Trading Up: Moral Equivalence – Bigger Crimes for Smaller Ones

First of all, I admit, I was a late adopter of the expression, “moral equivalence.” I find it counterintuitive, it really means ‘false moral equivalence,’ right, ‘contrived moral equivalence,’ something like that? Or does it refer to people who really do think these disparate situations are actually equivalent? Whatever, let’s live with those questions, like they used to say in the “est” seminars. I’m a great believer that we need to juggle all these thoughts, all these balls need to be in the air at once, that we shouldn’t commit to any conclusions that could be wrong and then base our arguments from them. Everything should always be available for review in our minds, pending new information.

I think we all place the concept in the category of fallacious argument. Moral equivalencies are offered as justifications for behaviours that we all naturally intuit to be wrong, such as violence that is out of proportion to the behaviour that prompts it. Examples of moral equivalence may include:

  • A nation like Israel literally killing something like a thousand Palestinians for every murdered Israeli because the Palestinian Arabs WANT to kill all the Israelis.
  • A police officer literally killing a citizen in a fight that begins with an attempted arrest for a minor crime – of course, like jaywalking or operating a very small commercial enterprise without a license or without filing the taxes.
  • A law introduced that curtails the rights of large numbers of people based on statistically insignificant levels of a crime – like the voter ID laws.

Now, I know everyone is making the race arguments about these things, and of course there is racism, and classism, the poor always get the short end, and through long term, cultural racism, ‘the poor’ is pretty much synonymous with ‘blacks,’ at least in America. Fair enough. I just want to point out what seems to be slipping under the radar: the simple moral fallacy underlying all policing, and authority in general, and that is the magnitude of the crimes in these situations.

I think we can all see the cost and benefits of imprisoning murderers. Sure, forcible confinement is bad, an infringement of the prisoner’s human rights, but his infringement on the human rights of his victims is worse, so we feel justice is served. Perhaps not optimally, at least I don’t really think so, but close enough for this conversation. And so, if this killer resists arrest and dies in the ensuing fight, that’s still close enough to proper – of course, provided he really is a murderer, provided he’s guilty.

Morally, that is not so bad. Pretty good in a horrible situation. But that example should not be used to cover all arrests. That is some bad science, in fact it is probably one of these arguments of ‘moral equivalence’ to say that anyone who resists arrest for anything can be righteously killed. Race and racism aside, that is reprehensible, and defending that behaviour very correctly puts the defender on the wrong side of morality. This is a net increase in crime: murder for jaywalking, murder for black market cigarette sales.

That is the opposite of what we are paying police for.

Talk about ‘do as I say, not as I do!’ Here’s what you can’t do, and here’s what we can do – this is the very essence of inequality, inequity and anathema to ‘all men being created equal.’

So here’s what I think should happen: I don’t think that we should enforce these laws if it means creating a bigger crime than the one we’re trying to stop. So no corporal punishment for non-violent crimes, for jaywalking for illegal small businesses – verbal admonishments only. Counselling and reason, let them know that they aren’t holding up their end of the deal in our attempts to have a fair society. Perhaps for the subsistence criminal, we can find them some legal money to live on. This may involve reorganizing our social structure in such a way that doesn’t leave so many people out of the right side of life and the law, such as decriminalizing drugs and stopping the erosion of the government’s revenues for education and healthcare.

Maybe we could document these minor crimes, and use the information in court if the person does anything that really does require police and courts, so we could show a pattern of anti-social behaviour, make a case that some sort of intervention is overdue for the stubbornly anti-social and criminal people that abuse the system.

Pie in the sky, right? Madness?

So, the status quo seems reasonable, then? That minor crimes should be punished corporally, with a forced trip to jail and possibly prison, something that would motivate the offender to fight for his life and turn our attempt to correct small crimes into deadly street battles instead? Please don’t take this the wrong way, I don’t blame everyone. It’s been complicated and confusing for so long, but that’s . . . crazy. All infractions of the law do not need to be enforced.

In fact, of course, all cases of breaking the law are not enforced now. How many crimes of the rich, the bankers, and the leaders are not punished? Of course, the crimes that are detected, solved, prosecuted and punished are far fewer than the actual instances of crime and always have been. In this way, criminal punishment has always been unfair and random. That perhaps bears repeating.

