Sunday, February 7, 2016

Bad Intentions

Mistreating bad people is still mistreating people; and the American system frequently does that.
Garrett Epps "The Nobility of Good Lawyers With Bad Clients"
And I think in that, it's doing exactly what we intend it to do. When Mr. Epps notes that Americans have lived with what describes as the myth that: "The solution to crime, social conflict, and persistent injustice is not reform, not increased democracy and equality, not social improvement—but police, courts, and prisons," he is touching on this. Who wants to make bad people more equal? Who wants to improve their lives? Who wants them to participate more fully in our democracy?

While public officials looking to downplay misconduct in their ranks have begun to alter what it means to have bad apples in one's barrel, the original saying reads as follows: "One bad apple spoils the whole bunch." While this was originally very good advice for keeping fruit fresh, it been taken as a prescription to do away with anyone who finds themselves labelled "bad," and we tend to do so with gusto.

Generally speaking, American society tends to divide lawbreakers, rather arbitrarily, into two broad categories. We can call one of them Robin Hood, and the other Jack the Ripper. Robin Hoods are, unsurprisingly, those people whose breaking of the law we agree with - either because we like that person well enough to give them a pass or because we disagree with the law that was broken to the point where we sanction people placing themselves above it. Jack the Rippers on the other hand, are people we have come to view as a threat. And, as I understand it, we view them as a threat because their breaking the law is not about economic incentives, unmet needs or mental illness, but out of a lack of respect and regard for the rest of us, and the rules that we have put in place. They are, in short, bad people. I've noted before the common refrain we use for young people that "There are no bad children, only bad decisions," and our unwillingness to apply that same logic to adults. And when we start to see people as bad, we don't see them as making bad choices - we often don't see them as capable of choosing at all - they're bad people, and so their default behaviors are going to be bad things. What more needs to be understood?

And once we understand people as bad, from there it's only a short step to "violence is the only language these people understand." Because remember, we've written them off as people who are incapable responding to conditions around them and making rational choices in favor of seeing them basically as animals.

Except for the fact that we tend to have qualms about (visibly) mistreating animals that we don't have about mistreating bad people. And that allows us to put in place a system that makes that mistreatment into a feature, rather than a bug.

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