Bad Guys and Good Guys: Moral Polarization and Crime

Bad Guys and Good Guys: Moral Polarization and Crime

Bad Guys and Good Guys: Moral Polarization and Crime

Bad Guys and Good Guys: Moral Polarization and Crime


Are victims "good guys" and criminals "bad guys"? Sometimes--but often the public's stereotypes and perceptions of offenders, victims, and groups are quite complex. In this, the most extensive analysis yet published on images of criminals and victims, Claster explains why the public as well as its representatives resist measures that would seem to be sensible ways of ameliorating crime; yet community service, shock probation, determinate sentencing, and reality therapy are embraced by the public. In the process of explaining these contradictions, he shows how moral polarization is central to explaining public attitudes.


This is not a book about criminal behavior, nor is it about social and psychological conditions that contribute directly to the occurrence of crime. It is rather an examination of the perception of crime. Much of it is descriptive: an account of the ways in which criminals and their victims are perceived by ordinary citizens, makers of criminal justice policy, people responsible for carrying out those policies, scholars, and the press. It also considers the interplay among perceptions, for example, effects of press coverage on public attitudes and efforts by the press to give the public what it wants.

In calling these perceptions "good-guys" and "bad-guys" views, I suggest that moral judgments are closely connected to awareness of criminal encounters. the tendency to make moral evaluations is of course not limited to thinking about crime. It is widespread in matters as mundane as neighborhood gossip as well as in broad concerns like international relations and economic policy. Crime, however, seems to be a focal point for the human need to hold positive and negative attitudes toward social objects.

This phenomenon of "moral polarization" is accounted for on two levels. One is the level of historical development. Starting with moral judgments about crime as they appear in the United States at the present time, we trace some of the religious, political, and humanitarian doctrines that have led to the current perceptions.

The other level of analysis leads us to the scholarly literature. Psychologists have discerned a phenomenon that they call "psychological polarization"; sociologists, "social polarization"; and political scientists, "political polarization." the concepts seem to have developed independently; I

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