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July 2nd, 2010


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02:01 am - Musing on Fear, Brutality, Punishment, and Violence
This blog post about attitudes toward torture and other horrific actions is well worth reading – the heart of it is:
Across a whole range of problems there’s a class of responses I’ll dub the “low road” and another class I’ll call the “high road.” Examples of the former include war, torture, sanctions and blockades, imprisonment, aversive conditioning of all types (spanking; “dominance”-based animal training). Examples of the latter include diplomacy, rapport-building, civil disobedience, the free exchange of goods and ideas, decriminalization and rehabilitation, positive conditioning (of humans and animals).

I don’t presently care to argue that there is never any “need” to go down any given low road. In some cases I may support some low roads for some purposes. Locking up murderers, for instance. In other cases – torture – I have a much easier time saying “Never go there.” But what we see over and over again is that we judge high-road approaches as failures unless they produce nigh-instant and complete favorable results, while we show nearly infinite patience for journeys down the low road.
What I have seen is that much of the urge toward brutality comes from fear. Ronald Reagan and the mass media trumpeted the dangers of recreational drugs and drive-by shootings and we had widespread support for the war on drugs – Shrub and the mass media go into a frenzy of mindless fear-baiting after 9/11 and we have widespread support for torture. This sort of response also occurs when the fear is real rather than manufactured, when people are fearful of immediate threats to their lives or safety, support for brutal solutions seems to always increase.

Those of us in the US live in a nation where it's common for people to go into bankruptcy to afford lifesaving medical care, where even a mild economic downturn increases the number of people in poverty, and where between one sixth and one eighth of the population are in poverty and one in eight people at least occasionally go hungry. Thus, where is a fair amount of fear and the sorts of chronic uncertainty that breeds fear. So, people respond to issues that make them afraid, or that the mass media tells them are the source of their fears with a support for brutality. When, as is so often true, brutality fails to bring any improvement, the fear continues, and the response is further brutality, since renouncing brutality is seen as surrender or at best weak and useless.

What I have seen is that support for brutality is especially high among people high RWA personalities, but these attitudes can be found in all parts of the US political spectrum – on much of the left, the targets are very different from those promoted by the mass media, but the attitudes remain.

The only answer that I have seen is to renounce both brutality & needless fear – some people like Dr. Martin Luther King manage this and lead others on this path through faith or dedication, but a far easier path is to find ways to help people be less afraid. When people are less afraid, they seem less inclined to cling to the idea that brutality is the only or the best and most effective solution to problems. One way to do this is to remove the obvious sources of fear and uncertainty – like the risk that a serious illness can plunge someone into poverty or the risk that homelessness is one missed paycheck away, which is of course why I strongly support the idea of all nations becoming social democrat nanny states that provide for the basic needs of all of their citizens, and also why I support gun control this is also why I strongly support the idea of non-violent solutions in all aspects of life.

As a side note about non-violence, this is perhaps the best statement I have ever read about violence:
Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.
This quote is from a post that include a description of a discussion of violent and non-violent alternatives for liberating nations with oppressive regimes, which goes on to say:
Force is not just an alternate way of getting to liberation; it changes everything. And liberation is not just a matter of removing an oppressive regime; it is a matter of creating a country populated by citizens who are, by and large, willing to set aside the idea of resolving conflicts by force and to respect the laws, even when they are imperfectly applied.
Force and brutality just give rise to more of the same.

In any case, reading the above post makes me more committed to attempting to denounce brutality where I see it and to do my best to always find alternatives to brutality and punitive solutions to problems. And now, how about a quiz.

Poll #1586849 Opinions About Punishment and Blame

Which of these two situations is a greater tragedy:

Someone innocent is imprisoned and eventually dies in prison
9(36.0%)
Someone guilty was acquitted and goes on to murder someone innocent
0(0.0%)
Both options are equally tragic and wrong
13(52.0%)
Other (explain below)
3(12.0%)

In which of these two situations is the government more at fault:

Someone innocent is imprisoned and eventually dies still in prison
15(60.0%)
Someone guilty was acquitted and goes on to murder someone innocent
1(4.0%)
The government is equally wrong in both situations
8(32.0%)
Other (explain below)
1(4.0%)


As a note about my own votes on this quiz - It seems to me that both situations are equally wrong and that the suffering is equivalent, but that in the first case (someone innocent is imprisoned for the rest of their life), the government is significantly more at fault, because the government is the entity directly causing the suffering.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

(23 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:alephnul
Date:July 3rd, 2010 05:42 am (UTC)
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And not to go all Godwin on you, but the technical term for folks who respect laws even when they're imperfectly applied is "good Germans".


