“We are too hard on them,” the man says. He wears a blue button up shirt tucked into his slacks. He practices law downtown on the 32nd floor of a skyscraper. We’re talking about one of his cases where he’s helping a man get out of jail and return to his family. The man has been in jail for 8 years and during that time he missed out on seeing his children grow. Instead his wife made ends meet. And miraculously she didn’t divorce him. People said she should, but she didn’t.
The man’s crime was fondling his daughter. That’s right, child abuse. To many, it’s among the worst crimes imaginable. People convicted of this crime aren’t always safe in prison because the inmates will seek vigilante justice. It’s a crime amongst criminals.
Now this is a sensitive topic, and I questioned even addressing it. I know people whose lives have been dramatically impacted by this very crime. People who years later are still struggling to come to terms with what happened to them as a child. And so there’s really no way to just set the emotions aside. But to help, let’s agree to this: We’re not talking about every perpetrator or every situation, just this man and this situation. And in this case there was no major injury, no violence; the child was very young, almost unaware. The man confessed to his wife, stopped the fondling, and was back on the right track… until the authorities got involved. Then he was on no track at all. The actual damage from the crime was minimal when compared to the impact on the family of him going to prison for 8 years.
Still, accepting this, no one learns about a child abuser—we call them pedophiles—and feels the courts are too harsh. We’re more likely to think they should be locked away for good. That is what I believed until this lawyer told me “we are too hard on them.”
There are a few things you should know about this lawyer. He was not being paid to do the work. It was a pro bono case, one he took because he knew the family and wanted to help. The other thing you should know is that this man was abused as a child. He’s not speaking from some self-interested place or out of self-deception. There’s no politics in his voice. He’s not saying something to win followers, score points, or impress others. What he says, you know he believes.
He told me about when he was abused, unabashedly. It was part of his childhood and he was not ashamed or particularly angry. I could hardly believe it. I have never been abused, but simply the thought of it made me cringe. It felt as close to pure evil as I could imagine. It is perverse to a point that it becomes the thing of nightmares. To me it seemed that one conviction should be enough to lock the perpetrator up for life. And this criminal was getting out before he was even old; that seemed plenty lenient to me.
So how are we too hard on them? The lawyer explains. According to him, we come down so hard on these criminals as a way to deflect our guilt over our own permissiveness. If we draw a clear line, put up big signs, and punish anyone who crosses it, we feel we no longer carry any liability for the crime.
To be clear, he’s not talking about the victims being responsible for the crimes. He doesn’t feel that what happened to him as a child was his fault or his family’s fault. He’s talking about a larger, broader sort of responsibility—not a my or your responsibility, but an our. What he means is that the society we create, the values we promote, the people we care for, has an impact. That criminals are not always born that way. And that what people do and who they become is partially owing to what opportunities they were given and how they were influenced by society. We are all born with different vulnerabilities and there is a certain amount of luck that goes into who succeeds and who fails. This lawyer’s point is that sometimes our harsh punishments allows us to ignore our involvement.
The paradox is called “self-licensing.” There have been a lot of experiments exploring this phenomena. In 2011 at the National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan, researches gave out placebo pills to two groups of people. The first group they told the pills were multivitamins with dramatic health benefits. To the second group, they told the truth, the pills were worthless. The group that thought they were taking health supplements smoked more, exercised less, ate bad food, and were more likely to participate in “hedonic activities that involve instant gratification but pose long-term health hazards.” That’s stuff like casual sex, wild parties, and excessive drinking.
The irony is that by taking a health supplement, people were less likely to be healthy. By doing one good thing, they licensed themselves to do other bad things. This phenomena has been used to explain why shoppers at eco-friendly grocery stores were less altruistic than people shopping at conventional stores. It has explained why people who purchase energy efficient products often end up using more energy and why some supporters of Barack Obama were more likely to express racist views. And it has been used by Malcolm Gladwell to explore how the Royal Academy’s praise of Elizabeth Thompson’s painting allowed them to block her from entering as its first female member.
That’s what the lawyer was getting at. Our punishment of pedophiles licenses us to be sexually promiscuous. We watch violent porn, have casual sex, go to wild parties and it’s all okay because we really hate pedophiles. They’re the worst. And anyone who does that, we cut them out.
The same is true for rapists. Largely due to the controversies surrounding Brock Turner, we have all witnessed some particularly vehement examples of contempt for rapists. When we no longer trust the justice system to deliver justice, we learn something about our own concepts of what would be just. The following comments are taken from the buzzfeed article describing the armed protesters that stood outside the Turner’s residence the day Brock Turner was released from jail.
These comments depict a brutal justice devoid of charity. We’ve made crossing the line bleaker. We’ve added contrast to the picture. But, if the lawyer is right, our righteous indignation might serve as anodyne anointment for everything that remains in bounds. Anything that isn’t quite over the edge, even if it brings you right to the brink.
Because we’ve made the black areas blacker, we feel justified in making the white areas whiter. The line between what is moral and immoral is clearer but also more immediate. Now, you don’t just step across the line, you fall. We’ve terraced morality in order to give us more space to play. Because we’re harsh on rapist we don’t have to consider our own responsibility in triggering other people’s vulnerabilities. Because we punish the bad guys, we can ignore our own badness.
Just as having a designated driver makes someone more likely to get drunk, having a hatred of rapists makes us less likely to question our own lusts, check our own morals, and monitor our own appetites.
There is one clear benefit of separating the crime from the context. We protect the victims from shouldering the blame. This is both noble and necessary. But for those of us who are not victims, are we not able to shoulder some of the burden? Is charity necessarily one sided? Or is there a way to find charity for both victims and rapists? And what would that look like?
Of course, the lawyer isn’t talking about rapists. He’s talking about pedophiles. Even worse. What sympathy do we owe them? In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure there’s a judge that condemns a man to death but by the end of the play the judge has committed the very same crime. And there’s this great line spoken by a nun, pleading for the judge to extend mercy. “Go to your bosom; Knock there.” The message is that charity is not so much about condoning other’s actions but admitting our own predispositions towards those very actions. It’s an awareness that it could have been me. That we, ourselves, are implicated in the crime.
And here perhaps we are worse than Puritans in our morality. Though it was surprising to me, it turns out that in Puritan communities when a person was convicted of a crime, the town felt that they too were somehow responsible. The criminals still went to jail, but the local community baked meals, provided linens, and visited the criminals. And if the laws necessitated the criminal be killed, the entire town arrived, prayed for the criminals and for themselves—believing that through capital punishment the criminal might find forgiveness and yet be saved. And in a way, the criminals death was atonement like, offering redemptions for the whole village. This was not victim blaming. It was a communal blame, a realization that we too are responsible. The criminals were punished, the victims protected, and yet charity remained.
That’s a far cry from our local sentiments. We are too hard on them in order to be too kind to ourselves. Sure we’ll bring them to the line, but if they fall over—screw them.
*Image from @JayWarrenWCPO