Monday, February 25, 2013

The Great Debate


The trek to Nottingham was not the most pleasant, but the prospect of debating against Philip Davies MP made the strain more than worth it. I had a low opinion of the man, not for his abilities as a parliamentarian but for his habit of being an easy quote for the more rabid tabloids whenever a prison story appeared. Not that having an opinion is problematic….But knowing what the hell you're talking about should be a prerequisite for commentators on a public salary. And legislative power.

As is the way, I lurched up to the doors of the lecture theatre, peeked in, and promptly went to change underwear. Seemingly endless rows of students, a packed house to the extent that people were being turned away due to fire regulations. And I had never had to stand before such a vista. Twitter and nicotine were my crutches.

Taking my seat at the front I tried to hide my nerves as I gazed upwards through the masses. Shortly after my co-debator, David Perry QC, arrived and I had the pleasure of his urbane company for the next hour or so. Not in attendance were the opposition, the proposers of the motion that “life should mean life”. The vagaries of the railways and Nottingham town centre had temporarily defeated them. Why they didn’t have the wits to engage what I call “a taxi”…..Which somehow signposted the intellectual weight on offer from the other table.

Philip Davies finally arrived, weilding a suitably firm Tory law and order handshake. Greyer than his profile pics, I briefly wondered if he was about to unleash an insightful, complex argument. He didn’t. Speaking first, he wove together the most visceral parts of Daily Mail editorials, being unhindered by any lack of consistency or rationality.

Within moments, Davies had lost the proposition by deciding to argue that not all murderers should receive life sentences at all. This was an attempt to avoid the weakness of the "life should mean life” proposition, which is that murder encompasses a wide range of circumstances from the most horrible serial killings through to mercy-killing. We didn't allow that to pass unchallenged; altering the definition of murder was a different debate for another day.

Davies did spend a lot of time working two themes. Firstly, that sentencing was dishonest and often opaque. In this he had some merit, although the complexity of sentencing lays at the door of legislators including himself. And secondly, he indulged in a prolonged bout of shroud-waving.  Those of us – and most of the audience – who permitted killers to be freed to commit further crimes were, it turns out, condoning child-rape. Hmmmmm.

But in his arguments solidly for the proposition on the table, not much came along. Yes, some Lifers do get released and do kill again. But this is to the tune of maybe 1 or 2 percent. When challenged that keeping 99% of lifers in prison forever to prevent this may be, well, unjust, there was no response. Davies simply could not see that detaining people for what others may possibly do in future is a morally dubious proposition indeed. Added to the fact that those judged dangerous are not released – maybe never – then the debate was, I'm afraid, rather bereft of intellectual substance.

I’d happily tell you what I said in my time at the rostrum, if I could remember. I do recall raising the point that weighing the value of a human life is essentially impossible. Why did I receive a 10 year tariff, why not a 50 year one? How do we even begin to make such judgements? And, more importantly, what would be the point of a whole life sentence across the board? Does it raise the dead?

Davies arrived low in my opinion, and managed to leave lower. But not as low as some of his supporters. One sat directly in front of me, telling me sotto voce during the debate that I should have been hanged. The morality of executing children is an issue I left him to ponder. Such was his clearly visceral feeling for the topic that I insisted he be given the mike during the Q and A session. And it transpired that he knew a murder victim’s family and the pain they endure.

But as I could only reply, would executing me bring a victim back? Would dipping me in acid resurrect the dead? Would any punishment actually undo the pain that follows murder? No. It is an irretrievable act and a full life sentence wouldn't alter a thing.

He was genuine in his feelings; fair enough. But his compadre was tweeting with vicarious thrills that they would now have to run for it afterwards, having told me I should be executed. Yes, mate, because I fill my spare moments plotting to kill everyone who disagrees with me….. The idea that murderers kill at the slightest bruise is pathetic. Clearly, a lot of educating is needed for some people.

