, sometimes reversed from a Black person speaking about Jews or Puerto Ricans or Asians. It’s ugly, tribal, and unfortunate. However, what is uglier is the Stalinist reaction that has been fostered by the media. Sterling has been turned into the poster child for Racism. He is the example for everyone to hate. He is also the example of what will happen to you  if you transgress the rules. Sow fear, reap compliance. This isn’t about Sterling or Racism. It is about making everyone afraid of being singled out and pilloried. It has a lot to do with the old custom of hanging a criminal in public or leaving a body in a gibbet at the crossroads. It has no place in a democratic republic.

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  7. user_316485 Member

    I don’t think Silver did anything other than cave to PC activists, and more importantly from his perspective, sponsors and advertisers. It was days away from causing monstrously large financial losses and PR damage to match. I wish he would have said as much.

    This may be a private versus governmental issue, but the precedent will damage NBA profoundly. Activists have already called for similar “investigations” and actions against other NBA owners who are against gay marriage.  Silver will regret this. And other pro sports owners better beware. It’s going to be ugly.

    By the way Stiviano sounded quite articulate and composed talking to B. Walters.  This could be interesting.

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  8. 3rd angle projection Member
    3rd angle projection

    All black coaches, players and staff should quit the Clippers yesterday. I mean if Sterling is a true racist then why would they accept his money?  Walk the talk. Staying there and drawing a paycheck from a bigot makes no sense. Quit. Today. Those who work for Sterling wear no chains. Walk away proud and move on.

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  9. Stad Coolidge

    Jeffrey Earl Warren: Commissioner Silver exercised good judgment by acting swiftly and decisively.

     Swift and decisive actions taken to solve complex problems (and trust me, this one can get very complex if it goes to court) are often the wrong actions.  If I were the Commissioner, I would have said “We are going to take our time, let the furor die down, then do a thorough investigation before we take any action.”  This would have given Mr. Silver enough time to consult with league attorneys, perhaps even Mr. Sterling’s attorneys (and his wife and son’s attorneys), and come up with a solution that avoids a prolonged battle.  I understand the need for the league to deal with the issue quickly from a publicity standpoint, but the fact is it could be worse publicity in the long run (think years) if the courts get involved.

    And yes, I don’t like Mr. Sterling one iota – BUT . . . he has rights.

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  10. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert

    What malarkey.  Warren, utterly wrong, wants it both ways.  What Sterling, an unsuspecting 80 year old, said to the bimbo who was trying to take him down was no violation of a higher law.  It was a put down.  

     “…don’t come to my games. Don’t bring black people, and don’t come.”   Biggggg Deeeeeal. The guy made his fortune as a lawyer, realtor, team owner. These are not diplomatic jobs. Subtlety is not his forte.  Yet he’s been commanded to sell  property, fined by a trade organization, humiliated.

    Perhaps he’s a racist, perhaps not, but he managed an achievement award from the NAACP.  It’s none of my business, none of the NBA’s business and none of Warren’s business whether or not he’s a racist and what he said to whom; he broke no laws and harmed no person by speaking.  

    Give Sterling the benefit of a doubt, stop blackening his name,  stop trying to make yourself look good by insisting, as Warren hypocritically does, that every vowel Sterling uttered is the equivalent of Mein Kampf.     Every writer who puts down Sterling for these few words is complicit.  

    Enough.  No Stalinism.  No thoughtcrimes.

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  11. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert

    “One can fear and loathe this dynamic without having an ounce of sympathy for the cretinous Donald Sterling.”

    You do it yourself.  Why is he cretinous?  He’s made a fortune with his mind over 60 years.  Have you?  This holier-than-thou response from the right is as nauseating as the leftist lynch mob.  Perhaps more so.  We’re supposed to know better.

    Sterling harmed no one.  He should be ignored, and Mr Silver should have said as much.  No more howling lynch mobs, no more Stalinism, no more thoughtcrimes.

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