No, it really isn't.

"Good Germans" is the term for people who go along with monstrous laws.

Referring to the Holocaust as reasonable laws "imperfectly applied" is insane and obscene.

I'm sure it wasn't what you intended, but it is what you are doing if you use "good Germans" to refer to people who respect imperfectly applied reasonable laws. If you pay your taxes even though you believe that the current tax system is inadequately progressive, or excessive, or excessively progressive, that does not make you a "good German" but it does make you someone who respects imperfect laws.
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From:alobar
Date:July 2nd, 2010 10:18 am (UTC)
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In your quiz, there is an aspect you did not cover. Prosecutors and cops lying to convict an innocent person just so they look good to superiors that they caught the villain.

> the government is the entity directly causing the suffering.

Back about a decade ago I did a card reading for an older lady. She was 82. I don't normally like doing card readings for the very old. Not much in the way of up-coming projects, just living day to day. But she told me she had a big project and there was a glint in her eyes.

So I did the reading. I told her that the project was well worth doing, but it was uncertain as to whether she would be able to bring the project to fruition.

She asked me if I wanted to know more. Of course I said yes.

The woman was a professor emeritus. She has spent her whole life studying prison reform. She had spoken to legislators many times about prison reform. But they never wanted to listen to what she had to say. They wanted to punish people, not reform them.

So, when she turned 80, she began an entirely new career. At the time of my reading, she had been writing a screenplay for a Science Fiction movie about her vision of an ideal prison. She was hoping to interest Hollywood in producing the film. She felt if she could inspire people, they would pester legislators to make changes.

I have no idea if she ever managed to get her movie idea to manifest. But I thought it fit with our post.
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From:heron61
Date:July 2nd, 2010 10:26 am (UTC)
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It would be very cool if she actually managed to make her dream real.
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From:tangyabominy
Date:July 2nd, 2010 11:05 am (UTC)
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I answered "other" to Q1 because, while I believe that "someone innocent is imprisoned and eventually dies in prison" and "someone is killed by a murderer" are equal tragedies - well, no, actually that's not true; it all depends on how long the innocent person takes to die and how much prison-related suffering they endure in the meantime, while murders are usually swift, but assuming that they're both equivalent for now - the question seems to imply, however subtly, that part of the tragedy was that the guilty party was acquitted, thus leaving them free to murder.

As someone who's not too big on punishment in general, I don't want to say that not having put a guilty person in prison is as big a tragedy as convicting an innocent. Ideally, society would find ways to deal with murderers that didn't involve brutality or punishment. It's a tragedy if a murderer decides to kill again, but it's also a tragedy, in its own way, if a murderer goes to prison, I think. Prison is not a nice place, and murderers are people too.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:July 2nd, 2010 07:00 pm (UTC)
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Currently, what other solutions are there for murderers other than prison or the death penalty?

I have heard of putting a chip in a criminal's head that prevents all violent acts, but that belongs to sci-fi so far.
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From:mindstalk
Date:July 2nd, 2010 07:46 pm (UTC)
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Not endorsing these alternatives (which also don't avoid tangy's "involve brutality and punishment) but since you asked:

* amputation. Probably hard to murder again without hands or arms.
** Long-term hand/arm binding, which will cause atrophy but at least leave the limbs, at risk of being able to break the binding. (Of course if they do, you're sure they're guilty of something.)
* 24/7 chaperoning
* Wireless camera implant (this is more a deterrent of second offenses, relying on some more forceful punishment for teeth)
* Lobotomy
* Chemical 'lobotomy', implant of some drug vastly decreasing aggression.
** Castration, if that has similar effects. (Don't know if it does, on fully adult males, and of course not applying to women.)
* House arrest (related to prison, as physical confinement, but different in important ways, like not being locked up with other convicts.)

* Plus rehabilitation or "find out why they murdered and figure out how to prevent it" which I include for completeness, not because I think we can do it reliably.
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From:tangyabominy
Date:July 2nd, 2010 11:58 pm (UTC)
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Well, for one thing, I'm talking about prisons as they are now. If we had more respect for prisoners, we could make prisons much nicer places. After all, if the only purpose of them is to keep criminals away from the rest of the population, as opposed to punishment, they don't have to be the hellholes of rape and abuse they are now.

