Friday, July 22, 2011

The Society for Cruel and Inhumane treatment of Kitten-Burners

Cases of child abuse, and particularly cases of child abuse that end in the deaths of small children are big news here in New Zealand. They stir up a huge amount of public opinion, and due to the glories of social networking this means that my Facebook news feed is occasionally dominated by my internet-friends (as opposed to actual-friends) signing up to sites and events like this one.

Now, that link will only work if you're on Facebook, so for those who aren't (or can't be bothered to click through) here's a brief rundown on where it goes: Norefjell Davis is a 36-year old woman who was sentenced earlier this month for killing her 2 year old daughter in a particularly horrible way.

The Facebook "event" I've linked to is an attempt to prevent her from being eligible for parole, and in fact an attempt to somehow get judges to give people convicted of this kind of crime mandatory life sentences. It's also full of the usual rage and hatred that random people on the internet feel entitled to dish out, including the traditional "hanging's too good for 'em" and "if I had a chance I'd rape/torture/murder/lynch that awful person" sentiments, and the classic "how dare our culture let people like this get away with their crimes" plaint.

When I see this stuff, it creeps me out on a number of levels.

Firstly, it's just not very smart. The whole point of our legal system is that it can't be swayed by random people on Facebook. Just imagine, for a second, if these people actually had the power they think they have - anyone who was publicly unpopular for some reason would be virtually guaranteed to have an unfair trial.

People can already get convictions overturned on the basis that the jury was biased against them from the start - and if judges, juries or parole boards started listening to Facebook petitions, that would happen all the time. Anyone who could afford a sharp enough lawyer (and in this case that would simply mean "not currently dead") would be basically unconvictable.

I understand that people are very angry about this woman's actions, but that's part of what worries me. See, there's a reason why Schopenhauer, in his 38 Ways To Win An Argument said:
"Make your opponent angry. An angry person is less capable of using judgement or perceiving where his or her advantage lies."
Basically, angry people - particularly angry people en masse - are stupid, and it's best not to have legislation and public policy dictated by stupid people. This is why it always annoys me when the media get in the faces of victims of crime on the court-house steps, incidentally. I think people should be given a chance to get back in their right minds before being forced to give a public opinion they'll end up feeling obliged to stick to later.

One of the things that this particular angry mob is currently ignoring is that "our culture" (whatever that means) has already given the judiciary the power to deal with people who kill children. Killing people is always against the law, and children equally if not more so. If caught and convicted, people who do these things are sentenced to jail terms. That's how a legal system works.

Judges are already entitled to pronounce whatever sentence they feel is appropriate for the crime (within certain bounds). That means they can, if they choose, punish people more harshly if they feel they have been particularly awful, or reduce the sentence (or the conviction) to a lesser one if they feel there are extenuating circumstances.

I'm also concerned about the source of this anger. It looks to me like a case of what the Slacktivist called "The Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition". Specifically this refers to an organised and vocal response to a non-existent "Movement of Evildoers".

See, I'm pretty certain that no-one, including Norefjell Davis, thinks that what she did to her daughter was admirable or that the world needs more of that sort of behaviour. I'm also reasonably sure that she doesn't belong to a group who meet up on Saturdays to swap child-abusing stories, and compare notes on the best ways to murder toddlers. I'd even go so far as to speculate that while she was in the process of bashing her daughter, she wasn't thinking about the effect her actions would have on public perceptions of her and people who commit similar crimes or the length of the prison sentence she'd be likely to face if she got caught.

There is a mythical creature referred to in the field of economics which is known as the Rational Consumer. A Rational Consumer is someone who does all of their spending entirely rationally with the goal of "maximising utility" (for non-economists, the closest idiomatic approximation is "getting the most bang for your buck"). Now, while I won't deny that doing some cost-benefit analysis in the supermarket is a good idea, I think that if we're totally honest most of us will admit that that's not how we work 100% of the time. We make choices for non-rational reasons enough of the time that there is advertising specifically designed to appeal to us on that basis.

My point is that all of the people clamouring on the Facebook event that if Norefjell Davis "didn't want children she should have kept her legs shut", or screaming for harsher sentences to deter other potential child abusers, are assuming that people who commit crimes perform an entirely rational cost-benefit analysis before they do so. This is nonsense, particularly in the case of people who commit violent crimes.

Moreover, if we look more deeply at the specific factors surrounding Davis's crime, we see something far darker and nastier than a simple case of an evil woman who needs to be punished. We see someone who was in an abusive relationship with a man many years her senior (if you're thinking "Well, why didn't she just leave him then?" go here, and then come back wiser.) We also see that both of them had abused both alcohol and methamphetamine (aka "those ANGRY drugs") for an extended period.

So, are we looking at a Rational Criminal who decided "Well, I want to bash my daughter to death, and the jail term won't be too bad - what the hell, let's do it!" or are we looking at an angry, stressed, mentally unbalanced person with a severe emotional detachment from her child and her situation in general? Because if we factor in a total lack of normal emotional attachment to her child, and severe emotional control issues, launching an assault of that kind looks less and less like a rational conscious action, and more and more like the reflex of a wounded animal biting who or whatever comes within reach.

Once we look at the situation from that perspective it becomes a simple either-or. Either someone had to to intervene in that family in some way, or either Davis or her partner were eventually going to attack that child for some reason. And since killing a child is trivially easy for an adult, even by accident, the outcome of that was always going to be horrible.

Let me make something abundantly clear. I think that what Norefjell Davis did to her daughter is terrible. I think it's tragic that a young child died in such a horrible way, and was betrayed by someone in such a trusted position. She shouldn't be excused responsibility for that, and importantly,  I don't think she has been.

However, I also believe that the Society for the Cruel and Inhumane Treatment of Kitten-Burners are after something different from justice. They  want revenge for the assault against their principles, and above all they want their righteous anger to remain intact.

Why do they need the anger? Because it's that righteous fury that protects them from the realisation that, in almost all cases, violent child abusers are made, not born. And if that's the case, then the appropriate response is not "How dare she?!" but rather "There but for the grace of God, go you or I."

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