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America's desire for punishment

milk before cereal

The United States has an obsession with revenge and overly punitive punishment. 

Mass incarceration is a prime example of this infatuation with vengeance as a virtue. Though statistics have a tendency to anesthetize violence, I implore you to seriously grapple with these numbers: 

No amount of random error or changes in behavior or culture can come close to explaining this phenomenon, not in the same way that the war on drugs, class warfare and a history of bondage do. This country needs to address the domestic warfare waged on the accused. The prison-industrial complex and the criminal justice system fuel the constant production of mass suffering and politicians, including the establishment left, fail to prioritize or even envision a society in which the American prison is not a site of exploitation. Mass incarceration doesn’t affect arbitrary masses of flesh; rather it defines the lived experiences of particular individuals who are forced to forever carry the weight of their imprisonment. 

This column doesn’t provide enough space to fully address the issues and solutions (white supremacy, prison abolitionism, plea bargaining, CJS reform, private prisons, etc.) that exist with regards to the prison-industrial complex, but there already exists an extremely robust body of literature on these topics. Instead, I bring up the topic of incarceration as a starting point to expose a troubling and irrational obsession with revenge that securitizes thought in multiple facets of life because this topic of our psychological compulsions towards revenge is extremely undercovered. 

For instance, in the context of the prison system, it is well documented that our incarceration rates are unconnected to the country’s crime rates and that overkill in the justice system is directly tied to higher rates of recidivism. It’s obvious that a process of subjecting inmates to longer sentences, a lack of mental health and substance abuse resources, poor living conditions riddled with infectious diseases, and an employment system that cancels anyone with a criminal record is not an effective solution to cyclical problems within the most battered communities. But despite these seemingly objective and substantively warranted arguments, there still exists a pervasive fear of being “soft on crime” which paints this idea of attempting to understand and rehabilitate convicts as yet another example of Hollywood, liberal elites being out of touch with the “actual” reality of the situation. 

When taken at face value, this appears to be a classic example of the “rehabilitation versus retribution” debate. What bothers me so strongly, however, is that strong empirical evidence already points in favor of rehabilitation as a better heuristic. It is apparent here that justice requires that we should strive to abstract away from our impulse to avenge and violently respond to crimes in favor of developing policies that enable ex-convicts to function in society and resolve the conditions that enable criminal behavior in the first place; that’s hardly ever what we do. In fact, we still tolerate the idea of breaking down and dehumanizing prisoners simply because we feel an emotional and affectual response in favor of doing so. 

For instance, people commonly express that they desire to see prisoners languish and rot in prison for the rest of their lives. People make crude, perverse jokes about prisoners being raped and cheer gleefully at the idea of someone getting assaulted by other prisoners. It’s obvious here that the metrics by which we evaluate a justice system are not based on its ability to treat equitably or minimize future occurrences of crime; we instead equivocate justice with whether “it feels right.” Punishment is no longer about a safer society or closure for the victim but an internal, selfish desire to imagine violence against others. 

Our ethical obligation is to reject those impulses. I know that it’s obviously easier to make these claims in the abstract but the goal of criminal justice needs to be punishing fairly and intelligently. Moreover, it seems hypocritical to say the least that the “pure rationalist” right-wingers—who aspire to be Ben Shapiro and Charlie Kirk types—can criticize the left for failing to delineate “the truth” from our individual emotions and experiences but are okay with strongly leveraging feelings of vengeance and anger in response to crimes. These feelings are ultimately motivated by an obsession with authority and insecurity of losing face; anything less than an overkill response communicates an emasculated and desexualized sense of masculinity. They fuel a libidinal desire to inflict tremendous pain upon the people that have hurt us and those we empathize with. The thought of satisfying that desire for revenge within the human psyche is extremely enticing but ultimately emotionally unfulfilling and detrimental when acted upon.

I hope that we collectively think more about whether we are letting revenge dominate our thought processes. For instance, the desire for revenge will glamorize the idea of obliterating a foreign enemy in response to the death of American lives, even if that move may endanger a greater number of American lives. The desire to inflict retributive pain explains both the disdain towards the “softness” of younger generations and the perspective that crippling student loan debts help Millenials finally “toughen up.” The desire to place the blame on survivors of sexual assault is fueled by a misogynist vengeance complex that criminalizes going out, clothing choices, and actualized sexuality. Though unwanted pregnancies may jeopardize the life of the mother and child, the anti-abortion camp wants them to experience the consequences of “irresponsibility.” The bottom line is that most people are well aware that empirical evidence and logical deductions on these topics strongly suggest that the responses fueled by resentment are incorrect but then struggle to reconcile their subconscious impulses in favor of objective, rational evidence. Americans have a deep love for this perverted idea that the wounds they experienced at the hands of unfettered capitalism, racism, criminal behavior, or simply bad luck can somehow be mended by replicating that pain onto others.

David Min is a Trinity sophomore. His column, milk before cereal, runs on alternate Thursdays.

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