Monday, November 14, 2005

Civilization and its dis, mal, non, and ill contents

From Robert B. Parker's newest Spenser novel, School Days:

"God, what a way to live," Rita said.

"It's the way he's got," I said.

"You saying he had no choice?"

I smiled and shook my head.

"I'm not navigating the nature/nurture shoals with you again," I said, "I got no idea."

"You know as well as I do," Rita said, "that whatever the psychological reality might be, civilizations have to act as if the individual is responsible for what the individual does."

Spenser's talking over his latest case with sultry defense attorney Rita Fiore. His client's the grandmother of a teenager who along with another kid supposedly shot up their prep school Columbine style. The shooters wore masks and one of them escaped from the locked down school before the police burst in. The kid who was caught on the spot fingered the grandson. When the cops picked him up, he confessed. Looks open and shut, but the grandmother is convinced her grandson wouldn't have done anything so monstrous. Spenser's investigations have him not so sure the grandmother's right. But along the way he's learned that the grandson is mildly retarded but no one noticed it. His parents were in denial, his teachers were only concerned with his grades, which were good enough, and his classmates thought him a geeky loner who just wanted to be left to himself so they left him to himself.

On top of this it's beginning to look as though the kid was being used as a tool by other adults who should have been looking out for him but instead saw him as an opportunity.

The other kid, who we know did shoot down teachers and students in the hallways that awful day, is a snotty jerk, a poor excuse for a tough guy, who attached himself to all kinds of bad characters before becoming a killer himself. But Spenser has discovered that this kid's the product of miserable parenting. His mother---there's no father; she went to a sperm bank---had him to give herself somebody to love her unconditionally and had expected that the kid would grow up grateful for the opportunity to show his devotion by being essentially a mini-her. When it turned out early that what she'd given birth to was a boy with a personality and needs and wishes of his own, she turned cold on him, and left him to his own devices, using every time he got into trouble while wandering wild as another excuse to step back farther from him and another justification for her coldness and neglect.

Spenser's client's grandson was the product of a different sort of bad parenting, a kind that looks like devotion, but which is actually laziness. His parents refused to recognize his disability because if they had admitted it they'd have had to deal with it and him and become involved to a degree they were too busy and narcissistic to become. So they indulged him, covered for him, and made excuses, pretending that his failure to grow emotionally were just peculiarities of his personality.

So, having established that the representatives of civilization, the ones who were supposed to civilize them, had failed both boys, Robert Parker finds he has written himself into a corner.

Because of how closely he had their crime parallel the Columbine shootings, he can't forgive or fail to blame the boys or it would seem that he was forgiving and failing to blame Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

But by going to great pains to show the "psychological reality" that Rita Fiore mentions so dismissively, Parker can't suddenly turn around and decide the boys are the usual sort of sociopaths and psychopaths Spenser tangles with and dispenses with by the half dozen in every book.

There's a way out of this that has probably already occured to you, especially if you're a regular reader of mysteries and thrillers, but I'm not going to tell you if Paker uses it or uses it in the way you're imagining.

But I don't think it's spoiling anything to tell you that Parker helps himself out in another way, too, by adopting what Rita says about civilizations needing to act as if individuals have autonomy as one of the book's themes. Every righteous character Spenser deals with after that scene tells him a variation of the same thing. Spenser, to his credit, remains skeptical, but he doesn't argue the point.

I happen to think that Rita's got it all wrong. I think civilizations are based on the idea that individuals can't be left to be responsible for their own behavior because they can't be trusted to act responsibly.

Yep, you're right. I'm not a Libertarian.

There is a way of describing a liberal, as opposed to Libertarian, civilization as one that allows individuals the most autonomy. But I think that a liberal civilization is one that saves individuals from having to act autonomously. We don't leave people to fend for themselves. The less fending they do, the less temptation they face to take responsibility for their own survival---acts of self-preservation are rarely civilized when it's a case of me versus you, us against them, winner take all.

Totalitarian civilizations save their citizens from having to take responsibility by controlling their every move. They don't provide their citizens with much except the choice between acting civilized---following all the rules---and not surviving.

Liberal civilizations survive by not making their citizens have to choose between following the rules and self-preservation. By taking care of people's wants and making it easier for them to achieve their desires, or at least some of their most reasonable desires, liberal civilizations allow their people to go about their lives as if they were autonomous.

Totalitarian civilizations maintain order by making their people behave by force. Liberal civilizations maintain order by giving their people few if any reasons to misbehave and by making everybody see that it is in their self-interest to help each other behave by taking away the need for individuals to worry about their self-preservation.

Instead of making individuals responsible for themselves, liberal civilizations encourage people to be responsible for each other.

Therefore in a liberal civilization crime---threats to the public order---has a moral judgment attached to it that isn't a simple matter of right versus wrong. In a totalitarian civilization crime is just a matter of breaking the rules. In a liberal civilization crime is failure to take care of one's fellow citizens.

This is why liberal civilizations when deciding questions of guilt and punishment are obliged to take into account the individual's capacity to act responsibly. And it's not just a question of asking if the individual charged with a crime understands the difference between Right and Wrong. The individual has to understand what right and wrong mean.

In sentencing the question of the guilty individual's remorse is allowed to play a part. But remorse is only possible when you understand that what you did hurt other people.

The system, then, recognizes that some people understand this better than others and it allows for a lesser punishment for those who show remorse on the grounds that the remorseful individual is far less likely to hurt anyone else in that way again.

And it makes sense to inflict harsher punishment on sociopaths and psychopaths, not because we must punish evil, but because they will always be a danger to other individuals and to the public order. The better job we do of making sure they are kept away from the rest of us for a long, long time, the safer we are, that's all.

But a liberal civilization ought to also recognize the difference between people who don't know what right and wrong mean and those who don't care what it means, and among the former between those who don't know because they just haven't bothered to know and those who don't know because they are incapable.

The second kid in the story, the one we know did murder people, was failed by his mother and to lesser degrees by the other adults who had direct responsibility for him and who should have taught him what what right and wrong mean.

But he was capable of teaching himself. At 17 he could be expected to look around him, see what civilization requires of people, and direct his thinking and action accordingly.

Spenser's client's grandson, on the other hand, wasn't capable at 17 of seeing what he needed to see or of directing his own thinking and action to the degree a 17 year old should be able to.

He can't be expected to be responsible because he couldn't be responsible.

But Rita Fiore is saying that even if that's so, our civilization has to act as if the boy could be.

And this happens to be the way our civilization does act.

When the system gets hold of someone who is retarded or mentally ill to the point of not being capable of understanding what right and wrong mean, you would think that we would show some understanding toward them and realize that they shouldn't be punished in the same way or to the same degree as people who have the capacity.

Instead, we often come down harder on them.

End of part one. Part two is here.


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