When you watch "The People's Court" and similar programs, you are struck by how the litigants' primary goal is to justify themselves. People can be counted on to never, ever give a straight-down-the-middle factual account. Instead, they construct a faux reality in which their actions were reasonable and, indeed, obligatory. After their hearing with Judge Judy, interviewed outside the courtroom, even when they lose, litigants maintain their original claims as though the hearing and all that it revealed had never occurred.
Which brings us to Ariel Castro's testimony at his sentencing hearing in Cleveland Thursday. Castro had a tough job to justify his existence after kidnapping three girls -- Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Georgina DeJesus -- separately between 2002 and 2004 and holding them, as well as Berry's six-year old daughter by Castro, until they finally escaped in May of this year. During their captivity, Castro constantly raped and abused the women, while terminating one of the women's pregnancies. In a deal to avoid the death penalty, Castro pleaded guilty last week to 937 criminal counts, including murder.
Castro illustrated the extreme dimensions that human self-justification can take in a long, rambling statement that touched the following points and more:
1. I'm ill. "I'm not a monster. I'm just sick. I have an addiction, just like an alcoholic has an addiction." Castro said that he was addicted to masturbation and porn, and that sex drove him to the kidnappings.
2. I didn't commit the crimes. Although he pleaded to the charges, during his testimony Castro denied that he terminated one girl's pregnancy or that he abused or raped the women. This was after the court listened to the girls' and police's graphic testimony about Castro's psychological abuse and cruelty towards the women over roughly a decade. "God as my witness, I never beat these women like they're trying to say that I did. I never tortured them." Castro objected to being called a violent sexual predator. "I am not a violent person. I simply kept them there without being able to leave." After all, Castro argued, how much could he have abused the women if they survived!?
3. The girls asked for it. "Most of the sex that went on in that house, probably all of it, was consensual," Castro said. "These allegations about being forceful on them -- that is totally wrong. Because there was times where they'd even ask me for sex --many times. And I learned that these girls were not virgins. From their testimony to me, they had multiple partners before me, all three of them."
4. I'm a victim. Besides reporting that he himself was a victim of abuse, Castro blamed his former wife for his violent behavior: "I never had a record until I met my children's mother. My son was on there the other day saying how abusive I was but I was never abusive until I met her. And he failed to say that at the end before she passed away that them two weren't even talking."
5. It's the victims' fault. Castro's son Anthony said Castro beat him and his mother, who died in 2012. "What he's (Castro's son) saying, that I was a wife beater - that is wrong. This happened because I couldn't get her to quiet down. I would continuous tell her the children are right there, would you please? She would respond, I don't care if the children are there and she would just keep going...the situation would escalate until the point where she would put her hands on me and that's how I reacted, by putting my hands on her."
6. And these crimes aren't my fault. While he was at it, Castro blamed the police and the FBI for not making enough of an effort to find the girls.
7. I'm a good, stand-up guy. Castro said that he was "very emotional" and "a happy person inside." He more than once said that he wasn't making excuses for himself, and (probably thinking this would show what a nice guy he was) he apologized to the women for all the things he said during his statement that he hadn't done. Also, remember that Castro helped to look for the missing girls while comforting a victim's mother!
What made Castro's rationalizations so monstrous was the enormity of his crimes, not that he felt the need to justify himself. The urgency of self-justification can be viewed daily, repeatedly, in public and private life. For instance, on the same day that Castro gave his statement to the Cleveland court, Florida's commissioner of education, Tony Bennett, resigned after less than a year in his position.
I DO NOT MEAN TO COMPARE BENNETT'S MISDEEDS WITH CASTRO'S. But we can see the same process at work. In his previous position as Indiana's school chief, according to the Associated Press, Bennett allegedly insisted that a charter school run by a major Republican donor be given an A grade instead of the C it was initially assigned. (State funding depends on a school's A-through-F rating.)
According to The Christian Science Monitor:
Bennett said in a press conference that the accusation was "malicious and unfounded" and that he hoped there would be an investigation, but that he was resigning to avoid distraction to Gov. Rick Scott's education reform efforts in Florida.
Bennett has been a prominent member of Chiefs for Change, a coalition of reform-minded state school chiefs backed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, which put out statements of support for him this week. As an outspoken promoter of a certain brand of accountability, Bennett's supporters see him under attack by politically motivated opponents.
"The most important thing we ought to do is educate children," Bennett said Thursday, adding that he wished complex education policies could be discussed "without getting personal or assigning motive."
See what I mean?