Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Violence and Responsibility

The theme of this blog the past few weeks has been the importance of showing mercy, even to people who have done unconscionable things. And I suspect with regard to the particular crimes under discussion lately, this stance will seem to many readers far too lenient toward the guilty, and far too indifferent to the needs of victims. I hope I won't be read this way (if I'm ever read at all), because my hope has been to suggest a model of justice that makes both protection and support of victims and mercy toward the perpetrators central to its conduct. Even people who give me the benefit of the doubt, however, I suspect will feel on some level that such sentiments are just that -- sentimental, unfounded in any real experience of violence.

It is a notion that must strike people as pabulum, or worse than that-- as an incredibly dangerous idea. Holding up a model of forbearance and mercy, can in certain conditions be warped into a perverse and deeply harmful justification for remaining in abusive relationships, for refusing to report violence that is done to oneself, or for blaming oneself if one does (see the work of two ministers, Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker for more on this theme). "Altruism" can be made into a curse against victims of abuse, when they are urged to "be patient" or to "bear all things." There are few things more selfish than self-sacrifice, when one is asking other people to make all the sacrifices. "Beware of pity," as the title of a Stefan Zweig novel instructs. It can be used as a weapon against you.

However, the work of creating systems that genuinely protect victims from violence -- and of engendering a culture that encourages people to escape from abusive relationships and to report violence that is done to them -- does not necessarily have to involve the punishment of the violent. This is what I have been hoping to suggest.

Suppose one grants this -- okay, but shouldn't the latter still be punished, even if it's possible to protect others without doing so? Why should they deserve anyone's forgiveness? Even if they can be successfully prevented from committing further violence by other means, don't they merit punishment regardless? It can seem a hard thing to show sympathy toward people who have raped or murdered, or threatened store clerks with death in an armed robbery, or committed systematic domestic abuse over many years. Surely there are some things that put people beyond the pale... right?

Before you answer that question in your own mind, I want to share two stories with you, both taken from NPR's Fresh Air. The first concerns the biography of comedian Richard Pryor.

Pryor, for all his skill on stage as a self-analyst and mordant observer of American life, was a savagely cruel man in his private life, being consistently physically abusive toward his girlfriends and wives throughout his adulthood. Tuning in about half-way through the Fresh Air broadcast, you would hear stories of his astonishing violence, temper, and stunted emotionality that would make your skin crawl. At one point, the biographer describes meeting with a former girlfriend of Pryor's who was abused by him for years. She shows the biographer a door in her house behind which she had once tried to shelter herself from the abuse-- Pryor had hacked through it with an axe.

Tune in at this point, I say, and even the generous-spirited will be ready to write Pryor off as a wholly reprehensible man, morally unredeemed and irredeemable.

Suppose, however, that one then rewinds to the start of the broadcast. One learns a few more things about Pryor, that may alter the hue in which one had perceived him. One learns that he was beaten as a child, for instance, by both his father and his grandmother. One learns that his father felt threatened by his son's masculinity and physical growth, and used to scream at him for the offense of talking in a deep voice. One learns that Pryor's father once nearly put his fist through Pryor's chest, in the course of a savage beating, while Pryor cried out "I'm your son, I'm your son!" And one learns that Pryor throughout his life was incapable of talking privately with anyone about the emotional scars -- even the ones he displayed so vividly on stage. "In the neighborhood where I grew up," he is quoted as saying in the interview, "if you were seen as 'sensitive' you became someone's lunch."

Once you hear all that, perhaps your judgement of his later actions starts to soften. Mine certainly did. Perhaps the sort of very old-fashioned liberalism that is so widely scoffed at today, the one which held that people who commit crimes do so because they have had a cruel upbringing, one which left them with an incapacity to relate to people or express themselves by healthier means, does not seem so totally off-base.

