I have been thinking lately about the plurality of meanings for the word conviction.
One reading of the word leads to images of quiet strength and courage. Rosa Parks, for example. I was pleased to learn—finally—that her act was not a snap decision of human weariness winning out over senseless laws but the fruit of the long growth of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement, of which she was a vital part. Wonderful that she sat, better still that such a force and solid movement of humane ethics and organization stood behind her actions.
I find it suspicious that I was taught, essentially, that she just “got tired” and sat down. Technically, that is a true statement, but the full story of what she was tired of wasn’t made explicit. That my education divorced her actions from premeditation, from her convictions, from the hard truth and long hours of preparation and planning and logistics and harnessed passion of a group of people who were compelled to break laws to obtain a better, more just existence. We assume, I think, that the legality of a law supplants the morality of the law. It takes a deep knowledge of one’s own truths, and an impressive amount of courage, to tell the difference. To me, this is the definition of conviction that pulls my best intentions back into my bones and allows for forward movement.
But, blink and read the word again and the images lead to courts and prisons and Australia and Abel Magwitch. For those who aren’t familiar, Abel Magwitch is a strangely glorious character from Dickens’s “Great Expectations.” He is a convict (embezzlement, debts, attempted murder, chained to a ship, etc.) whom Pip helps, out of fear of this wild, shackled man who attacks him in a graveyard. When Pip grows up, Magwitch returns and Dickensian high jinks ensue. I laughed out loud through “Great Expectations” so don’t want to spoil another word of it, but Magwitch’s morality is no simple matter.
I freely agree that there are horrible people who are guilty of terrible things. I’m not trying to dismiss all criminals and convicts as misunderstood by exploring the word conviction. But I do begin to wonder what is the relationship of truth and action and law and crime and punishment that meet in this word.
Last week, I mentioned the duality of conviction to a friend. It was in the context of an act of protest regarding climate change that he had participated in. (Specifically, he and another man used a small boat to block a large boat full of coal from docking and unloading at a coal burning power plant. Details about this are at: www.coalisstupid.org). Their action falls into the slightly murky territory of civil disobedience, although it remains unclear what—if any—laws were broken by their actions and it all sounds quite civil and obedient, really. I said, “I’m impressed with your conviction,” and meant the personal truth and active reckoning that finds a gap between legality and morality.
We talked over the two meanings, and then he mentioned a third, that conviction also means “to sit quietly and thoughtfully with oneself and to convict oneself of living in a condition of immorality and participating in a great wrong—or even evil. As if there were some higher moral and internal judge, and the truth of how to be a good person in the world were a code of law, and you must try yourself and you find your self a part of an immoral system.”
To follow the chain here—and chains seems illustratively appropriate for this conversation—convictions arise from an internal recognition, which lead to external actions, which can lead to reactions from the wider world and its legal articulations of a society’s moral code and ethics. Once you have found yourself part of the system, you must work to change either yourself or the system or both. Thoreau says: “things do not change, we do change.” But, we can also change things. And should.
With my sunny and Romantic ideas that the laws of this country were based on the inner convictions of a group of very flawed, but very well-intentioned and thoughtful and intelligent men, I am upset at the gaps where our society’s laws—the legal articulation of our priorities and morals and ethics—seem to have grown so distant from our humanity, from the places where convictions originally arise.
I believe in good governance, in just laws that protect, educate, and assist people in their lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness. I further think that everyone has a right to be governed thusly, and for all voices to be heard in a representative governing body. As near as I can tell, this is what we are supposed to be here in the United States.
But we’re not. Somehow, business and corporate interests crept into the gap between our personal convictions and our laws. In the last month alone gun-lobby money has stopped popularly demanded legislation surrounding gun control; our Supreme Court sided with Monsanto regarding the Indiana farmer who purchased second-run seeds that contained Monsanto’s patented GMO seeds from a source other than Monsanto and is deemed to have stolen Monsanto’s property; and the Keystone Pipeline continues to be considered by our representative government to be a good and viable project, despite the obvious detriment to many lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness of citizens that the pipeline would entail. This morning I heard that Gina McCarthy, who is in the confirmation process to become the next director of the EPA, told senators that the EPA has no plans to limit emissions from existing power plants.
Without becoming a screaming harpy, a one-trick pony, regarding the constant issue of profit over people, I cannot say enough how horrible all these things seem. I find it criminal that our government guards corporate concerns above the lives and well being of its citizens. Life—we’re complicit in a system that values guns over innocent life. Liberty—we’re letting corporations dictate the seeds a farmer can grow, by extension, the food we eat. Pursuit of happiness—we are sitting by as our silence destroys the planet with more fossil fuels and power plant emissions. Many of my own sources of greatest joy and happiness are threatened with certain extinction by fire or flood. So are yours. All of these actions are legal, perhaps, but they are not moral and they are not kind. We must bring those words into greater alignment.
I have sat, and I have listened to my heart. I have read a great deal, and I have traveled widely and kept my eyes and mind open. I know in my bones some of what I am complicit in, responsible for, and I do not like to be part of such horror. I want to change. I want to be and do better by this planet and its people. I may know just enough to get myself into trouble, but what is at stake is worth making a little trouble over. I have convicted myself to live within the bounds of an ethos and morality that respects, champions people and our battered, salvaged, beloved planet over corporate profits. I get the sense that it’s a life sentence, and that there may be some hard labor involved in living striving to remake the world along these lines, but this is my conviction.