Furthermore, prisons as they are contain a lot of people who aren't actually likely to do it again. People who killed in an isolated circumstance or by accident, for example. So not all killers and murderers need to be in jail. They're there serving punitive terms, not to keep them away from people.

This is just a thought off the top of my head, and I'm sure there are better ones, but I would be up for an institution that contained people, not with the intent of punishment, but the genuine intent of studying these people and trying to reform them. It would have to be a sincere effort that was sympathetic and open to these people, and it would probably involve more learning than change at first, because we don't really know why people murder. And it would have to approach them free of the patriarchal, overbearing attitude of "we're right and you're scum" that we have to these people. In short, it would require a lot more of a liberal world than we have now. But not having war would require a more liberal world than we have now, and I don't think war's right, either.

In conclusion, I don't have a solution, but I know I don't like the existing one, and I think we could come up with something better if we put our minds to it.
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From:queen_in_autumn
Date:July 2nd, 2010 01:01 pm (UTC)
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Nothing to add except an affirmation. Over the past few years I've been becoming more and more of the opinion that fear is the root motivation for pretty much all violence and injustice, and even people who lack the courage or desperation to engage in violent actions themselves will condne brutality on the part of others if its directed against those whom they fear.
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From:xtricks
Date:July 2nd, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC)
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My take on the poll is that the first question is equitable.

In the second, the murder bears a large amount of the responsibility for their actions and the government is less at fault for option two.
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From:antayla
Date:July 2nd, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
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The government is the monopolizer of violence. It is a HUGE source of uncertainty and fear. You can't be pro-government AND anti-violence. If you insist on trying to use the violence of the state to accomplish your ends, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.
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From:heron61
Date:July 2nd, 2010 07:56 pm (UTC)
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Perhaps, but as every historical example has ever proven - the alternative to government is always worse. Except for band-level society (groups of up to no more than 2 dozen hunter gatherers), the alternatives are government or far more violence and brutality. You can talk all you want about theoretical alternatives to government, but they are no more real than santa.
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From:antayla
Date:July 2nd, 2010 08:58 pm (UTC)
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If there are truly any historical examples of alternatives to government (a debatable proposition,) they happened during eras of lower technological progress and social awareness. When people say there can be no alternatives to government because there haven't been any in the past is like when people said humans couldn't fly before planes were developed. Social organization is technology too.

Edited at 2010-07-02 08:59 pm (UTC)
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From:heron61
Date:July 3rd, 2010 02:07 am (UTC)
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So, find me an example of any complex society managing w/o government. Social organization might be a technology, but in the absence of any actual evidence that functional anarchy works for groups larger than a few dozen people (or a few hundred for short periods of time), I maintain that you are describing a purely fictional technology.

What I've seen in libertarianism is a truly vast amount of theory that's based upon an ideological belief, which to me look a whole lot more like the sort of "theories" used to support "creation science" than anything like actual science or technology.

Also, the fact that governments have far less influence over day to day life in mid Victorian era, and that various truly horrific circumstances lead to large number of people actively seeking government involvement, which then solved these problems doesn't argue well for your case.

More importantly, unless you are also arguing for the abolishment of differences in wealth (at which point, I become far more interested in the theory, but equally convinced of the lack of practicality), you are merely replacing the force of government with the force of differential wealth and resource access, which has always proven to be far more violent and brutal. In any situation of differential resource access, you will have class differences, including poverty, unemployment, and similar problems, and in the absence of government remedies, it looks to me that you're relying on nothing more than wishful thinking to keep people from starving or going w/o medical care.

On an ideological level, from my PoV, the absolute first priority of any civilized society is meeting the basic needs of all of its citizens and that any society that does not do this is in drastic need of change. It's clear that you value freedom more than food or medicine, but given that lack of ability to eat freedom, I'm rather dubious about this claim.
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From:antayla
Date:July 3rd, 2010 06:06 am (UTC)
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All technologies are fictional until someone builds them.

A free market is better able to meet people's needs than any centrally controlled economy, especially with the information technology on hand. Between trusting in trade or government largess to meet my needs, I'll take trade any day of the week. There is far more risk in entrusting my welfare to those arbitrary violence monopolists in suits living on the other side of the country than in relying on networks of mutual need and consensual dealings.