Criminal punishment has always been unfair and random. That being the obvious truth to any thinking person, and being that improving the consistency in catching and prosecuting is unlikely and possibly not even desirable – most of us think we’re close enough to the dystopic police state of our nightmares now – maybe we need to think about going the other direction. Simply not arresting and prosecuting the poorest people for minor crimes (again, drug laws come to mind) – not going after the lowest hanging fruit with the intent of violence and forcible confinement – could well be our best way to increase the consistency of our law enforcement, and therefore the general fairness of our society.

This could be one way that the police could gain some real respect and trust in the poorest communities – I mean, this wouldn’t be huge, much crime is violent crime, and I’m not advising we ignore those who would victimize others with violence – but this is exactly the point. Victimizing others with violence is exactly what the police are doing when they come to arrest and imprison people for minor crimes. If this is what cannot be changed, then talk of community trust and respect is empty blather. And deeply cynical too.

To say to people –

“We want to work with you, to establish a partnership, based on trust and mutual respect, based in understanding. We acknowledge that we are here to serve the community, to work for a greater peace and a better life for all – “

– while still maintaining that we intend nonetheless to come to your house, overpower you and throw you in prison for not paying your parking and court fines? That is deeply schizoid for some of us and downright cruel and cynical for some others. Either way, it’s . . . crazy. Again, violence, kidnapping and forcible confinement for minor crimes – that is a net increase in the level of crime, and it’s the very opposite of what the general population is paying the police to do.

Morally, arrests and the associated force and violence are worse than jaywalking, street level black market dealing, avoidance of legal and traffic fines, and drug possession. That is what I’m saying. This isn’t moral equivalence. It’s a total inversion.


Prisons and Bad Neighborhoods – the Irony of Deterrents, Part #4

Deterrents run on contrast.

The power of a deterrent must be, in some relationship, proportional to the difference between the penalty and its absence, or rather, life with the penalty and life without it. Meaning, of course, if your life is Hell, deterrents have a tough job. That’s why, despite his age, Charlie Manson is still always getting into trouble – because why not. What are they gonna do, take his TV away? Lights out early? Charlie don’t give a Goddam, because his life sucks already. Now if we told him that if he were to behave perfectly for a month that we’d set him free and give him a house somewhere with his new bride and cable, he might have to think about it.

See the difference there?

One, if he doesn’t spit on a guard he’s still in prison, and if he does he’s still in prison but he can’t watch Mike and Molly.

Two, if he spits on a guard, he’s in prison and can’t watch Mike and Molly, but if he doesn’t he’s a free man with a young wife who thinks the sun shines out of his ass – and HBO. (Have you SEEN “The Knick?” It is so cool!)

So the power of deterrents lies in the difference the penalties make in your life. So now let’s look at racial inequality in the justice system and policing, so much in the public consciousness right now.

In an inner city bad neighborhood, life is tough. There’s a lot of crime, gangs rule many aspects of life, the food supply sucks and the schools are not exactly on the good colleges’ lists. Many parents are either working long days to get by, or unemployed and depressed and/or addicted. The influence of the gang life starts young. When poverty is hurting you and yours, criminally acquired money must have a very strong pull. Things can look pretty hopeless, especially for the underclass races. Even for those who try, a good education requires money, and earn as much as you can, people in these neighborhoods often have no family money, no savings or even credit to help.

(Note: sure some make it, which is generally defined as ‘making it out,’ which, that’s our hint: a successful person from the ‘hood knows that his kids’ odds will be better if they grow up somewhere else. And saying some make it up and out, that is a small percent, and despite what the purveyors of the American Dream would have us believe, the larger percentages reflect the larger reality. It’s tragicomic that a few percent of anything is supposed to prove a rule. That really is some bad science.)

So, gang pressures, violence, bad food, the commodification of sex, and a very tough road to get out – contrasted with prison, I ask you: how different is it? Couldn’t that list describe either one, life in the ‘hood or life in prison? At that level of contrast, how much of a deterrent can prison really be? As proof of this rhetorical argument, consider the following possibility.

That the police appear to already know this. Could this be why they appear to have stepped up the penalties for crime all the way to a street execution? With the lack of police indictments and the extreme lack of police convictions, one could say they are sending a calculated message: never mind prison, the real deterrent is some level of likelihood that your sentence will be carried out in lieu of your arrest. This line of reasoning may also explain why there is so little movement towards non-lethal weapons for police; it may not be the effectiveness factor so much as that they don’t want to remove the real deterrent. So there’s the deterrent’s required contrast: a tough life with some happy times or a bloody death and a heavy loss for those who love you.

