“You think you can catch Keyser Soze?”
In The Usual Suspects, agent Kujan thought so. Big mistake. He didn’t start with the right suspect—which is the unusual suspect in today’s culture. This presents a challenge, since problems are hard to solve with the right kind of suspicion.
The Usual Suspects is the story of five career criminals who are rounded up as “the usual suspects” for a police line-up. Upon their release, they pull off a heist. This draws the attention of the enigmatic Keyser Soze, an unseen underworld crime figure. Soze coerces them into pulling off another crime. It goes bad. Only Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) survives. Agent Kujan brings in Kint for questioning, hoping to discover Soze’s whereabouts. But Agent Kujan overlooks one suspect—himself.
In days of yore, this was called self-suspicion. Problems are best solved when there is some level of self-suspicion. This is a condition William Wilberforce saw as rooted in conscience. It’s why he sought to instill self-suspicion in his 15 year-old daughter Elizabeth, when he wrote four letters to her in 1816.
Here are a few lines from one of his letters, where Wilberforce exercised “the privilege of a friend” in speaking of conscience as the “heart” and urging Elizabeth to “accustom herself” to self-suspicion.
This is but a short letter to my dear Elizabeth. [N]ever can you have a friend more warmly attached to you or more interested in your welldoing and happiness than myself. But if we are to be friends, you must allow me the privilege of a friend, a privilege by far the most valuable of all its excellencies.
I must declare to you… that it will be necessary for my dear girl to guard herself with the utmost watchfulness, and still more, to prepare herself with conscientious care. This is what St. Paul terms “exercising herself to maintain a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man”: what the Book of Proverbs styles, “keeping the heart with all diligence:” for unless we have accustomed ourselves to self-suspicion, if I may use such a phrase, we never benefit as we might from the friendly reproofs of a real friend.
We read in the Scripture that ‘our hearts are deceitful above all things:’ by which is meant, that we are all prone to flatter ourselves, to form too high an estimate of our own good qualities, and too low an idea of our bad ones. Now be honest with yourself, my very dear child. Have you been accustomed to distrust the judgment you have in the habit of forming of your own character…?
When things go wrong, do you distrust your own judgment? Or do you first distrust others? This isn’t an argument against self-confidence but one for maintaining a clear conscience. Wilberforce recognized “heart” comes closest to the idea of conscience (as in “David’s heart smote him”—I Sam. 24:5). Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew language uses body parts as metaphors for our immaterial realm. David’s healthy conscience is why he was considered a “man after God’s own heart.”
But Wilberforce was familiar with an important distinction. The Scholastics said conscience is both the God-given innate capacity to know the moral law and grasp moral realities as well as the faculty that perceives how well knowledge is connected to moral action. It is conscience as moral agency. “This is a critical distinction,” writes Herant Katchadourian in Guilt: The Bite of Conscience, “because it means that conscience is divine (a God-given capacity) yet it is also “a witness to our actions, as like any other witness, it can err.”1 It can err? Yes.
Conscience is a lens and any lens can be misshapen. It can warp our take on reality. A corrupted conscience makes people too confident in their take on reality. And it makes them suspicious of other takes. This is a consequence of the late 19th century when conscience was reframed as merely a human construct. “[I]n the Freudian analysis, the personal conscience, which stood at the very heart of the Judeo-Christian ethic… was dismissed,” Paul Johnson writes.2 Conscience became grounded in the therapeutic rather than the metaphysical. It made reality self-referential. Problems are the product of how I see the world. In this therapeutic world, challenging a person’s take on reality is wounding. If someone wounds me, they are the problem. Any solution then needs to start with them.
This accounts for the almost complete lack of self-suspicion today. Individuals no longer see themselves as one of the usual suspects. They have become in fact the unusual suspects. This is the finding in Christian Smith’s sobering book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Loves of Emerging Adults: “The majority of emerging adults… have great difficulty grasping the idea that a reality that is objective to their own awareness or construction of it may exist that could have a significant bearing on their lives. [T]hey cannot believe in—or sometimes conceive of—a given, objective truth, fact, reality, or nature to which they and others might learn to be persuaded to change.”3 He adds:
It is hardly surprising, in light of much of the foregoing, that according to emerging adults, the absolute authority for every person’s beliefs or actions is his or her sovereign self. Anybody can literally think or do whatever he or she wants… Individuals are autonomous agents who have to deal with each other, yes, but do so entirely as self-directing choosers.4
Good conscience holds in tension self-confidence and self-suspicion. When people do not accustom themselves to self-suspicion, they smugly assume they see the totality of reality and rebuff the faithful wounds of a friend. In the Bible, healthy self-suspicion is first taking the log out of your own eye. But that only happens when it is a habit. It isn’t developed in the heat of the moment. That’s why agent Kujan was cooked. He wasn’t one of the usual suspects. Had he been in the habit of self-suspicion, he would have looked around the room and asked himself: “What am I not seeing that right’s in front of me?” If you’ve seen the movie, you know the answers were all there.
Conscience presents a conundrum. It is either a helpful faculty or a fatal flaw. Rightly shaped by the faithful wounds of friends, it makes individuals and institutions habitually ask what they have missed or done wrong. But unaccustomed to the friendly reproofs of real friends, conscience can excuse individuals and institutions of taking personal responsibility when problems arise. It makes them the unusual suspects.
1 Herant Katchadourian, Guilt: The Bite of Conscience (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 143.
2 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 11.
3 Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Loves of Emerging Adults (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 45.
4 Smith, Souls, p. 49.