Another story, from NPR's interview with death penalty abolitionist and attorney Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson recounts the last hours of a man on death row whose sentence he had tried and failed to commute. Stevenson asks the man how he is feeling, and the man tells him that no one had ever been as nice to him in his life as they were the day he was to be executed. No one had ever shown him the same care and solicitude he received then, the day they were readying the injection needles.

And Stevenson thinks to himself, as he later recalls: where were all these solicitous and caring people when this man was young? Where were they when he was being sexually abused and beaten as a child? Where were they when he was further abused in prison as a juvenile offender? Where were they when he was homeless as an adult... and on and on. Perhaps if they had been there at those earlier times, the thought runs, he never would have ended up on death row.

And at once the fundamental perversity is brought home to the listener of a system that takes best care of a person when it is getting ready to end his life -- that shows the most concern for his needs when it is preparing to deliver to him the ultimate punishment.

At last we get round to the realization, that each of these men we had thought of at first as the perpetrators of violence, were at the same time also the victims of violence. One is left perhaps hating not Richard Pryor or the death row inmate, but Pryor's cruel father, the inmate's neglectful and sexually abusive parents, in their place.

Yet one could probably tell similar stories about the latter. Maybe Pryor's father was beaten or kicked in the genitals by his own dad. Maybe the inmate's parents had each been raped in turn by their guardians.

And maybe punishing these men just perpetuates the violence-- just punts it down to yet another generation who will grow up to do the same thing.

It's a familiar idea, from the kind of Earl Warren-era liberalism one doesn't hear much from anymore. The salt of it has probably lost its savor for a lot of us. No doubt it has a left-over, warmed-over feel. The old Adam West Batman show used to tease good-naturedly those who held it -- Robin's explanation of wrongdoing was always that the perpetrator must have "come from a broken home."

But when one actually hears the stories, and learns that those who commit violence were once victims  of violence themselves, I suspect it doesn't sound so unserious and pat anymore. It may sound more serious, in fact, than the alternative views, because it asks us never to stop examining a case, even one of apparently evil wrongdoing. It asks us even in those instances to look deeper, to learn where that behavior came from. Even in those cases in our media that seem utterly and unambiguously to impugn the accused, such as the high profile instances of police brutality or sexual assault or domestic violence or child abuse -- even then, it tells us, we have to look deeper.

The more simplistic and red-blooded kind of conservative would think this degree of empathy too good for the likes of them. There is a type of person who is genuinely remorseless, and who seems truly incapable of discerning the outline of shared humanity in someone they regard as criminal. Our previous vice president would seem to be a good example of the specimen. This, after all, is the man who announced that he had "no sympathy" whatsoever for the detainees who were tortured, strung up from ceilings, and anally raped by the CIA (mostly on his orders, as he gleefully admits in the same interview). Such a point of view condemns itself, and it contradicts itself. It lends itself, at last, to criminal behavior, as we see in Cheney's case. The absolute refusal to sympathize with criminals often turns oneself into a criminal. Instead of contradicting the "cycle of violence" theory of crime, then, it confirms it, in a perverse way. Just as, if we choose to crow for Cheney's blood in response to the torture reports, or even if we demand that he be locked away for the rest of his days, we will end up being little better than him.

The more sophisticated kind of conservative, however, makes -- no surprise -- a more sophisticated counter to the ideas I have been presenting here. She says, of the liberal -"they-know-not-what-they-do" theory of crime, that while it pitches itself as a means of better recognizing the humanity of the guilty, in fact it denies that very humanity, because it implies that certain people in society cannot control what they do, that they lack the moral agency or autonomy the rest of us enjoy. (See Midge Decter on this point, e.g., the Imelda Marcos of Neoconservatism.)

This is a tricky point. Liberals, myself included, can after all be heard to appeal to notions of moral agency, when it suits their theories of criminal justice. One of the key reasons I adduced last post as to why the death penalty is so unjust, is that it categorically erases the possibility for later moral development to the people in condemns. It denies the possibility of ethical growth. That's hard to make sense of if one doesn't believe that fundamentally, people are in control of -- hence responsible for-- their own actions.

