The Right Rat: Groundless Accusations Towards Victims of Crime

Yesterday, I wrote about the hysteria that arises when crime victims seek modest rights, such as the right to know when their offender will be cut loose from prison (a shifting proposition — never shifting further ahead, either), or the right to offer a victim-impact statement at the same time the convicted offender is permitted to parade his supporters before the sentencing judge.

It is a measure of society’s disdain for the rights of victims that, even when such laws are on the books, they are spottily enforced and treated like an afterthought, not a rule of law. Our courts are in far worse shape than most people realize, as evinced by my earlier post today. The first causalities of this chaos, inevitably, are crime victims.

In 1997, the U.S. Department of Justice released a study showing just how rarely victims’ rights laws were being enforced. A large majority of victims — 63% in states with strong victims’ rights laws, 74% in states with weak laws — were not being informed when convicted offenders were released on bail. Half of the victims in “strong law” states were not informed of plea agreement negotiations, even though prosecutors were required by law to notify them. 25% of victims in “strong law” states were being denied their legal right to present a victim impact statement at sentencing.

These actions were violations of the law, perpetrated by the justice system against people who had already been victimized. But they aroused no protest from the types of people who normally scorch the earth to find reasons to accuse authorities of not abiding by the law. Such silence gives the lie to organizations like the A.C.L.U., and others, who claim to defend individual rights. It really is true that they only care about the rights of some people — namely, criminals.

The rest of us, and especially crime victims, can lose every right on the books, and they could not care less.

This irrational hatred of people victimized by crime is likewise a powerful force in academia. It is tossed off casually, the hallmark of any hegemonic prejudice. If one levies wild, virulent claims and there is no response at all to them, then those around you are also in very deep.

In 2007, David P. Barash, a psychology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, castigated faceless, nameless crime victims in a feature story he published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (October 5, 2007, by subscription only)  Titled “The Targets of Aggression, ” the article was ostensibly about something he names “redirected aggression” (actually a much older and less novel concept — vengeance), which Barash loosely defines as any reaction whatsoever to harm, other than no reaction at all:

Jesus urged us to love our enemies, and, if slapped, to turn the other cheek. But for millennia — before Jesus and after — human beings and their animal brethren have been far more likely to respond to pain and injury with a retaliating barrage of the same sort, generating yet more injury, more pain.

True enough, I suppose, if viewed with a wide angle lens, a very wide one indeed. Such is the vague pudding of evolutionary psychology.

Barash wanders widely in his piece, from the Illiad to Bosnia (perhaps not so far at all), but he returns repeatedly to intimate violence — the calculus of crime and justice. And whenever he arrives at the matter of crime, he joins the vast army of academicians who now refuse to include within their calculations any consideration of the idea that crime victims might be motivated by some emotion other than pure, murderous vengeance.

This world-view is both sentimental and cold-blooded. It posits that there is no difference between a sociopath preying on a weaker individual and a victim seeking protection and justice. “Are all victimizers themselves previous victims?” Barash asks, failing to ask if there is some social space — say, civilization — where all people do not behave like rats in a cage, and thus the distinctions between victims and victimizers are more nuanced than not.

But what is particularly jarring about Barash’s methodology — and is a typical flaw of most evolutionary psychology arguments — is his obvious preference for some of the caged rats he summons. When considering criminals, he muses vaguely about their possible traumas, affording the most benign, empathetic view of their motives for preying on innocents:

If people who seek to hurt others are doing so because they have themselves been hurt, does that diminish their responsibility or guilt? Should we pity the poor perpetrator? Are all victimizers themselves previous victims? And what if they are? Does that let them off the hook? When does passing the pain become passing the buck?

When considering crime victims, however, he can barely contain a pointed contempt:

We might also want to reconsider “justice” and ask what is really going on when victims demand punishment, nearly always claiming, of course, that they are not out for revenge. But, in fact, aren’t they insisting — although not in so many words — that their pain be offloaded onto someone else? Once the wheels of pain have begun to spin, what really seems to matter is that someone — anyone — must suffer, must be made to “pay.”

Wow, we are suddenly a long way from scholarly musings, Dorothy. No hazy gates of Troy anymore, either. These victim-people sound like real bad seeds. Better get out of town before sunset.

Barash continues:

By the same token, consider the fact that crime victims typically resent the presence of exculpatory evidence, which is likely to lead to an acquittal: If their interest were simply in seeing justice done, shouldn’t they applaud any information that makes it less likely that an innocent person might be punished, and thus more likely that the criminal justice system will instead spend its energy on finding the real culprit?

I would love to see the lab experiment that demonstrates “the fact that crime victims typically resent the presence of exculpatory evidence.” What did they do, show the rats Twelve Angry Men on tiny little screens? Seriously, how can Barash make such an allegation — that victims want innocent men to suffer and don’t care about justice? Where is the evidence? This is a serious, and historically pointed, and — oh, the irony, the return of the repressed — false accusation.

More extremely complicated rat experiments:

It appears that the accumulated burden of physiology, evolution, and cultural expectation is so great that redirected aggression typically feels better than no response at all. Revealingly, there is a deep insistence on the part of victims and their families that — by virtue of their suffering — they are entitled to a defendant’s punishment almost without regard to the matter of guilt.

There is, is there? Says who?

This isn’t just bad thinking, or bad writing, or bad science: it is bad faith. Really, what is the Chronicle doing, publishing this type of insupportable slur, directed at an entire population?

David Barash is not the first evolutionary psychologist to collapse into existentialism-with-a-dollop-of- Discover magazine, and he certainly is not the first to end up hobbled by the same infantile romanticizing of bad guys that hobbled existentialism in all of its previous incantations.

But it still remains shocking that somebody can make light intellectual work of slaughters throughout history, tripping good-naturedly across battlefields, then pull up short in righteous indignation at the perfect boogeyman his fantasy has created — the entirely imaginary psychotically vengeful victim of crime.


1 thought on “The Right Rat: Groundless Accusations Towards Victims of Crime”

  1. Whaere these “experts,” these academics deal with in abstract ways and studies, the rest of us, especially in urban areas, deal with real live people. Some, like me, have grown up ghettoes or other circumstances where we saw where some people (including, often, ourselves) had incredibly hard upbringings, but they did not turn to robbing and maiming others, for any reason, evolution included. In such times and places, one realizes that some people are just plain bad, and the best a civil society can do is lock them up to keep them from creating any more harm. That truism does not require a degree, nor an accredited field of study.

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