And still, still, even with the ultimate deterrent in place, still crime abounds, still the police have to follow through far too often. Even when the deterrent is the end of everything, people still misbehave. We’ve tried locking them up, we’ve tried killing them, where do we escalate to next? Maybe they’ll go full mob next, shoot the kid and then go after his family.

Or maybe we might have to grow up and explore the idea that punishment is a form of abuse, and actually causes more social problems than it solves. Like Charlie in the opening example, maybe if we offer our poor a life, a house, HBO, a chance to pursue some happiness, then maybe prison or a bloody death in the street will begin to look more unthinkable by comparison.

Because for folks in the ‘hood as it stands today, all too often, it’s not enough of a contrast to make a difference.

Punishment can’t solve everything, but here’s a case where prevention isn’t even considered!

It seems that when a paedophile wants help beforehand, there’s nothing for him.
“Go fuck some kids first,” Society tells them. “Then we’ll deal with you. But do try to get caught, OK? I mean otherwise, we may never be able to help you.”
” – oh yeah. The kids. We may never be able to help the kids, either.”…iles-differently-635?utm_source=vicetwitterus

I know I’ve also heard that non-paedophile murderers can’t get help beforehand either, like this Canadian shooter at the Parliament buildings, or this American, 20 years ago, Wesley Alan Dodd. We love our punishments so much, we won’t even consider prevention, apparently.

A Conflicted Society – Police Brutality

Violence is a problem, right? No? Depends? Depends on who’s doing it and why, the ends justify the means, greater good and whatnot? Wait a minute, I need to start again. An attitude like that will get you nowhere.

Deep breath, and a pause.


In our society, the police are intended to be a force for good, set against the forces of all things bad, that is, crime, larceny, violence, all manner of negligence. Of course, it works as well as anything that we force; it “works” as well as forceful discipline of children works, which is to say that it “works” in these ways –

  • It works best on the criminals with the least intelligence. That is to say, a child of one or two can be fooled that the only way to avoid the penalty is not to misbehave – but by three or four, they know better. Many criminals re-learn this lesson when they escape the consequences of their very first crime, because discipline works best when there is a certainty of being caught, and it begins to fail when as soon as that certainty does.
  • It works best on the criminals with the fewest resources, which is to say, it can be difficult for a poor policeman to punish a rich criminal, like the poor gardener hoping to control the rich employer’s child, who may wield more power to adversely affect the life of a poor and dependent adult more than the adult can the wealthy child.
  • It works on particular individuals in particular incidents, and stops the particular individual’s crimes from continuing, at least during the period of their detention.

Of course, it “works” in these ways, because of the force the police bring to the task. Adult criminals, especially violent ones, are not likely to line up for their punishments because they are politely requested to. Along with detection and investigation, force is what the police get paid for. I’ve made the point elsewhere that no amount of force will ever be a permanent solution for society’s ills, that in fact, force and violence exist on the “causes” side of that equation rather than the “cures” side, despite that the “good guys” are doing it. Having said that, and bearing in mind that most of us don’t agree with that thought, the police are the folks that we pay to use force and violence for good. And as long as it works, it’s all good.

Well, as long as it works well, as long as the police can’t be shown to have crossed the line and used too much force and/or violence so that a conviction can’t be obtained on a guilty suspect. As long as the police don’t use even the normal, acceptable amount of force and/or violence on an innocent (or apparently innocent) suspect who can afford a lawyer or get the attention of the media. Then it’s Police Brutality, and we’re all properly shocked and horrified. I’m not saying we’re hypocrites, just . . . uh, conflicted.

We are conflicted as regards violence generally, but mostly specifically in this way: we think it’s good and bad at the same time. At once we think it’s bad, and it’s a problem, but when we cast about for a solution, there it is again, violence – here to save the day! At once we see the damage it causes, the never-ending cycles of harm spiraling down through the years and the generations – and yet still, every problem looks like a nail. We still somehow think everything can be solved with the hammer.

(There’s a Freudian joke in there. I didn’t intend it as part of the argument, but maybe he wasn’t such a dope . . . but we’ll save that thought for another conversation.)

