A Mass Psychology of Punishment: Crime and the Futility of Rationally Based Approaches

Article excerpt

No, I'm not going to vote for Dinkins: I want a mayor who's going to be the mayor of all the people, not just the blacks and minorities who are committing all the crimes.... You voted for Jackson in the primary that time, didn't you? Yeah, you're always on their side. You don't care about the fact that those animals are out beating people up, mugging people. They should all be in jail, locked up for life.

So pronounced a relative on the occasion of a small family get-together, raising a disturbing issue that frames this essay's larger concerns. Perhaps what is most worrisome about these statements has less to do with what was being said (though this, too, is surely of major concern), but how and under what conditions this relative was saying it. The anger was utterly palpable in the facial expressions, as well as in the overall bodily tensions, visible as these deeply interconnected attitudes about crime and race were being stated. Moreover, efforts to change the subject were to no avail since there seemed to be a virtual investment in repeatedly coming back to the theme and attacking not only the criminal population, but also the family "liberal" being addressed much closer at hand around the dinner table.

As it happened, this particular relative was slowly going out of business, beset by increasing worries about how he would make ends meet as he edged toward his middle sixties, with hardly enough money to pay for his own and his wife's health-care insurance. His savings were by now meager, slowly vanishing, and he perceived that age discrimination made his prospects for reemployment slim. In this respect, his situation was little different from that of people Labor Secretary Robert Reich has dubbed an "anxious class" (as quoted by Louis Utrichelle in a recent article seeking to understand the November 1994 Democratic electoral debacle) "consisting of millions of Americans who no longer can count on having their jobs next year, or next month, and whose wages have stagnated or lost ground to inflation" (New York Times, 1994a). This family member has since gone out of business and one of the authors worries about him steadily, despite the racist views she finds so repugnant, misplaced, and self-reproducing.

The other author also has recently argued with relatives over the issue of crime. Her latest approach, after having exhausted her usual repertoire - how prison doesn't work, it messes with the Bill of Rights, crime is not really rising, have you ever considered the role of the economy - is to dangle the threat of a gulag society over her own family-gathering table. From these arguments, she has since concluded not to try this at home. The gulag idea is not as innately repellent as one would hope. One relative, who had conceded only months earlier that he indeed would not want to live in such a society, a dystopia filled with largely racially segregated bantustan-type prison encampments and hyper-surveilled suburban enclaves, now believes the crime problem has become so acute - statistics about its leveling off, or decreasing, notwithstanding(1) - that if a third of the population needs be locked up, so be it. However, not to be seen as insensitive to what he terms the underclass, such a conclusion is now reinterpreted not as vicious, nor as absurd in a manner reminiscent of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, but as potentially beneficial to the functional poor who at least would now find the "vipers" removed from their midst.

Crime is the issue that these relatives are most eager to express outrage over and discuss. In this respect, they may not be very different from other people our friends and colleagues also tell us about arguing with in their own households, workplaces, or in their own families - to some extent across race and class, in other ways varying with race and class quite specifically. There, too, they say, the issue of crime rises to the top of the most engaging and most effectively distracting list of favored conversational topics. …