(Let it be know though, before we continue, that conservatives are no more consistent in this regard. For all the Midge Decter appeal to moral autonomy, the "law and order" crowd can also be heard to say, for instance, that pedophiles are "incurable" or "hopelessly recidivist," and therefore should be locked up even longer or should appear on a sex offender registry (which, let it be known, affect people who are not pedophiles or "sex criminals" in the way the popular imagination usually conceives the term).)

I think the Midge Decters are right, at last, that it is possible for most human beings to change and develop morally over time. Those who can't, because the are born entirely lacking in empathic sections of their brains, for instance, should plainly be isolated from others not for the purpose of "punishment," but for the purpose of long-term psychological care. So too, if conservatives are right that pedophiles are "incurable recidivists," then plainly they should not be punished either, but taken care of in an place where they are isolated from children they might harm. (We see then that our society's horrid "sex offender registries" fail the test of justice in either case -- if child sexual abusers can ethically alter themselves, then they should not be placed on registries that render them permanent social outcasts, unable ever to work or rejoin society. If they cannot so alter themselves, then plainly they should not be punished as criminals, but treated as mentally ill!) But for the majority of human beings, ethical development is possible, and this is indeed an important feature of what makes us into full, healthy humans.

This does not answer the all-important question, though, of how we actually help people to become better than they are. Is punishment the key to "reformation"? Or is something else required? The case for punishment has not at all been proved, simply by admitting the reality of moral agency.

We have inherited what is really a very 19th century male chauvinist notion of what "moral agency" means. According to it, morality is really a test of "strength." "The moralist must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense," as William James puts it in The Varieties of Religious Experience. It's plainly a rather masculinist version of what constitutes the essence of moral activity. It's a sort of "bull moose" ethical code, from before Teddy Roosevelt was actually president. (Now let it be known in fairness that James was not entirely endorsing the "moralist's" behavior). Crime or wrongdoing is really a form of weakness, on this theory. Ostensibly we all have an internal battle raging at all times, between our sinful desires on the one hand, and our higher conscience on the other. Wrongful violence must simply be a "giving in" to the unwholesome desires, which one knows all the time to be wrong.

This notion probably comports with some of our lesser experiences of vice -- we know we shouldn't supersize those fries, or put that next quarter in the slot machine, but we do it anyway.

I suspect, however, that the cases of Richard Pryor and the death row inmate above can suggest to us how little of our more significant acts of wrongdoing can be accounted for in this way. One doesn't have the sense that Pryor knew his domestic violence was wrong, for instance, but that he wanted to do it anyway. One senses, rather, that he believed he was doing the right thing, that he was paying people back somehow, maybe even that the violence was a way for him finally to stick up for himself, in the face of the violence he had suffered to his own person all his life. Such notions are entirely wrong and perverse, of course, in their understanding of justice -- above all in their targeting of the innocent. But they are perfectly comprehensible, at last, when one reflects on the fact that Pryor had been so long deprived growing up of room to breathe, of freedom to express himself, of license to grow and mature, of validation of his feelings.

And if these were the motives of Richard Pryor's behavior, then it seems hard to credit the theory that the proper solution lies in inflicting more violence on Pryor, though harsh imprisonment. More violence does not seem the path to further ethical development -- not in his case, and probably not in anyone's. If punishment does ever effect a change in people, it can only be by a sort of knuckling under to an outward authority-- and that is only the most fragile of changes. The ego will eventually reassert itself, and rightly so, against the kind of inward violence that comes through changing under the threat of punishment -- through changing because one is taught to regard one's former self as "bad" or worthless. It is also no change for the better. As Joan Didion writes in a wonderful essay on the subject, self-respect is a virtue quite independent of whether or not the "self" in question is a "good" or "bad" one, by other people's estimation.