I’m not saying I have all the answers, of course not, but I wouldn’t be alone in history if I were someone who thought he could at least indicate the direction we need to go. The direction we should go, the place we need to work toward if we are ever to create the sort of society we wouldn’t be lying about if we could describe it to our kids in family-friendly, positive terms is this: less violence, not more. Less violence – and I want to make this perfectly clear – less violence, even from the good guys. Less violence, even towards the bad guys. Because the truth is, Police Brutality, the bad, shocking kind, and police brutality in lower case, the sort that we like, the sort we think we need, they both feed the never-ending cycles of violence.

These seemingly eternal cycles are persistent, and it’s not for no reason. They persist, because half of our conflicted selves love violence and force; it is we who are preserving the cycles, and it simply due to a failure of reason, a misfire in our minds. The truth is, abusing the bad guys is no more helpful to society in the long run than abusing the good ones. We know abuse often turns good guys into bad ones.

What we need to realize is that it moves the bad guys in the same direction, from bad to worse. Yes, even when it’s the good guys doing it.

The Irony of Deterrents, Part #3

‘Law and Order’ types – Republicans, Conservatives – and punishing parents, these folks who advocate for deterrents and punishments, they like to say how they’re fixing things, how they’re “modifying behaviour” and setting children and criminals right. Well, they’ve been at it for all of recorded history and maybe longer, and of course kids are always new, solving some doesn’t change anything for the next batch, but if their attitude did anything to lessen crime – well, there would be less crime. If there had been any progressive lessening of crime by these methods, these last eighty centuries (three hundred generations?) should have given us some sense it was working. Instead, we have pretty much all reached the conclusion that these things are as they have always been, and always will be, that crime is simply part of the human condition. This despite that our nearest cousins, the chimpanzees and bonobos, seem to live with a peace-to-crime ratio similar to ours.

You know, I offend a lot of people, I basically spend all of my online time telling everyone that they are bad parents, but there’s more. I think that, despite the offense of my message, people are put off by something else. I suspect they all know I’m not being completely honest with them; I think it must show that I’m holding something back. So here it is. No fear.

You ‘Law and Order’ types, you authoritarians, you punishers of children and criminals, know this: you’re not just failing. You’re not just not having the desired effect, oh no. You are destroying the world. You are making the world the Hell that it is for so many people. Your punishments – often intended as deterrents, you hope not to have to follow through, I’ll give you that – have the same effect, cause the same suite of damages that abuse does, to wit, psychological problems, cognitive difficulties, and crime. You are causing all the social problems you say you’re trying to fix.

That, plus you want to talk about how it’s natural and inevitable, and you refuse to do the troubleshooting, you refuse to take your negative stimuli out of the equation. You want to say it’s inherent, the crime, the greed, the violence – but you will defend to your last breath the very active, hands-on stimuli that has been shown by study after reputable study to cause exactly these things, and you will stubbornly never let up long enough to prove it one way or another.

That is the situation.

Now I’ll start talking nice again – well soon.

You didn’t create this situation. But having been told, having had it pointed out to you – the next time you mete out a punishment you will be doing just that. So cut it out. Stop destroying the world.


Here’s Part #2, might be critical to this part:


THOSE Kinds of Parents

Everything is fine.

I mean if we just keep doing what we’re doing, everything will be fine. Everything will be fine sometime very soon . . . well it would be, if it weren’t for those people. I mean you and I, we were taught respect, we know how things should be and how life should be lived. We were given the gifts of discipline and morality.

If only everyone was like us. If only all parents were as disciplined and as responsible as ours. They were willing to do the hard stuff. They knew they were our parents and that they weren’t supposed to be our friends. And when not being our friends wasn’t enough, they knew how to make the ultimate sacrifice of Tough Love; they weren’t afraid to let us know that we would be on our own and alone in the world. God Bless ‘em.

Not like some others.

You know the ones. Those namby-pamby bleeding-heart idiots who don’t care how their kids grow up, the ones who don’t care if the kids never learn how to work or wash a dish, as long as the parents don’t ever have to feel that these kids are mad at them, as long as they can still feel that their kids like them. Those types never teach their kids right from wrong, and you know it’s their kids that are doing all those things that destroy society: taking drugs, failing in and dropping out of school, joining gangs and winding up as criminals and putting stress on the justice and medical systems, filling the prisons and the psych wards.

