Monday 10 July 2017

Anger and Criminal Punishment

Whenever I read the statement from the person that Brock Turner sexually assaulted, something inside me burns with rage and I cannot quite stop myself from crying. It is painful to read what she said, to read what she went through. I normally make it to about the bit when she says that she used to freeze spoons to have something to put on her eyes that had puffed up so much from crying all night that she could not see. I cannot help but be filled with anger, an emotion I do not normally feel. Why am I telling you this? Because I just finished my M.Phil thesis on anger and criminal punishment in which I argue, to put it briefly, that anger has no role to play in criminal punishment. Or, at least, it should have no role to play. That I feel angry should be irrelevant. That judge and jury feel angry should be irrelevant. Yet, I most recently read her statement just after I submitted the thesis in which I make that argument as I was procrastinating before my viva and I felt nothing but anger at the injustice of his sentence, at the pain she and her family endured, at the entire damn thing.

I was angry. Upset. Distraught. As I always am when I read it. Angry at I am not quite sure what. At Brock. At the sentence. At the world we live in. That it happened. Everything.

"When I see my sister hurting...when she feels more guilt than you, then I do not forgive you."

And it made me stop and think. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe anger is a worthwhile emotion. Maybe Nussbaum's book on Anger and Forgiveness is all very well and good but is answering a different question. Maybe my entire thesis and its premise was misguided, missed the point. After all, we cannot help getting angry. And, more importantly, things should anger us. We should be angry at what this person went through. Brock Turner's actions, lack of remorse and decision to pursue this in court for a year should make us angry. If you can read her words without anger, then you might be part of the problem. I am not going to lie, for the first time that term, natural stress and self-deprecation aside, I thought I had seriously screwed up and I was concerned. Not because my argument was not good, not because there was no philosophical merit to what I was arguing but because I was...Just. Plain. Wrong. If you are not angry, you're probably not paying attention.

Maybe I was just wrong. But then you carry on reading.

"And now we both have a choice. We can let this destroy us, I can remain angry and hurt and you can be in denial, or we can face it head on, I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on."

Move on. Or remain angry.

Remain angry. Or move on.

Move on.

I had argued for moving on. That anger was pointless and harmful. It feels natural, sure, but what does it achieve? Where does it get us? And in some ways, it was reassuring to read that she, the victim, the one who understands what it means to actually have to make that choice every day of her life, clearly saw moving on as the better option. Maybe I was not (completely) wrong.

But I still felt angry. And I still felt that was entitled to feel angry and that the last thing I needed was some pompous philosopher who has lived his sheltered life telling me that I should ignore my anger for the greater good. Because what does my anger achieve? Because harsher prison sentences make things worse, not better. Because actually, it's inequality that breeds crime. Yeah, really? Brock Turner had a swimming scholarship to one of the best universities in America. He was not underprivileged. He was not a victim of a system that discriminated against him at every turn. He was, if anything, the beneficiary of a system that discriminated in his favour at every turn.

Every. Damn. Turn.

So I imagine the last thing this person wanted or needed (or much less deserved) was that philosopher telling her that anger won't make it better. That victim statements like hers might actually be damaging. That if only, as Nicola Lacey and Hannah Pickard advocate, we treated Brock with compassion, concern and consideration, as if he were a patient in a clinic, he'd learn his lesson much better.

"I did this thing where I waited until the sun came up and I felt safe enough to sleep. For three months, I went to bed at six o'clock in the morning."

I compromised. Because I had a viva the next day where I was due to defend my thesis that anger is misplaced in criminal punishment. My thesis that anger is an unhelpful backward-looking emotion. My thesis that anger is not only pointless but actively harmful and damaging, both to the victim and the criminal and to society's aims of lowering crime. That I am angry does not mean that the judge can be angry. That anger is a natural response does not mean that it should guide sentencing. That someone is deserving of anger and harsh punishment does not mean that that should be the answer. The question, as I ended my thesis, must be, "How can we make this situation better?" The answer is difficult and complicated.

"The damage is done, no one can undo it."

Nothing can undo it. No punishment, no amount of anger. Nothing. Our commitment, surely, therefore (regardless of what satisfies our intuitions about criminals, about our desire for anger and justice) must be fighting for the world where there is nothing to be undone in the first place. Being angry about it after the fact helps no one.

I remain unconvinced. Though it is completely immaterial now, I still am unsure of my thesis. Not because of the quality of its argument or depth of its research. I just am concerned that I am a little bit wrong. And by a little bit, I mean completely. With a tinge of irony, that makes me a little angry.

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