What does it mean to “give” one the “benefit of doubt”? Is it something that is granted automatically, or must one “earn it” through labor, circumstances or sheer luck? What are the elements that lead to it, and why are some people accorded such grace while others are treated with impunity of disregard?
Take the following hypothetical: You are at a party with friends and acquaintances; you sit with a number of people, and among them are a very close friend and confidante, as well as a mixture of those whom you somewhat dislike and otherwise consider an “undesirable” of sorts. Well, let’s be honest – you despise especially this one person, and hope daily that that individual will die a horrible death in a slow, agony-filled manner. You may even daydream of torture and mayhem, and how your laughter at such pleas for mercy fills your inner soul with delight so devious that it even frightens you to consider your own meanness and ferocity of unsympathetic attitude towards this one subhuman miscreant.
During a lively conversation – we shall call the “friend” X, and the one whom you wish the horrible and slow torture ending in death, Y – the former (X) says something that refers to you in an obscure and somewhat polysemic context. You pause and consider; then dismiss it; for, as a friend, you give the benefit of the doubt that the utterance was said innocently and without any underlying meaning of harm or tincture of criticism. Then, later, Y says something as well – perhaps a reference to you, your group of people or your team effort in a project – and with obvious sarcasm, says, “Yeah, right”.
Now, had X said the same thing, it might have been taken as a joke; but when Y says it, you burn with inner turmoil and it is just a miracle upon a hair’s breath that you don’t throw the contents of your drink across the circular gathering, right at the individual’s face. For Y, you failed to give the “benefit of the doubt”. Why? Is it because such granting of unconditional grace must necessarily be encircled by a context of relational warmth, and lack of it provides grounds for withdrawing or withholding any such unilateral mandate? Is the spectrum of doubt’s convergence and emergence correlated to the level and extent of trust and friendship already established, or can it also occur in the vacuum of dealing with strangers? As to the latter – dealing with strangers – we often coin as an act of the foolish or resulting from innocence and inexperience, don’t we?
For Federal employees and U.S. Postal workers considering the option of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits through one’s Federal agency or the U.S. Postal Service, then on to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether the Federal or Postal worker is under FERS, CSRS or CSRS Offset, the issue of giving various individuals the “benefit of the doubt” will come up in numerous contexts and encounters – from discussing one’s medical issues with a Supervisor or Manager, to informing the Human Resource Department of one’s Federal agency that one intends upon filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits; and such encounters, by necessity, will often involve that nagging feeling as to whether to grant (or not) the benefit of the doubt.
In the end, “doubt” is more likened to an intuition – like the hair reflexively standing on the nape of one’s neck as a warning against impending danger – and has more to do with our Darwinian background than any societal conventions we deem applicable, and when dealing with Federal agencies, it is often prudent to not grant that ultimate grace of unilateral conformity – and, instead, to withhold giving the benefit of the doubt in almost all circumstances.
Robert R. McGill, Esquire