What frightens me both about conservative law-and-order theories, as well as such phenomena on the left as the anti-bullying movement and the anti-campus sexual assault movement, is not that they are combatting "invented" crimes. They certainly are not. But they seem set in various ways to perpetuate a cycle of violence, though their excessive reliance on prosecution and on "zero tolerance." Especially in the case of so-called "bullies" at school -- so often these children are themselves victims of violence at home. Expelling them and depriving them academically hardly seems the path to justice or to a cure for violent behavior!

I do believe some form of incarceration should have played a role in Richard Pryor's life, I must add, but not as a means of punishing him-- rather, as a means foremost of protecting the innocent people around him from his abuse; and secondarily as a means of providing him with therapeutic care.

A system of incarceration that truly offered these things, if such a thing were possible, would have worked to isolate Pryor for a time from the rest of society. But I doubt very much it would merit the term "prison," as we now understand it.

Many are repulsed a priori by the thought of treating violent crime as a form of mental illness, requiring therapeutic care rather than retribution. It should be known, however, that therapy is not a morally neutral process. It aims, in fact, at moral development, and at a healthy type of remorse. It is the type of remorse that doesn't urge one entirely to disown one's past. It doesn't teach one to regard oneself as "bad" or "sinful" through and through. Rather, it asks one to develop a sense of empathy with those one has hurt. And this most often means simply helping a person to realize that he or she has hurt someone at all! To someone emotionally stunted, by childhood abuse or otherwise, that simplest recognition is often the only piece lacking to make for a genuine desire to change one's behavior for the better.

Therapy does not end with remorse or guilt, however, the way punishment often does. It moves on from empathy for others, to inspire empathy for oneself. It recognizes that so often, one's outwardly malignant behavior is founded in one's unwillingness to care inwardly for oneself -- to recognize, validate, and express one's own feelings. It works though a dialectical process to challenge the self-loathing and self-defeating beliefs that often lie at the heart of outwardly-directed cruelty. Therapy is, as Freud wrote (as quoted in a book by Bettelheim), at its core "a cure through love."

That is the part where I will lose many people. I will lose them at the notion that those who commit violent crimes ought to be cared for with "love." It's a groan-inducing kind of sentiment, I admit. The trouble is, though, that it happens to be true.

Besides, have we not tried our share of cures through hate, of cures through violence? Perhaps it is time to try a cure through love.

Merry Christmas, everybody.



  1. (Note: you may notice that I use "I think" and similar terms somewhat less than usual here. This is because I'm trying to make my writing and speech less tentative and redundant in general and not at all because I think this post is flawed in an unusually obvious or horrific way [I think this will become clear later on but wanted to lead with this point just in case.])

    Obviously I have a lot of sympathy for the general thrust of this post, but you don't offer your sophisticated conservative an adequate response. I didn't read the Decter essay, but I don't think the line of thought you have in mind draws its appeal solely or even primarily from the thought that humans are generally capable of moral transformation over time. To the extent that the respect (for criminals) based defense of retribution appeals to moral transformation, it does so derivatively.

    The primary appeal of the line of argument you have in mind is supposed to be, I think, that each of us thinks of him/herself as having enough agency to not only be capable of changing our characters over time, but also of controlling our actions at any given moment and so of being, and being properly held, morally responsible for those actions; this also implies that we're capable of moral transformation, but that isn't the main point. The respect-based retributivist thinks your view fails to respect criminals' agency because it implies that the criminal, unlike most people, can't control his or her actions at the time he or she commits his or her crime. And, of course, he or she thinks that the simple fact that criminals are morally responsible for their crimes means that inflicting suffering on them is justified, either because of the strong intuition that the suffering of serious wrongdoers is an intrinsic good or the related intuition that part of what it means to take a wrong seriously is to want the wrongdoer to suffer. (Obviously, retributivism could still be false even if the retributivist is right about agency, since it might be true that criminals have agency and so are blameworthy but false that the suffering of blameworthy people is intrinsically good or a necessary element of the proper response to wrongdoing, but that's not the point you're making here.)

