“We are too hard on them,” the man says. He wears a blue button-up shirt tucked into his slacks. He practices law downtown on the 32nd floor of a skyscraper, and we’re talking about a case where he’s helping a man get out of jail and return to his family. The man has been in jail for eight years, and during that time he has missed out on seeing his children grow. Instead, his wife made ends meet. Miraculously, she didn’t divorce him. People said she should, but she didn’t.
The man’s crime was fondling his daughter. That’s right, child abuse. To many, it’s among the worst crimes imaginable. People convicted of this crime aren’t always safe in prison because the inmates will seek vigilante justice. It’s a crime among criminals.
This is a sensitive topic, and I questioned even addressing it. I know people whom this very crime has dramatically affected, people who years later are still struggling to come to terms with what happened to them as a child. There’s really no way to set the emotions aside.
To help, let’s agree to this: We’re not talking about every perpetrator or every situation, just this man and this situation. In this case there was no major injury, no violence; the child was very young, almost unaware. The man confessed to his wife, stopped the fondling, and was back on the right track—until the authorities got involved. Then he was on no track at all. The actual damage from the crime was minimal when compared to the effects on the family of him going to prison for eight years.
Is Sexual Assault the One Unforgiveable Crime?
Still, accepting this, no one learns about a child abuser—we call them pedophiles—and feels the courts are too harsh. We’re more likely to think they should be locked away for good. That is what I believed until this lawyer told me “We are too hard on them.”
This lawyer was not being paid to do the work. It was a pro bono case he took because he knew the family and wanted to help. This lawyer was also himself abused as a child. He’s not speaking from some self-interested place or out of self-deception. There’s no politics in his voice. He’s not saying something to win followers, score points, or impress others. What he says, he believes.
He told me about when he was abused. It was part of his childhood, and he is not ashamed or particularly angry. I could hardly believe it. I have never been abused, but simply the thought of it made me cringe. It felt as close to pure evil as I could imagine. It is perverse to a point that it becomes the thing of nightmares. To me it seemed that one conviction should be enough to lock the perpetrator up for life. And this criminal was getting out before he was even old; that seemed plenty lenient to me.
So how are we too hard on them? The lawyer says we come down so hard on these criminals as a way to deflect our guilt over our own permissiveness. If we draw a clear line, put up big signs, and punish anyone who crosses it, we feel we no longer carry any liability for the crime.
Blaming You Excuses Me
To be clear, he’s not saying victims are at all responsible for these crimes. He doesn’t feel that what happened to him as a child was his or his family’s fault. He’s talking about a larger, broader sort of responsibility—not a my or your responsibility, but an our. He means that the society we create, the values we promote, the people we care for, have an impact.
Criminals are not always born that way. What people do and who they become partially owes to what opportunities they were given and how society influenced them. We are all born with different vulnerabilities, and there is a certain amount of luck that goes into who succeeds and who fails. This lawyer’s point is that sometimes our harsh punishments allows us to ignore our involvement.
The paradox is called “self-licensing.” There have been a lot of experiments exploring this phenomena. In 2011 at the National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan, researchers gave placebo pills to two groups of people. They told the first group the pills were multivitamins with dramatic health benefits. To the second group, they told the truth: the pills were worthless.
The group that thought they were taking health supplements smoked more, exercised less, ate bad food, and were more likely to participate in “hedonic activities that involve instant gratification but pose long-term health hazards.” That’s stuff like casual sex, wild parties, and excessive drinking. By taking a health supplement, people were less likely to be healthy. By doing one good thing, they licensed themselves to do other bad things.
This phenomena has been used to explain why studies have found shoppers at eco-friendly grocery stores were less altruistic than people shopping at conventional stores. It has explained why people who purchase energy-efficient products often end up using more energy, and why some Barack Obama supporters were more likely to express racist views. Malcolm Gladwell has used it to explore how the Royal Academy’s praise of Elizabeth Thompson’s painting allowed them to block her from entering as its first female member.
That’s what the lawyer was getting at. Our punishment of pedophiles licenses us to be sexually promiscuous. We watch violent porn, have casual sex, go to wild parties, and it’s all okay because we really hate pedophiles. They’re the worst. Anyone who does that, we cut him out.
I Make Myself Feel Better By Taking You Down
The same is true for rapists. Largely due to the controversies surrounding Stanford University student Brock Turner, who was convicted of assaulting an unconscious woman, we have all witnessed some particularly vehement examples of contempt for rapists. When we no longer trust the justice system to deliver justice, we learn something about our own concepts of what would be just. The following comments are taken from the BuzzFeed article describing the armed protesters who stood outside Turner’s residence the day he was released from jail.
These comments depict a brutal justice devoid of charity. We’ve made crossing the line bleaker. We’ve added contrast to the picture. But, if the lawyer is right, our righteous indignation might serve as anodyne anointment for everything that remains in bounds. Anything that isn’t quite over the edge, even if it brings you right to the brink.
Because we’ve made the black areas blacker, we feel justified in making the white areas whiter. The line between what is moral and immoral is clearer but also more immediate. Now, you don’t just step across the line, you fall. We’ve terraced morality in order to give ourselves more space to play.
Because we’re harsh on rapists, we don’t have to consider our own responsibility in triggering other people’s vulnerabilities. Because we punish the bad guys, we can ignore our own badness. Just as having a designated driver makes someone more likely to get drunk, hating rapists makes us less likely to question our own lusts, check our own morals, and monitor our own appetites.
There is one clear benefit of separating the crime from the context. We protect the victims from shouldering the blame. This is both noble and necessary. Can’t those of us who are not victims, however, shoulder some of the burden? Is charity necessarily one-sided, or is there a way to find charity for both victims and rapists? And what would that look like?
There But for the Grace of God Go I
Of course, the lawyer isn’t talking about rapists. He’s talking about pedophiles. Even worse. What sympathy do we owe them? In Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” a judge condemns a man to death, but by the end of the play the judge has committed the very same crime. A nun pleads for the judge to extend mercy, saying, “Go to your bosom; Knock there.” The message is that charity is not so much about condoning other’s actions but admitting our own predispositions towards those very actions. It’s an awareness that it could have been me. That we, ourselves, are implicated in the crime.
Perhaps here we are worse than Puritans in our morality. I was surprised to learn that in Puritan communities when a person was convicted of a crime, the town felt they too were somehow responsible. The criminals still went to jail, but the local community baked meals, provided linens, and visited the criminals.
If the laws required capital punishment, the entire town arrived and prayed for the criminals and for themselves—believing that through capital punishment the criminal might find forgiveness and yet be saved. In a way, the criminal’s death was similar to an atonement, offering redemption for the whole village. This was not victim-blaming. It was a realization that we too share responsibility for what our neighbors do. The criminals were punished, the victims protected, and yet charity remained.
That’s a far cry from our sentiments today. We are too hard on rapists in order to be too kind to ourselves. Sure, we’ll push them to the line, but if they fall over, screw them.