These cozy-sniffers, these traitors to the rest of us, to the responsible parents of the world, let’s not mince words about it, they are the ones that are blowing it for everyone. You know how it works. You take your family out for a meal, after reading the kids the riot act and reminding them how people need to behave in public, and how that especially in restaurants children should be more seen than heard, and then at the table next to you one of these families is acting like savages. The baby is whining or screaming, and the toddler is running around like a dog, like she’s at home or in the park, and the parents are doing nothing. Maybe Mom is cooing at the baby, maybe Dad is following the toddler around the place – not to capture her and sit her down or anything, just keeping her company, so the little so-and-so doesn’t lose sight of the family and get scared – and maybe there’s an older kid, playing on a Gameboy or something, at the dinner table, no less.

Now your kids are starting to twitch and make grumpy noises, after all, if those kids can do all that, why should they have to be perfect little soldiers? Maybe you catch your kids shooting you a resentful look. So maybe that’s the beginning of the end, maybe your kid is becoming a teenager and he’s going to start hating you now, maybe rebellion is already looming – and it’s a few years earlier than you had hoped. Thanks to those idiot parents at the next table, who have kids but clearly aren’t actually adults themselves yet.

Society is breaking down, and it’s obvious who’s to blame. Certainly not us.




Man. My attitude really stinks these days.

Law and Order – the Irony of Deterrents, Part 2


I’ve just re-read my first post by that name, and I couldn’t help but notice that it’s terrible. So this isn’t going to be so much ‘Part 2’ as version 2.0. Steven Pinker keeps Tweeting about how writers need to remember that they’re the ones talking, and that we should lay it all out and not hope that our readers already know everything we’re trying to say – and boy, he could have talking to me alone. So with that in mind I’ll try this again.


  1. The Damages of Punishments.


There is a terrible irony that happens when we attempt to solve society’s ills through punishment. The science is in regarding abuse, and also regarding corporal punishment: these things are causing many of our ills.

Crime, high-risk behaviour and self-harm, addiction, depression, cognitive impairment and poor grades in school, all these and more have been shown through study after reputable study to be higher frequency issues for those who are documented to have suffered abuse and/or corporal punishment in their lives.

Let’s also admit right here the truth obscured by a ubiquitous fallacy: all serious punishments are corporal punishments. We don’t volunteer for our punishments, and when we choose to take them, it’s because they are going to be forced upon us physically if we don’t. Punishments are not optional, and force is “corporal,” ultimately. This means that the list of negative outcomes above is the result of punishments, no qualifier like “corporal” is necessary, and in fact, any qualifier is detrimental to the truth. There is no type of punishment that doesn’t ever cause damage, because there is no type of punishment that isn’t intended to. That’s the whole idea, isn’t it?

We harm so that the person we are punishing changes their behaviour in order to avoid the harm. If it doesn’t harm, it’s not a punishment, by definition. In the best cases, the prospect of the harm is enough and bad behaviour is avoided before it occurs – but we’re not addressing deterrents just yet.

That list of negative outcomes above – oh, let’s repeat it: crime, high-risk behaviour and self-harm, addiction, depression, cognitive impairment and poor grades in school – not a complete list, of course, that suite of damages has been shown, statistically to be more common in people who have suffered abuse and corporal punishment, that is to say, these effects are caused by abuse and corporal punishment.

Let’s stop there for a moment, and ask, what else causes these things? Certainly medical conditions like Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and any number of brain mis-developments or diseases add their effects. I won’t argue, it may be impossible to separate FAS from other factors in an abusive and punishing population, but surely we see these outcomes in many people who are known to have no serious medical causative factors or syndromes associated with parents’ substance abuse. Of course there are serious traumas, war and natural disasters, heinous crimes, no denying that, but these aren’t likely to be an explanation for most of the people suffering these negative outcomes either. Genetic predisposition perhaps, perhaps Original Sin or its evolutionist cousin, our animal natures?

As to genetics, I expect the science is coming, the statistics may show something in the coming years; I’ll wait for the studies. As for Original Sin, I won’t hold my breath. Those statistics aren’t coming, ever.

