January 21, 2013

GUEST ROOM: On the Dangerous Fiction of the Inherent Criminal

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Let’s talk about the gun control conversation and focus on one particular idea that resurfaces again and again, be it in the form of a rational point that needs to be taken seriously or a more paranoid and extremist shouting match that needs to be toned down: There are good guys and bad guys, responsible citizens and criminals.

Among other things, we need to define what we mean by “criminals.” Especially when there are arguments floating around that assert that we cannot restrict gun ownership because even if we do, there will always be criminals — plural noun —who will disregard these laws and kill anyway.

You’ve heard the line: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” And I can bet that the person you heard say it imagined that they would be a “good guy” and someone else — someone they don’t know, some stranger — would be a “bad guy.” Isn’t that the way it goes? We imagine ourselves as the good guys. It’s always someone else that’s bad, or crazy, or a monster.

And these terms — good guys and bad guys, evil monsters — are thrown around as if they were essential conditions of being. As if there exist in the world inherent good guys or bad guys. As if “criminal” was an ontological state of being and not a legal descriptor based on observable behavior.

There is something very powerful about the language used in saying to someone, “You are a criminal.” And there is something very dangerous when we imagine criminals within the parameters set by this language.

When we imagine criminals in this way, we imagine a world where there exist inherently bad people who embody a threat to safety. This allows us to come up with containment strategies. All we have to do is keep the criminals — the bad guys — contained where we can keep track of them and away from the rest of us, who of course don’t exist as “criminals.” And if a criminal ever infiltrates our spaces of safety? Well, then we eliminate the threat and move on.

This is a particularly troubling imagining of the world for a number of reasons, not least of which is the weight of the lament that “criminals will find a way to acquire guns, or kill without them.” In that lament is the assumption that criminality precedes crime, that somehow there are just certain people — and in the United States, with our history, it is impossible not to be troubled by how certain races of people, especially African Americans and Latinas, have been historically mapped as criminals who will inevitably commit violent crimes. That assumption, is not only problematic; it is a dangerous form of self-inoculation. It is a containment strategy that is doomed to fail.

Because of that assumption, we will forever be surprised when one of our friends who we knew so well does something violent. Because of that assumption, we will forever believe the fiction that certain things just don’t happen in certain spaces. Because of that assumption, we will continue to believe that there is nothing we can do to stop people from giving in to some kind of evil nature if they are that certain kind of person. Because of that assumption, we will continue not to act to protect ourselves from a violence that we imagine is always already contained outside of the spheres of our lives. And thus, because of that assumption we put ourselves in greater danger than we would be if we just threw out our imagined world of inherent good guys and inherent criminals and remembered that criminal the verb precedes criminal the noun.

So why do we retain that assumption? Because it is easier to imagine a world where criminals exist as criminals than acknowledge the much more complex reality of a world where most people who commit crimes — and are thus labeled as criminals — have long, complicated stories that don’t fit into the container of “criminal.” Because it is easier to blame an uncontrollable and inherent human nature than to think critically about the constructed material, cultural and social conditions that influence human beings toward “choosing” to commit criminal actions. Because it is easier to believe that if we just ascend the social ladder and move to the right places, we will insulate ourselves against the dirty criminals that exist in “those other places.” Because it is too hard to acknowledge that at some point, we ourselves may be the bad guys.

Jesse Goldberg is a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Arts and Sciences. Feedback may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Jesse Goldberg

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