    I don't see how the (obviously quite plausible and appealing) thought that simply inflicting suffering on the typical violent criminal is unlikely to reform him/her, in light of the motivations behind most violent crimes and the histories of abuse and torment that produce those motivations, responds to this concern. Either the histories of abuse and torment mean that violent criminals usually lack sufficient agency to be morally responsible, in which case you're making precisely the claim the respect-based retributivist rejects as demeaning, or they don't, and your point is insightful and important but not responsive to the retributivist argument you claim to be addressing.

  2. (continued from previous comment) Also, I don't think the retributivist argument in question has to rely on the simplistic conception of agency you challenge. It seems to me that this conception is flawed at least in large part because it presents the motivation to commit grave wrongs as (1) an alien eruption into the basically good self rather than deeply part of a self that is, like all selves, a mixture of good and evil at the most fundamental level and (2) wholly and irredeemably bad when it's actually often linked to real goods like self-respect that the wrongdoer pursues in the wrong way. I'm not sure how the fact that the wrongdoer typically acts on these much more complex, human motives has any bearing on how responsible he/she is for the wrongs he/she commits.

    All that being said, I do think your point about the origins of violent crime must have some bearing on the sense in which criminals are responsible for their crimes and the truth of respect-based retributivism. It seems intuitively like you achieve an important form of respect for someone by coming to understand his gravely wrongful actions from his own perspective and realizing that you could very well have done the same were you in his shoes, and that you can't understand this and hold him responsible for his actions in exactly the same way you do with others. Perhaps I'm missing it, but I don't see how your post gets from these intuitively appealing ideas to an argument against respect-based retributivism (or maybe that isn't the main point). My hope is that by pointing out the problems with your existing account, I'll inspire you to write a still better post in which you pinpoint the precise nature of the connections among past suffering and trauma, violent crime, responsibility, respect, and retribution :) Merry Christmas!

  3. Hi Ajay-- thanks for the response. I don't think this meets all the points of your response, and we can talk about it more on the phone at some point, but I think the "cycle of violence" and "moral agency" arguments were more distinct from one another than your reading suggests. Granted, I don't outline these posts in advance, so the logical structure is not always ideal, but here’s how I understand it in retrospect:

    The cycle of violence theory was meant primarily to suggest:
    1) That we should have compassion on people who perpetrate crimes, because they have often been victims themselves in the past;
    2) The response of using more violence (in the form of punishment) to try to reduce crime is totally counterproductive and cruel, in light of the cycle of violence theory.

    The Midge Decter/moral agency point was mostly just meant to suggest the outward limits of what I was saying. I wanted to make clear that I did not entirely repudiate the notion of moral agency, and that the cycle of violence theory should not be read as such a total repudiation.

    But then I went on to make the points that:
    1) Granting moral agency does not tell us anything about the validity of punishment, necessarily -- does not refute the cycle of violence theory, etc. — a point you also make in your response.
    2) the cycle of violence theory, while it does not totally negate moral agency, DOES imply that we have to change some of our familiar notions about what is happening with people psychologically when they commit violent acts. I wanted to suggest especially that there IS a sense in which sincere people can look back on terrible things they’ve done in the past and feel that “I couldn’t help it” — usually because choices do not present themselves to us as between good and evil options in many cases. What we recognize to be evil we can generally prevent ourselves from doing. Oftentimes, we do terrible things for deludedly conscientious reasons. This does not excuse these acts, but it should make us regard the people who commit them more compassionately.

    I think, for instance, of something we were told about clerical sexual misconduct in div school. The professor told us that the people who commit this misconduct generally are not motivated by “lust,” which we can recognize in ourselves for what it is and refuse to act on. They usually commit it because they become (wrongly) convinced that this sexual misconduct is going to “help” the other person somehow, etc. None of this suggests that in the truest sense of the words, people who commit misconduct had “no choice” at the time. But it does suggest that people who do hurtful things should not be written off as evil people whose motives are utterly incomprehensible and alien to us.

    As I say, I’m not sure that addresses all the points you raise, but hopefully it clarifies the overall argument.