Freedom IS security. Without the freedom to trade whatever, however, and with whomever I choose, my ability to care for myself and my community is stripped and replaced with dependency. If I don't care to support your violent regime with my labor extracted at gunpoint, I'm allowed two non-violent options: stop working and starve, or stop working and become a state ward.

There would be other options if people quit advocating violence to accomplish their ends. But the elected goons who are holding the gun you've entrusted them with have a vested interest in keeping it, and they use a combination of largess and fear to maintain their grasp. Do you think they are more altruistic than those wealthy capitalists you despise? And yet, you'd never give the capitalists a license to imprison and kill, would you?
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From:heron61
Date:July 3rd, 2010 06:38 am (UTC)
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Free markets do you no good at all if you are disabled, chronically ill, unlucky in your choice of career, or simply sufficiently disliked by your community. You wonderful freedom includes within it the freedom to economically fail and then to starve or die when you can't afford medical care. I'll pass on that sort of freedom.
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From:antayla
Date:July 3rd, 2010 12:52 pm (UTC)
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Your wonderful government only provides you with enough security to buy your consent. I'll pass on that sort of "protection."
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From:antayla
Date:July 3rd, 2010 01:28 pm (UTC)
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Of course, if you want to support government goons, that is entirely your business. I just wasn't going to let your claim that you believe in non-violence pass without comment. Your elected goons are forcing ME to contribute to their foreign conquest campaigns and other immoral programs.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:July 2nd, 2010 06:56 pm (UTC)
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Question #1: Both are equally wrong.

Question #2: It's the jury's fault the murderer got free, because they found him innocent. The government is not to blame here.

The desire for brutality can also be rooted in the appealing yet appalling concept of purification. One quick act, and the criminal (or other badness) is forever removed, either killed or locked up. This, of course, does not work. At a more personal level, while brutal and punitive measures toward one's own mistakes can work in the short term to improve performance, treating oneself brutally can actually decrease performance in the long term due to the relentless psychological pressure.

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From:mindstalk
Date:July 2nd, 2010 07:38 pm (UTC)
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Question #2: It's the jury's fault the murderer got free, because they found him innocent. The government is not to blame here.

Unless the jury followed their instructions and voted "not guilty" on a crappy prosecution case.
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From:queerbychoice
Date:July 2nd, 2010 11:50 pm (UTC)
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To decide question #1, I would have to decide whether a lengthy and unpleasant experience living in prison is better or worse than a quick death out of prison. I do not consider myself capable of deciding that, due to the fact that I have never experienced either one and have little concept of what either one might be like, beyond the simplistic concept of "really bad." I can imagine a plausible argument being made for either one being worse.
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From:rjgrady
Date:July 5th, 2010 04:13 am (UTC)
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I simply cannot reject violence. There are many violent problems in the world that call for violent responses. Violence is within us. Apart from any vestigial primate instincts, simply as living beings we contend against nature, and you cannot remove the capacity for violence without removing the will to survive. They are one in the same.

The problem, as I see it, is the tendency for fear to overwhelm the mind, for violence to be dispensed not with logical resolve but with fear and lust, for the orderly transition of one time to the next to be marred by the anarchy and destruction of uncontrolled violence. What appalls me most are the waste of human potential and the infliction of injustice. Violence itself, I believe, is such a rare occurence in an ordinary society that fear of it should fall far behind fear of influenza, or in the greater scheme of things, asteroids. What we should abhor is the madness of anger shielding insecurity.

I rated the wrongful imprisonment as worse. Although both are equally a loss of liberty for an innocent person, one is the sort of occurence that is rare and hard to predict, while the other suggests a willingness to occasionally do evil in the quest for controlling a world that defies our mastery. If there is to be terror, let it be the brief terror of encountering violence in its senseless, natural form, not the chilling eye and claw of a pathological government. I have always felt strongly about the rights of the accused. Better we all endure a little violence now and then than be the instrument of it. ... If I am murdered, I am not a victim, I am merely dead, because I do not accept that others possess true power over me.
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From:krinndnz
Date:July 30th, 2010 04:07 pm (UTC)
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Quite apart from other things, that Hilzoy quote is one of my favorite anythings ever, and it does my heart good to see other people signal-raising it.


All I have is a short comment, really - there is no "away," so we can't make problems go there, we are in this together.

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