What I’m getting at here, though I won’t presume to put a percentage on it, or even to say it’s the majority (even if I suspect it is), is that abuse and punishment are a major cause of the long list of personal damages that so many of us suffer from and that the more punished and abused of us tend to suffer from more, in proportion. Statistically.

And now to deterrents.


  1. Deterrents – the Calculated Risk.


Simply defined, a deterrent is the designation of a punishment intended to turn us from crime or misbehaviour; a punishment administered after the misdeed is intended to teach a lesson the hard way, while one that stops the behaviour before it starts is referred to as a deterrent. The threat or promise of a punishment, we hope, will avert the bad behaviour before it happens.

For a deterrent to be effective, at least one of several things must happen. A deterrent forces the subject to make a cost benefit analysis, so first, the cost must be more than we want to pay, that is the cost – the punishment – must outweigh the benefit of the crime in order to deter it. Second, the cost must be certain enough to force the analysis – meaning the punishment doesn’t matter if we don’t think we’re going to get caught, if we think we’ll never have to pay. If it were only the first condition that mattered, things would be simple – we would only have to insure costly punishments and deterrents would work. That’s not the case though; there is almost always some variable chance of never having to pay, and so deterrents are a gamble.

Depending on our perception of our chances of being caught, the strength of a deterrent is increased when the cost is increased, that is, when the punishment offered gets more severe. For the second condition, as the certainty of being caught increases, so too does the power of the deterrent. So this is the question for a person contemplating a crime, or a child considering being “bad:” what is the penalty, and will I be caught? If the penalty is painful, and the odds of getting away with it are low, and the person is not otherwise compelled to ignore the risk (a third condition, that external circumstances do not make the likelihood or severity of the penalty irrelevant), the deterrent will work. Again, this is the analysis from the criminal’s, or the naughty child’s point of view.

But we, caregivers, we, society, we have an analysis to make too, regarding costs and benefits.


  1. The Bets We Make – Un-calculated Risk.


When all goes well, when the conditions are right and the deterrent works, then that’s great. All well and good, or close enough, anyway. Let’s just say that if deterrents worked all the time, I wouldn’t be complaining. Of course they don’t, so the complaining will continue. If they did, we wouldn’t all have been spanked and grounded as children and the prison industry wouldn’t be such a growth sector.

It’s when the deterrent fails that’s the problem.

When either the punishment offered isn’t scary enough, certain enough, or when there is something scarier that will happen if we don’t commit the crime and the deterrent doesn’t work, then we have another choice: punish or let it pass. Of course, any parent or anybody else will be quick to tell us we can’t just let it pass. That would be the end of deterrents instantly. So when the deterrent fails, we punish. For what happens when we punish, I’ll refer you back to Section 1: higher incidences of crime, high-risk behaviour and self-harm, addiction, depression, cognitive impairment and poor grades in school, etc.

So this is the gamble, the bet we make. We designate a punishment, hoping for the deterrent effect, and all too often wind up punishing instead, causing the aforementioned damages to our criminals, and to our kids. When we lose this bet, we instantly transition from being the good folks who would make the world a better place by stopping bad behaviour to becoming the cause of so many of the world’s ills instead. Of course this is a multigenerational gamble. “Our kids” means us. This is the gamble, but make no mistake, no-one wins the game. This is one that we lose often enough that the wins are nearly meaningless, because the damages that come with losing aren’t balanced out by the mere absence of trauma that is the prize for winning.

Defined as a joke with the power to make us cry, this is irony: a logical joke, but a sad, sad reality. This is the deeply ironic fallacy of deterrents.

If we believe in our deterrents, but see crime remains, or increases, we may think the deterrents need to be stepped up, the penalties intended as deterrents worsened . . . and this only increases the damage, and doubles the horrible irony of our public policy. This is what is offered by our Law-and-Order politicians, more damage, and therefore, among other social symptoms, more crime. (I’m looking at you, Stephen Harper.) This situation is of course more heartbreaking when we do that with our parental discipline, when we increase the stakes on our children, in this game that we can only lose to a greater or lesser degree, this game where there is no winning.

I know deterring crime, deterring bad behaviour, it sounds positive. If it worked every time, if the bad behaviour was averted one hundred percent of the time, it would be – but it doesn’t. Again, I’m not going to put a number out there, I won’t even presume to say that the deterrent fails more often than not. Clearly it fails often enough; punishments are not rare, by any measure, and neither are the sorts of damages punishments have been shown to cause. I repeat: deterrents fail often enough, and damaging punishing inevitably results. There is no winning these bets, only degrees of losing. Punishing damages people, and our wish that bad behaviour can be reliably deterred is back-firing. Our chosen method to solve crime and misbehaviour is what is causing it, and not the other way around.

