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[personal profile] mirrorshard
I was, mostly at random, reminded of a previous post I made, a brief snark comment on the death penalty. I should also note at the top here that it quickly turns into rambling about books instead, though.

[Other point I was originally going to make, about why some people support the death penalty so strongly, excised because I can't yet find a way to put it that doesn't turn into a sneer.]

I think I may have it, now, so bear with me, Gentil Reader, while I ramble.
Like most things, it's a power-and-weakness situation... it's often painted as a routine judicial decision, or as a rational choice between alternatives, but I'm not sure I buy that one... and I know I don't like the idea that there's anything routine or indeed rational about ending someone's life. Just like rape isn't about sex1, killing isn't about law, and no matter how institutionalized it gets, in the end it's always someone doing it. The effects of killing on the people who do it - assuming they aren't already broken in some way beforehand - are fairly well observed.

So the question becomes: who's doing it? Why has this person chosen to do it, or at least not made the choice not to do it? (Note that I'm not just talking about due-process death penalties here... I suppose what I'm talking about is the whole idea that it's OK for someone to be killed. And specifically excluding crimes of passion and murder for other personal reasons. Warning: contains overgeneralizations.)

For some people, I suspect, it's an expression of power and nothing else. Being able to make decisions, and not letting anyone tell you that there are decisions you can't, don't have the authority to, make. I'm not going to speculate about where that comes from, but it's not always personal - sometimes if you get trapped in a corporate or political culture that plays those sorts of games, the obvious way to survive within it is to play yourself.

Regarding expressions of power, one has to wonder: to whom are they expressed? [livejournal.com profile] glasstrider said, in a comment to the last post, what a powerful statement to make about your system - "Our society will not stand for this. If you do this, we will end your life." That looks a bit different, of course, when it's expressed as don't you dare fuck with me, man, or I'll (&c)". If that's intended as a deterrent to (potential) criminals, then, well, that's the state's privilege, I suppose, to decide what it likes and doesn't, if you accept the idea of the judiciary at all. On the other hand, pronouncements like thia aren't made autocratically, and most of what any state does is bureaucrats talking to each other. So there's always going to be a substantial component of I'm tougher on crime than you are to it, and the inevitable insulation of policy-makers (and, especially, policy-suggesters) from execution (in both senses of the word) will amplify that in comparison to the real effects of policies, especially ones like this which only take effect at extremely low rates compared to (say) health or education policies.

Of course, that's even easier when you know that what you're saying is never going to have any effect, and now we come to one of my favourite parts, the implausible and far-reaching analogy. In this case, science fiction fans, and specifically the interminable arguments over Tom Godwin's short story The Cold Equations. (There's a synopsis of the story near the top of that page; the next few paragraphs won't make any sense if you don't know what happens.)

I don't think it can be doubted, amongst right-minded people, that the story isn't a good model of what might happen, or of any kind of realistic world, but there's still a vocal minority who do approve of its message, which they see as more or less "if you do something stupid, you deserve to die". My take on this is that they're doing the Meritocrat Thing, fetishizing smarts and competence2, and implicitly dismissing anyone who doesn't measure up or isn't seen to measure up, because they need something to look down on. (Statutory declaration of personal bias: Meritocracy pisses me off because I'm a loser.) But they're also Not Involved, and have No Influence at all... they're commenting on an implausible, niche-market fictional piece on the internet, so the echo chamber effect comes into full play here, and they feel good and righteous about condemning a fictional character to death.

Part of it, also, is I think because they've been fed - and in many cases, like mine, brought up - on a literary diet consisting largely of Big Stories, about heroism and genius, technology and destruction, war and massive engineering projects. So these things seem normal to them, and so much of their mental equipage consists of rather odd-shaped yardsticks. (I say 'them' - I probably should mention that I have this same problem, though I try to overcome it.) This is also the fantasy reader's problem, the idea (not explicit, but usually lurking there) that most problems can potentially be solved with swords. (I wrote, or at least ranted, about this some time ago.) I say fantasy readers, of course, but it's also a perennial roleplayer's problem... one of the reasons I've more or less given up LRP is that it is (or, at least, the games I've been to have been) mostly about violence, and not only do people tend to solve in-game problems by killing things or each other, but the organisers set up situations where this is right and expected.

I'm also not going to suggest that this is exclusive to SF & fantasy readers; war stories and spy thrillers and Tom Clancy all have the same effect. In fact, it's probably endemic... and I certainly remember reading Jane Austen and measuring myself against Captain Wentworth and Mr Darcy. I'm also not going to fall into the temptation of suggesting everything's about media.

Wresting the thread back, by main force, to the original question, I'm not trying to suggest that these influences can make us more casual about violence or killing, or less concerned over the value of a human life... except when we believe it doesn't matter.




1. If anything is.
2. Or the appearance thereof. Hey, if X got to the top, he must've deserved it, right? Meritocratic society and all that. All wealth and position are earned. I saw a statistic within the last few days saying that n% of Americans, where n was >= 60, believed this. Can't track it down just yet. This is, admittedly, an overly cynical footnote, so let me put in some actual content by noting that meritocracy is a very big strand of thought in science-fiction. Personally, I blame Heinlein.
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