Monday, December 8, 2008

Abusers and their punishment

A woman in my town stabbed her husband. He had been abusive for years, and was, if I read correctly, in the process of physically abusing her again when she grabbed for a large knife (moral: don't beat your wife in the kitchen) and stabbed him. Whereupon he died.
She was arrested, tried, convicted of some sort of murder or aggravated manslaughter and sent off to spend time in jail.
The judge said that he intended to "send a message."
Hmmm. What sort of message could he be sending? Let's see -- how about, "All you uppity women need to mind your husbands, and if they smack you around a little, that's their prerogative." Did you know that the phrase "rule of thumb" came from an old statute that a man couldn't beat his wife with a stick that was larger in diameter than his thumb? I kinda think that's where the judge was going for his precedents.
Those who applaud the judge's decision will say, "Well (huffy). She could always leave him." Or, "Well, she could have sought help." Those are the simple-minded answers of people who have options. Folks, I've seen this woman's picture, and I don't really believe that any options were open to her except the one she took. She was just a drudge who'd been beaten on for years and finally snapped.
You could respond, "Well, abuse is very bad and all that, but it's not worth killing over, is it?"
Sure it is. A decade or so of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse is easily worth the life of some scummy sonuvabitch with the IQ of a houseplant and the empathy of a salamander (Sorry about that, salamander lovers).
Here's what I think. First, that the judge is dumb enough to take a three-dollar bill in change for a five. Second, that anyone who abuses a spouse deserves whatever comes to him or her. That's the kind of message I'd like to see sent out.
I think Billy-Bubba Pussgut might treat his wife a little better if he knew that she could blow him away with the family 12-gauge as he slept -- and get away with it.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Fraternity revisited

This thing about the fraternity and the young man's death keeps hanging around in my mind. I am bothered by the events it generated, and I think I have figured out why. It's all about presumption. There's an old rhetorical doctrine that nobody thinks much about anymore, but that is very operative in our lives. It's called the "doctrine of presumption." What the doctrine says is that in nearly all situations in which we have to make a decision, you can make presumptions about the argument. In the case we know best, consider a guilty/innocent problem. The doctrine of presumption here is that, in America at least, a person is presumed innocent. This means that the "guilty" forces have to prove their case; the "innocent" forces don't have to. In other countries, the doctrine might be different: that one is guilty unless proven innocent.
Another of the cases where the doctrine might hold is in the matter of change. Traditionally, the doctrine has been that a new "ism" has to prove its case before it can replace the status quo. Conservatives like this presumption. Liberals, on the other hand, would rather, I think, prefer that the new is presumed to be better than the old.
Back to the frat question. The situation seems to me to be that the university acted on a presumption that if something bad happened, the fraternity had a hand in it. Thus the speed of the action that banned the fraternity from campus.
There is nothing inherently wrong in a presumption of guilt approach. Sometimes you just gotta pull the trigger when you're not quite sure.
In this case though, I wonder if it doesn't spring from either PR or CYA, rather than a desire for justice. But, as I've said, not all the evidence is available to me.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Confusion on Campus

About a week ago, a young man attending my university did some serious drinking off campus, lay down and, sometime during the night, died of alcohol poisoning.
That's what we know. Details are frustratingly rare and couched in tentative terms. The Utah Statesman, the campus paper, said, "The drinking was part of an initiation " into a fraternity, "which could consititue hazing." Coulda woulda shoulda. Again, from lack of details, I'd assume that frat-rats were involved in the drinking, but haven't the faintest clue whether it was countenanced by the fraternity (If it was, the fraternity is dumb as a post. If they were getting around campus regs, they're criminal to boot).
We can assume the young man got the booze from somewhere, and that means that at least one law was broken in the process, since the young man was under the legal drinking age.
However, people assumed a lot more than that, at least from the published reports. The university president immediately shut down the fraternity and a sorority, though there doesn't seem to be any evidence forthcoming that they were culpable in the young man's death. Sort of a "shoot from the hip and ask questions later," approach. The words "hazing incident" were also bruited about, and a round-robin of finger pointing ensued.
As I write this a week later, the account from today's newspaper tells me nothing new. The frat and the sorority are still closed, and police are investigating.
First off, the death was horrible. It was devastating to the young man's friends and family.
But. Was there hazing? Hard to tell, but from what I know so far (very skimpy, true) I'd say probably not. Somebody gave the young man booze. That's wrong and stupid to boot. But unless someone sat on his chest and poured vodka down his throat, it doesn't seem to be hazing. Nor does evidence point to active involvment by the fraternity.
But -- and here's the crux of this problem for me. The attitude seems to be: The young man died and someone has to pay. In all this pother, no one has thought to concentrate on the person most responsible for the young man's death -- the young man himself. He played a major role in his own death. That sounds harsh, doesn't it? Yet that has to be taken into account as we assign blame and punishment.
The doctrine of an eye for an eye was never meant to be taken literally. It was simply a way of assessing what a transgressor owed those he or she had transgressed against. A life has been lost. But who the transgressors are and what the transgressions were is a more difficult problem. You can't simply say: "A young man died; someone must pay." At least not at the life-for-a-life level. The part the young man played in his own death has to be taken into account, as painful as that may be.

I honestly think that as the investigation stretches out it will become less of an emotional posse gettin th' varmints and more of a rational process under the guidelines of law. After all, that's what the law is for. Here's what I think will happen. A couple of people will be charged with offenses like providing alcohol for a minor. The frat and the sorority will be quietly reinstated, and that will be it.
It's entirely possible, though, that the lives of more than one young person will be ruined because they were stupid and weak. I hope not. It's also possible that the fraternity and sorority will be closed permanently. I won't grieve over this, as the greek system has always seemed to me a place where lead-heads get together to convince each other that they are superior. But I wouldn't like for them to get railroaded either.
I am sincerely sorry for the loss of this young man. I hope, though, that the loss doesn't lead to a rush to make somebody pay at all costs.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Mea Culpa

I apparently have depths of liberalism in me that I didn't realize I had. I find that I have this urge to apologize in agonized (and agonizing) tones to anyone who will listen, even though it wasn't really my fault. So, I want you to picture me in a large fireplace somewhere, sitting in (cold) ashes, wearing a hair shirt, hair side in, sitting in a lotus position, fingers delicately posed on my knees, imploring the gods to strike me with lightening, or at least a had cough.

Mea Culpa, for those of you who don't keep up with your Latin, means "my bad." I caused distress to someone who didn't deserve it. There. I've said it. I feel so much better. It all has to do with the incident I described in my last blog, but I note that I wasn't sufficiently humble about the whole thing; not nearly enough groveling.

See, this person was deeply distressed at the sight of President-elect Obama being hanged in effigy. And the distress was caused, not by the fact that she is a Democrat (though she may well be), but because she well knows the history of lynching African-Americans.

Which thing I didn't even think about at the time. And there's where I went wrong. The image of President-elect Obama hanging is an ambiguous one: it has two possible interpretations. One: Presidential candidate. Two: African-American. In normal circumstances, we see only one of the two; that's what makes ambiguity such a linguistic pain in the butt. The sentence, "Visiting relatives can be tedious" (courtesy of, I think, Noam Chomsky), has two interpretations, but we will usually only see one.

Unless you're a professional in communication, in which case you have a duty to see all the ways anything you write might be interpreted. And I didn't. What followed was that I missed a wonderful opportunity to use this incident to talk about ambiguity and the problems that it can cause. And that's what really hurts.