We won the vote. Obviously. Twice; both at the start and again at the end the proposition that life should mean life was trounced.

It is a proposition that appeals to the darker, desperate part of our human hearts. The idea that we should hurt those who hurt us is a deeply, unthinkingly, held one. But put to test, when it is demanded that this policy would actually offer more than illusory benefits or a sop to our horror, the idea collapses.

What is said in private should, of course, stay there. But I have to say that in the bar, David Philips talked as much gibberish as he did at the podium.

It was a great night….

9 comments:

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  2. "It is a proposition that appeals to the darker, desperate part of our human hearts. The idea that we should hurt those who hurt us is a deeply, unthinkingly, held one. But put to test, when it is demanded that this policy would actually offer more than illusory benefits or a sop to our horror, the idea collapses."

    I think this aptly sums up the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the 'life should mean life' argument but let's not get too smug. I have been the victim of violent crime myself. There was at least a flash of vengeful thinking in which I hoped for all kinds of hellish and lawless fates on my assailants. As you imply, this is natural. The problem, I think, is the way the criminal justice system is rationalised. It is believed that by exacting retribution (a fancy word for revenge) on criminals, this salves the sense of anger and injustice among the public at the unjust behaviour of others. Is that a constructive way to think about the problem? I would say not. The challenge is how to persuade people like Philip Davies, or his Jungian shadow, David Philips, to stop taking his cues from the Daily Mail and explore more positive alternatives.

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  3. Philip Davies' Wikipedia entry reads so much like a classic racist, homophobic, small minded, hateful, corrupt imbecile that it's surprising he could even bring himself to face an educated audience, never mind a real debate. People like him need public shaming; the problem is there is a large portion of the public who wouldn't see his behaviour (even the lies) as shameful. Maybe lying in parliament should carry the same sort of penalties as over-claiming expenses? It certainly does as much damage.

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  4. Davies is a fraud. He was blagging his way through the debate in much the same way as he must blag his way through his working life.

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  5. I suppose there has been some real progress in debating this topic, in that we have moved on from capital punishment restoration arguments to discussing length of sentence. As Philip Davies acknowledged, there are exceptions to his norm of the life means life stance, this suggests there are few people who would actually advocate throwing the key away where murderers are concerned. I don't think sentences can much longer than they already are, as sentence length has increased in recent years. And there is clear evidence that tariff setting in murder cases seeks to reflect the circumstances of the killing, in a few whole life tariff cases life does mean life.

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  6. I suppose there has been some real progress in debating this topic, in that we have moved on from capital punishment restoration arguments to discussing length of sentence. As Philip Davies acknowledged, there are exceptions to his norm of the life means life stance, this suggests there are few people who would actually advocate throwing the key away where murderers are concerned. I don't think sentences can much longer than they already are, as sentence length has increased in recent years. And there is clear evidence that tariff setting in murder cases seeks to reflect the circumstances of the killing, in a few whole life tariff cases life does mean life.

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  7. There is a splendid book by Iain McGilchrist: "The Master and His Emissary", in which he argues that our minds as individuals and as a social group, are separated by the influence of the two cerebral hemispheres. Medical evidence is based on how the left hemisphere alone is more immediate, what I would call tactical or logical but without depth; whereas the right hemisphere is more nuanced, what I call strategic or depth perspective in time and space, but lacks logic.

    Clearly evolution has given us these two hemispheres, thus we need both, but McGilchrist argues that society unduly influences which hemisphere dominates our everyday moral thinking, and that our present society is heading toward extreme left hemisphere morality.

    What I find intriguing, is that most of us have the capacity to think BOTH sympathetically [left dominant] and empathetically [right dominant, I think], and that therefore we are for ever tripping over ourselves trying to resolve these moral quandaries.

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  8. Hi Ben, I am a senior lecturer in Forensic Psychology and wondered if you would be interested in coming to talk to our students about your experiences?

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    1. Of course. Email me at thebengunn@gmail.com

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