If this is not heartbreaking to us, we can consider that we have been desensitized to it. There is only so much horrible irony a person can take before we just switch off. It’s the system, it’s not our fault.

That doesn’t mean it’s not wrong.


Punishment: a Self-fulfilling Prophecy and the Roots of Institutionalized Racism

“You beat a man with a whip, and he likes the whip.” I always love an opportunity to quote Charlie Manson. Or Vince Bugliosi anyway. I suppose we could still ask Charlie if he said it, but could we believe his answer? Bugliosi is still alive too, but sources aren’t important to me. I’m all about content. If a swine like Manson says something clever, I appreciate it. Moving on.

Separating the times when punishment has been a cause from the times when it has been an effect is no simple thing, along the lines of the chicken and the egg, except not so easy. We punish a person when they’re bad, but the well-intended abuse that is punishment can all too often have the effect all abuse has, the same effect the kind with bad intentions has. It makes people bad. To some degree or other, of course. Many recipients of punishment and/or abuse may never act it out. But it happens, and when it does, which came first, chicken or egg? When a person is bad, is the badness originating from their deep, original self, or is it a reaction to abuse, either well or badly intended?

Another analogy, supplied by another clever criminal: “If you’re really sick, you might take a lot of medications, but the reverse is also true: if you take a lot of medications, you will be really sick.” It’s a paraphrase from Kevin Trudeau. He’s a huckster and a shyster, but that is no lie. He backs it up with this: “All drugs are toxic. Don’t believe me? Take forty of anything.” Please don’t test the truth of that one. (I can’t remember if Kevin offered that warning.) But the analogy is apt: if you’re bad, you will receive a lot of punishing, but the reverse is also true: if you take a lot of punishments, you may be really bad. This is why it’s so hard to separate the effects from the causes: a punished person becomes bad, in effect proving the punisher’s case. The more we punish a person, the more they appear to “need” it, or “deserve” it.

This function can work on an individual level – Manson self-reports a childhood of very few happy moments – but it works at a social level as well. If a group or a subgroup of people are disproportionately punished, the effect of that abuse, well or badly intended, will make them bad, again, sadly appearing to “prove” the punishing subgroup’s case, reinforcing the appearance of the need to punish forever. Perhaps this is the correct context in which to see the recent events in Missouri, and the racist conflicts in America generally. It is a racial problem certainly, but I think the older problem, the pre-existing condition for this travesty lies in the abusive nature of punishing. Certainly there are a lot of ruined white lives as well, overly punished and abused white criminals that we should also wonder what came first, the chicken of their adult criminality or the egg of their childhood abuse and punishment.

Of course, we need to seriously question what came first with the disproportionately punished and incarcerated members of America’s black population, the chicken of their disenfranchised frustration, rage and desperation, or the egg of their marginal status in society. Of course this situation also informs the other current events tragedies of the moment, the dysfunctional relationship between the Israelis and their Palestinian citizens, and between the Canadian state and Canada’s aboriginals. Punishment and crime exist in a feedback loop, and of course, as always the real solution is love, not pain.

And just to be really, really clear: the egg came first.

Curing Crime

          I know, no-one dreams of actually curing crime, not adults, not really. It’s just one of the fantasies we teach our kids, that anyone is actually fighting some abstraction called “crime,” be it fictional heroes and super-heroes, or the real, live police along with the rest of the criminal justice system.

          Any adult knows that once we create institutions, they have their own instinct for survival, and it’s no secret lately that the criminal justice system is big business . . . so like everything else in the money system, the very people who might have been tasked with “curing crime” are the last people who might want to actually do it. But it’s not just the prison moguls, it’s all of us who aren’t curing crime, and I can see another part of the problem. It came to me while commenting on another post tonight.

          We, as a society, have yet to define the crimes in the first place. Take for instance, violence, up to and including murder. Crimes, right? Not so much. These things are not crimes in themselves – I mean they are, they are, in reality – but not in our societies, our human societies. In many contexts, violence and murder are seen as solutions to crime and misbehaviour. It’s not “murder” when the good guys do it, apparently.

