Social Values and Punishment

This is my 200th post! It might not come up that way if you go through and count by publications – usually my video games queue is a couple weeks ahead. I’ve just written one on Downward, which you’ll see in a couple weeks, and now this post is #200 in the queue. We’re stepping away from Aquinas for a minute this week; I want to talk about something in the news. From my end, this article came out last Wednesday. It describes how gross old tweets from Trump critics have been unearthed to predictable cries of outrage and disgust. Let’s chat more about it. 

So James Gunn has lost his job over some tweets, Trevor Noah’s been forced to apologise for a racist joke about Aboriginal women – some person was calling for a boycott of his show, which seems a bit extreme really, but there you go – and Dan Harmon’s deleted his Twitter because of a parodic baby-rape sketch he made in 09. Those are the basic outcomes. And it’s interesting, because I’m currently tutoring in a paper on controversial classics, and the patterns of bans and social shunning and occasionally real legitimate punishments – such as losing your job – are strikingly familiar. Last week we looked at the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde. Wilde lived at a time when homosexuality was illegal. He was charged and found guilty of homosexual acts, and given two years’ hard labour. After being released in 1897, he left for France, and died poor and alone three years later. Most of us today would agree that Oscar Wilde didn’t deserve to go to jail. Most of us would agree that homosexuality shouldn’t be illegal. And this is kinda the thing – historically, when we look back, most of the imprisonments or social punishments for different things throughout history make us go ‘Oh, that’s fucked up.’ We don’t believe that the state or society should have acted in the way that it did.

So there’s a long history of people resisting the power of the state, or the power of society, in a way that seems heroic. Rosa Parks is heroic because she fought society and the state for black civil rights. The suffragettes are heroic because they fought society (and the state) for votes for women. Bonhoeffer resisted Hitler and the Nazi state. The French revolutionaries fought against a corrupt monarchy and an aristocracy that didn’t care whether they lived or died. The American War for Independence was fought over unfair taxation by a British state that refused representation in Parliament. Time and time again, we have stories of brave groups or individuals fighting against society and/or the state to bring around a better, fairer place for everyone. Correspondingly, we have a lot of writing on how the state is oppressive and how society is hegemonic and how it’s so hard to live out your authentic life in a world that tries to push you down and make you conform. What we don’t have is a great deal of writing, especially from left-leaning figures, on the positive functions of the state, or how social punishment should be utilised. Today, I think, that lack of theorising is becoming a problem.

It’s quite clear that both society and the state are still functioning to punish people who transgress against legal and social rules. This function is, broadly, a good thing. Harvey Weinstein is going to court – or, wait, has already appeared in court? – over his history of sexual assault. That’s great. He should be held legally accountable for his actions. Similarly, Kevin Spacey has become persona non grata after the revelations of his sexual assaults. He may never work in Hollywood again. And this is really the point: people today are still being punished by society for doing things that transgress against society’s rules. We can all agree that sexual assault is bad. High-profile offenders such as Kevin Spacey are accordingly being punished by society for their sexual assault. However, in structural terms, this process of social value and punishment is similar to the processes carried out against Oscar Wilde. Victorian society had their own specific values – in this case, they thought homosexuality was immoral. When they found out that Wilde was gay, they sent him to prison. He transgressed against a social value, and he was punished for it.

Now, I’m obviously not saying that the imprisonment of Wilde and the punishment of Spacey or Weinstein are morally equivalent. Obviously I don’t think that. But even though there are wildly different values involved, society’s still working in basically the same way. Purely in terms of the operations of social punishment, the two situations are very similar. Therefore, I argue, we need better theories of the positive role of the state and of social punishment. We need to think through how social punishment should operate. We need to think about how our systems of social punishment are functionally pretty similar to those of ye olden days. Again, the values are obviously very different, but the processes of social punishment are largely the same. James Gunn lost his job over some tweets that were deemed offensive to social values. Rosa Parks got fired from her job as a seamstress after her bus protest. Once more (because I know motherfuckers are going to try and misinterpret this): I’m not saying that these situations are morally equivalent. I’m exclusively saying that the operations of social punishment for transgression against social values are still on the go. It’s different values, and often different punishments, but at its core there’s still a process of social transgression and social punishment.

Ultimately, then, it’s not good enough for people to keep complaining about how the state is oppressive and society is hegemonic. We need a positive articulation of the role of the state and the role of social punishment. We need to consider the structural similarities between our forms of social punishment and the historic forms of social punishment that we today find outdated and offensive. We probably all agree that Wilde shouldn’t have gone to jail for being gay. But what are the legal and ideological arguments for imprisoning him? How were the systems of social and legal punishment articulated? What were the justifications for imprisoning him? And, most crucially, which of those justifications and articulations and arguments are still used today? We might all agree that Trevor Noah shouldn’t have made a racist joke about Aboriginal women. But what should happen to him as a consequence of his transgression? Should we all boycott his show and run it into the ground? Should he be publicly ostracized? Shamed? What should the social or legal punishment be for this transgressive action? How do we articulate that punishment, and how do we differentiate it from the systems of punishment that we find so obnoxious in the past? Is it enough to assert that our values are ‘better’, and therefore our punishments are more justified? When we look at history, we often find ourselves sympathising with the rebels, the social outcasts who force society to change and become more accepting. But for people like Trevor Noah, perhaps we’re more on the side of society, more on the side of punishment. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but we do need a better articulation of the positive role of the state and social punishment. That’s all.

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