Monday, September 05, 2011

On Punishment

As of this writing, the world at large does not know the whereabouts of Muammar Gaddafi. He is in hiding, officially still clinging to hopes of restoring his government in Libya, though most likely seeking to avoid punishment for his decades of misdeeds. Yet even if he somehow manages to avoid capture, I wonder if that necessarily means that he can avoid punishment. It's hard to know what goes through the mind of a megalomaniac dictator, especially one absolutely corrupted by decades of absolute power, but I have got to wonder about the psychic toll of being reviled by the civilized world. I wonder if being mocked or dismissed by the civilized world could be an even worse fate for one used to being honored and revered.

I thought about this while reading Chuck Klosterman's recent comment on the University of Miami football program. While the university faces severe NCAA sanctions because of improper benefits given to players, Klosterman wrote that he didn't want to see any punishments at all levied: "They're a corrupt program and everyone knows they're corrupt, and that's its own penalty. And college football is better when the Hurricanes are awesome." The implications of this comment are interesting to consider. One could make a comparison to recent steroid-enhanced home run records that have been set in baseball. Barry Bonds probably wouldn't have hit the most home runs in baseball history if there was no such thing as steroids. But there is and he did, and his accomplishment (like his single season record) means nothing to anybody. There is no asterisk in the record book, no official decree that his accomplishments should be weighed with caution, but society is smart enough to view his records dimly. And though we don't know precisely how Barry Bonds feels about this, it may not be a stretch to presume that when he thinks of his records he doesn't feel the warm, fuzzy emotions that his predecessors in the record books felt (his pre-1998 predecessors anyway), and he certainly can't bask in the glow of public adulation the way that they did. If the Miami football team were to somehow escape their current scandal unscathed, and they were to win a championship in the near future, the fallout may be less pronounced than that in baseball, but quite likely the lack of respect afforded the victors would result in a weird kind of hollowness for fans and members of the team alike.

Philosopher Michel Foucault wrote Discipline and Punish in 1975, in which he argued that how society enforces laws and standards has undergone a transformation in modern times. Whereas once the state attempted to make a public show of its force against those who violated its standards (through methods like drawing and quartering), now society takes a much more complex approach to keeping its perceived miscreants in check. Social pressure (and the mere threat of surveillance) makes more of an impression on behavior than attempting to make a public example of specific individuals. And in the last quarter century, technology has enabled both surveillance and public judgement to flourish. (Regarding the former, in many cases individuals effectively broadcast their own activity that there is no need for others to monitor them).

Any grade school child who has been shunned by peers, even for a brief time, knows that this can be a more effective form of torture than anything that a teacher or principal can dole out. There was significant public outcry about the Casey Anthony verdict a few months ago, with the popular perception being that she was not punished enough. If she did what she was accused of doing, this is undoubtedly so. And yet, given that she has to live with the knowledge that society has rejected her--how does that kind of psychological toll compare with the consequences of physical confinement? If Muammar Gaddafi is never found, would it still be correct to say that he has escaped punishment? If Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens never go to jail does that mean that they haven't been made into examples?

The phrase "The pen is mightier than the sword" has become a cliche. Can we soon acknowledge that there is also a force stronger than the cell?


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