          So, here’s the point. No-one is fighting these abstractions, “violence,” “murder.” These are still unidentified as problems and they are often identified as solutions instead. So we must realize that these things are not considered to be inherently criminal. So if murder is not clearly in the “crime” section of our minds, what is? How can we stamp out violence and murder when we, as a society do not perceive them to be inherently criminal?

          We must realize that no-one is fighting “crime.” We are only fighting some of the people who commit these “crimes,” and using these very same activities to do it. And that is what we keep coming up against, every time the police do what they do for is in an overly public or blatant way, every time they cross “the line.” We are seeing the truth, that it is the people who commit crimes that our societies, through our police and criminal justice systems are fighting, and the actual “crimes,” violence and murder, walk free, never even accused.

          We need to put violence and murder in the “crime” side of the ledger if we are ever to even begin the fight against them. If murder and violence might ever be stopped, then the good guys can’t be allowed to do it either.

Murderous Madmen and Their Victim Groups

Posted in a shorter form on May 27, 2014

A bunch of girls didn’t do what he wanted, so he set out to hurt a bunch of girls and teach them all a lesson. Folks, yes that is misogyny, yes it is gun violence, but mainly


The reason all these killers find it reasonable and rational to hurt the people who don’t do what they want, is because EVERYONE finds it reasonable and rational to hurt people when they don’t do what they want. That’s the concept of punishment. And we all know where he learned it, where they all learn it, where WE all learned it. Right?

Now how is it that what these crazies are trying to do and why is somehow not front and center of the conversation? Why are we talking about sex rather than the roots of violence, why are we talking about who the victims are instead of what these killers are doing and why?

The way we and our media focus on the victim group is making me uncomfortable, there is something very wrong with it. Everything I’m going to list may be hyperbolic, but hyperbole would not be possible if it didn’t contain a substantial kernel of truth. Plus, taken together, the power and possible truth of the situation may be unavoidable. So these are the ideas that make me uneasy about it:

  1. The focus on the victim group (women, LGB&T people, racial or religious minorities) seems to call into question issues of the groups’ human rights status; the status of the group is reviewed in media coverage in terms of public opinion and public policy. This seems to put such crimes into a category of ideology where they do not belong. In our society, everyone has a right not to be victimized, and especially not to be murdered. Are we pandering to those who may support these crimes?
  2. Focusing on the victim group contains the implicit idea that there is, at least theoretically, the possibility that some groups can properly be targeted for victimization and murder, otherwise, why would the particular group identity of the victim be an issue? For proof of this, of course there are groups that many of us are OK with killing, people outside of our society, such as enemy combatants, and some within our society, perpetrators of heinous crimes, etc. I don’t intend to debate capital punishment here, but it shows precedent, and our sometime willingness to victimize and kill. The message is also inherent that there is a certain amount of flexibility in the list of who can and who cannot be justifiably harmed.
  3. By at least appearing in our media and private discussions to ignore the common factor –  the criminals and their apparent feeling that it’s justifiable to harm or kill those of whom they disapprove – we are subjecting the victim groups to a kind of ‘divide and conquer’ situation. Are we not condemning the use of force to change people’s behaviour generally, in favour of having each marginalized group address it’s particular abusers, and on their own? Must every identifiable group fight their attackers by themselves, when all various groups’ enemies are of one kind, and all doing the same thing?
  4. By directing attention to the victim group, we are detracting attention away from the psychological and social ground that produces the bad fruit of these criminal victimizers. I see it as analogous to the one of the points batted about in the gun control discussions: just as gun are inanimate and not to be “blamed” for what people do with them, so too is the practice of punishment, of hurting people to change their behaviour, not to be “blamed” or called into question. The difference is that punishing is even more sacred, and more so in more places than the freedom to own guns.

So, as I said, hyperbolic perhaps, but with a core of truth. Perhaps it is a matter that the victim groups simply make sexy headlines, and media discussions are so often sensationalist – but reasons why a thing is are a proof that the thing really does exist.

Please, let’s try to learn to talk about the bad guys and why they do what they do, and if it is a fractal of our culture of punishment, let’s go there too. Let’s not blame the victims, let’s not always be dropping the hint that if they don’t want to be victimized, they should just shut up and conform. OK?