Tag Archives | deviance

Guilty Acts and Bad Minds

What is the relation between a criminal justice system and the society of which it is a part? Danu asks what Breivik, James Bulger and Bastøy can tell us about ourselves.

Guilty Acts and Bad Minds

“A man’s character is most evident by how he treats those who are not in a position either to retaliate or reciprocate.” – Paul Eldridge

The way a society treats its criminals can be thought of as a reflection of its character. It seems banal to observe that a society’s criminal justice system reflects the broader values of that society, so allow me to unpack what I mean by that and why it is of some interest.

This begins with an acknowledgement of the essentially constructed nature of the phenomena we are describing. We may say things like ‘society’, ‘justice’ or indeed ‘criminal’ and assume we can agree on what they mean, but such categories are far from fixed — indeed, like most categories, upon closer examination they turn out to be quite fuzzy.

For instance, it is hardly novel to point out that a criminal only exists because of the law that created him. To observe this is only to remind ourselves of von Feuerbach’s maxim nullum crimen sine lege — there can be no crime without laws. We have thus already established the political nature of law and crime — it is part of the apparatus of state. Let us leave aside for our present purposes considerations of natural law and focus instead on the positive law made by states.

That such laws are a reflection of a society’s values and preoccupations is evidenced by the way they change over time. Alcohol was prohibited entirely in the US for a time, heroin was dispensed as an over-the-counter children’s medicine before it became an illicit substance and gambling was at various times outlawed before it became a major source of government taxation revenue.

Although these examples should be sufficient to make the point, it is important to note that frequently the categories of activity and people they describe are themselves social constructions. If bigamy is to be a crime, then we must first have some understanding of what we mean by ‘marriage’. If it is a crime to outrage a woman’s modesty, we must first have constructed an idea of modesty and linked it to certain social actions which are themselves placed somewhere on a related continuum of acceptable behaviour. It would be a grave (though common) mistake to assume that these terms behave as labels we can simply pin on concepts that exist ‘out there’. With Ian Hacking, we could ask, rhetorically:

Were there any perverts before the latter part of the nineteenth century? According to Arnold Davidson [1990], “the answer is no … Perversion was not a disease that lurked about in nature, waiting for a psychiatrist with especially acute powers of observation to discover it hiding somewhere. It was a disease created by a new [functional] understanding of disease.” Davidson is not denying that there have been odd people at all times. He is asserting that perversion, as a disease, and the pervert, as a diseased person, was created in the nineteenth century. Davidson’s claim, one of many now in circulation, illustrates what I call making up people.1

This ‘making up’ of people is an essential part of how a society understands and regulates itself. The social structures and power relations by which this process occurs make for fruitful and fascinating study. Continue Reading →

Through the Cracks: Home… Sweet Home

What’s it like to be in a mental hospital? In the introduction to this series, Phill offers an empathetic yet unflinching first-hand account, leaving labels, preconceptions and prejudices at the door.

Through the Cracks: Home... Sweet Home

This feature is Part 1 of a series.

My room is a single room with an ensuite bathroom. Newcomers, I’m told, temporarily occupy these rooms until a decision is made regarding our mental state. Soon we will be moved, either to single rooms with shared bathrooms or four-bed dormitory rooms. Another patient, unhappy about being moved into a dormitory where his unsettlingly-vacant neighbour openly masturbates to vocalised violent fantasies involving minors, has told the nurses that I’ve agreed to swap with him. I am asked only once if I have indeed agreed to swap rooms. My terror must be evident; my room remains my home.

My room itself is a curious statement. There is a single bed, much like any cheap motel room but with its comfort hindered further by a thick vinyl bed protector. The walls are a powdery blue and the carpet is a hard-worn, grey-blue loop-pile. The spartan furniture — a desk, bedside table, chair and wardrobe — would have been understated two decades ago. The print which depicts a city scene, somehow aptly, in the rain, is firmly fixed to the wall, its glass removed. There are two impenetrable layers of steel bars on the outside of the building and the floor-to-ceiling windows are no longer able to be opened. All the same, I am glad for the small patch of blue sky I can see through the bars, past the large tree growing in front of my room and out over the tops of the surrounding houses.

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Sex, Love and Marriage

Growing up in a strict religious family can do strange things to a young boy’s concept of sex and sexuality. In this moving personal reflection, Sean offers a powerfully candid account of his sexual development through adolescence and into adulthood. Now a husband and a father, his story raises some difficult questions about relationships, religion and the institution of marriage.

It was never mentioned. Period. Sex transcended taboo in my upbringing. My earliest recollections of sexuality are being introduced by my marginally older cousin to OzBike magazines at his local paper shop, and finding Hustler magazines and a pornographic novel under my eldest brother’s bed. I recall that the Hustler magazines were encountered in my third year of school, when I was roughly eight years of age. The OzBike magazines predated this by perhaps twelve months at most.

Ever since I saw the tattooed, large breasted, high-heel booted biker models draped provocatively over Harleys in OzBike, I developed an instant and lasting fixation. Not for motorbikes, mind you. I was preoccupied by these goddesses and my thoughts were often consumed—with scant capacity left for more wholesome stimulation. Almost every afternoon we would visit the shopping centre on the same block as my school. Why we were there so often escapes me now, but every couple of days would find my mother, middle brother and I at the news agent where mum spent what at the time seemed like forever browsing, or being attended at the counter. This freed me to beetle off to the back section, where OzBike and other ‘adult’ magazines were kept. I would furtively, extremely furtively, riffle through magazines looking for stocking-clad legs, leather-bound bottoms and creamy white boobs. The thrill was intense and the risk palpable. Terrifying, yet delectable. People would come into the aisle with little warning and I was under the unshakable belief that they were ‘onto me’. Unaware as I was, the foundations underpinning a prominent, confusing and often debilitating pillar of my life were being laid.

The thrill was intense and the risk palpable. Terrifying, yet delectable.

Once, and I think only once, the lady behind the counter at the news agency called out to me from the counter in a shocked or affronted tone stating something along the lines that I shouldn’t be looking at those magazines. I downed whatever it was I was ogling and ran. No repercussions followed me. You must understand, being the moral flagship that I misguidedly thought I ought to at least attempt to be, that my ‘furtive’ and ‘ran’ are not to be imagined in the Dickensian, Artful Dodger sense. Rather, they were polite, dignified and at the same time nonchalant. The kind of attitude you wish to slap out of anyone arrogant enough to think they’re better than you. Reflecting now, I can only assume it highly likely that my mother was alerted to my infraction. It was never mentioned. I believe with every confidence that the truth would not even now, twenty years later, be divulged–even if pressed at length. Conveniently selective amnesia is endemic in my family.

The magazines under my eldest brother’s bed (he is ten years older than me), which he swore then and still swore when last I asked as an adult, belonged to a teenager (someone who tragically died when the rescue chopper he was a paramedic on crashed off the coast of North Queensland en route to a rescue several years ago) who visited from Tasmania with an ex-neighborhood friend. The magazines were, naturally, quite graphic. I know now, without question, that there was no penetrative sex depicted in those magazines. But at the time, and in my memory, I must have filled in the blanks. The farmyard barn loft setting featured a cowboy-booted stud and a basket-laden, seemingly innocent, and I assume devoutly Christian (if not explicitly Amish) country girl. During the photo-shoot she progressed from initial meeting to wildly uninhibited clandestine congress, aided by a sex-swing apparatus. I’m not sure why a barn loft would contain a sex-swing, but I could almost taste the arousal which I was sure coated the lucky bales of hay upon which the girl was spread.

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