Tuesday, March 9, 2010

You’re Still Criminals!

Having now had the opportunity to read your comments responding to my post accusing everybody of being criminal, I am astounded by some of the tortuous reasoning that some used to deny their criminality. I was also quite amused at the sporadic intrusion of self-righteous outrage.

Let us be absolutely clear. A criminal is one who breaks the criminal law, a person who commits a crime. It's fairly simple, really. My post posited that there can be very few people who have not broken the law, whether they have been caught for it or not. Hence, we are all criminals.

Why the spluttering obfuscation and outrage? Why the denial? The responses proved my point wonderfully - that we desperately need to see the criminal as 'other’. And so the whole gamut of traffic offences is dismissed as being not really criminal at all; after all, don't we all break the speed limit...? As if the universality of an act renders it harmless or non-criminal.

And then there were the straw-doll assertions, creating a relative scale of wickedness. Murder is far worse than nicking paper-clips, therefore petty theft is pretty much okay.

All of these were resilient, determined arguments. Their intellectual merits are, for the purpose of my point, irrelevant. What is interesting is the efforts people expended to persuade themselves that THEIR particular criminal acts - petty theft, speeding - were somehow different. That they were not criminal.

It is this insistence, deliberate or unconscious, that the "real” criminal is Other, different, inherently not the same as everyone else, which I find fascinating.


  1. I agree - we are all guilty of 'minimising' our crimes - if one believes the prison psychologist' theories our small crimes will lead to bigger ones, and so on. Perhaps they should build more prisons to house us all in!

  2. Is this getting a bit hairsplitting? I went fishing once, but that doesn't make me a fisherman. The problem with the term 'criminal' is that it implies an ineradicable tendency, a dominant characteristic. Inasmuch as this is true of almost no criminal I have ever met, I detest the term and attach no meaning to it. But you're right, Ben; strictly speaking you're right. So I embrace the term: I am much more of a criminal than I am a fisherman and I am pleased to take my place among all those who have been Other-ed off. The label is meaningless. Seek not to know for whom the cell door slams, it slams on thee - as the poet might have expressed it. Okay, I'm going to shut up now.

  3. I think you're conflating two arguments here. Recognising "real" crimes and thus "real" criminals is not the same as labelling "real" criminals as "Other". Labelling someone as a criminal is a recognition of wrong doing (and yes, this has to be greater wrongdoing than stealing a paperclip). Labelling someone as Other suggests something is lacking in their humanity. I do not argue that criminals are Other. My point was that there are real crimes and thus real criminals and to say everyone is a criminal is fatuous. I know this idea of "real" crime is really clumsy, but I think you know what I am trying to convey.

    I'd cheekily add that I think it is your reasoning that is tortuos in this case.

  4. Benn, have you ever sped?

    Speeding is a crime. Ergo, you are a 'criminal.'

    That's all he said. Hard to accept?

    There clearly are gradations of crime, that's why some land in prison, some get a ticket and fine, and some get a verbal warning. Nobody is doubting that. But, they are still crimes. Which still makes us all, as Ben has said, 'criminals.'

    I'm with Charles on this one, and think 'Criminal behaviour' is a more useful term than 'criminal.' But then since I speed at least a bit most times I'm in my car...

  5. A pal of mine was jailed for fraud, some years ago.

    On daily "work" release. later on, he commented that he thought being able to get out to work was a good thing, not for him, but to "help the proper criminals get back into society".

    Proper criminals! LOL

  6. I think it helps to think of everything criminal as being on a continuum. Obviously the theft of paper clips is not as far along that scale as causing death by dangerous driving, but they are both on it.

    The thinking of people as "other" comes about when folk loose sight of that fact and think that the more serious crimes are on a whole new scale. This is particularly relevant when it comes to speeding and the example I gave of causing death by dangerous driving; everybody speeds, and every so often an otherwise perfectly normal person crosses the imaginary line into "real criminal" because their speed accidentally killed someone. I'm sure in the hours before their accident, had you asked them whether their speeding made them criminals, they would have angrily protested.

    Murder is not that different. Every so often, an otherwise perfectly normal person is subjected to a series of events or experiences that (perhaps together with a genetic predisposition), tips them over the edge. There but for the grace of Bob go I.

    When we loose sight of that fact, we stop treating convicted criminals like the human beings they are and we loose a little bit of our own humanity at the same time.

  7. I can see I'm out-gunned here and Wigarse is preaching to the converted, but he's driven himself himself (probably at speed) into an intellectual cul-de-sac. We are all criminals therefore all convicted criminals - murderers included - are just like us therefore we need to treat them like human beings. Aside from the fact I have no idea what treating someone like a "human being" actually entails (and therefore the standard against which you are judging), this argument seems 100% detached from reality and is premised upon the plain wrong assertion that we are all potential criminals just waiting to cross some imaginary line.

  8. Benn, if you cannot demonstrate that you are immune from all seven deadly sins, all lapses of concentration (never a good thing on the M5) and all mental illness, then you are, I am afraid, a potential criminal in the terms of our splendid criminal justice system. A moment of madness, a Friday night muddle, a maddening provocation, reaching over to change station, a bout of depression or paranoia or whatever leading to an out-of-character action, and bingo: bang-up. It's really not at all a bad idea to have a strong sense of this and of your own vulnerability. Then it's perfectly clear what treating someone like a human being entails: it's too obvious to need definition.