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distribution of pain

A short interview with Nils Christie

Professor of Criminology at the University of Oslo

By Gorana Ognjenovic

interviewer:  ‘Division of pain’ is your concept used by Zygmunt Bauman as an explanation of events taking place on a global scale, an effort that has been made to ‘criminalise’ certain acts for the purpose of marginalising entire sections of the population associated with the very same acts. In this way, in the USA for example, society is getting rid of a vast number of individuals by placing them behind bars and throwing the key away by giving them ridiculously long sentences. There is a systematic clean up of reality, the way we think it should look like. In other words, all those who do not fit the picture are being put away since we simply experience them as disposable. For Bauman in his masterpiece Modernity and the Holocaust it is precisely the physical distance, which to a high degree determines moral concern.

Even though it seems that this might be a form of a much deeper and much more dangerous political problem, isn’t this also a mentality problem? By a mentality problem I mean that we are not so very well aware of it while it is becoming a part of our general view of things:  We are living in an epoch determined by neo-liberal ideology, which so far has managed to a high degree to divide society into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ where the two sides live in separated realities, incapable of relating to each others’ existence. Isn’t this also why we are going along with a variety of reforms and reorganisations, ready to avoid having to relate to others, which we are convinced, have nothing to do with us?

Christie: You raise a great number of important, provocative and complicated questions. It would demand the format of a book to answer it all, so, I have to be selective. First of all, I think most people, maybe all, have some elements of kindness in them. Children survive by being attractive to people close to them. Most cry at birth, of course they cry, but pleasing sounds and smiles soon follow. Survival depends on that, of being accepted by someone.

The same is the case with social systems. It just is not true that horror would reign if state power did not control social life. An endless row of examples show that human beings are very good at creating peaceful cooperation if allowed to live undisturbed by external interference. Small-scale societies are primarily interested in internal peace, not in civil war.

But as we all know, conflicts occur, – between individuals and between social systems. There exist libraries on how and why. But what is important to keep in mind is that these are conflicts between individuals and systems that once contained elements of kindness and generosity. I have worked in criminology for most of my long adult life. I have met people sentenced for all sorts of unacceptable acts, from killing to cheating. But I have never met a monster. I have never met one where I cannot find some common ground. With patience, the anti-killer appears, the person who is fond of someone, somewhere. The challenge is to come close enough to be able to see.

 Distance makes killing and torture possible.  This is one of the major findings from studies of extermination camps as well as from psychological experiments. Distance makes it possible to loose sight of the victim as an ordinary human being. But the same mechanism is of course at play when we pay back with punishment. Distance, as when we see criminals as monsters – makes the most severe punishments possible.

Distance is not always to be measured in yards or meters. Distance might be of a social sort.  During the German occupation of Norway, signs in the streetcars told that it was strictly forbidden not to sit down besides German soldiers if that was the only empty seat. But this enforced sitting-arrangement did not bring the occupants closer to us. In many cases of ethnic conflicts, even close and life-long neighbours with different belief-systems have killed each other and publicly expressed pride thereof. Ethnic identity can in certain conflicts become all-important, so that neighbours are converted to non-persons, and degradations or eradications of them is seen as acceptable acts.

Interviewer: Another concept that you have been occupied with lately is the concept of ‘restorative justice’? Many of us are wondering about what is the ultimate goal of this concept? Can the victim and assaulter pass the point of the previously committed crime, “coming to terms” with the actual event? What about the lasting effects of the abuse or violence that took place? What if the assaulter has no remorse for what he had done? The well-known effect of domestic violence is the psychological trauma of believing that what happened was victim’s own fault. Doesn’t the possibility of a failed attempt of reconciliation just continue the battering of the victim prolonging the trauma? This not only because of what had happened but also the circumstances around the act. An example of what I choose to call a ‘systemic ambiguity’ would in relation to pain distribution be the outcome of reporting a case of domestic violence. Every time it is the victim that is taken out of the environment and placed into anonymous care institutions, while the abusers stay at home, in the familiar environment, carrying on with their daily routines as if nothing ever happened? Victims, after having been assaulted in their own home, are then “punished further” by society’s routines, which alienate them one more time by throwing them out into the unknown. All this is still a rule without an exception despite the fact that currently in Norway, as Amnesty International informs, one out of four women is psychologically or physically abused by men in close relationships. Can we interpret this as yet another step within a ‘ systemic ambiguity’, a form of society’s delegating away the responsibility for the victims? Or is this just another attempt of indirectly reducing the responsibility onto the victim herself/himself?

Christie: On this background, how to meet unacceptable behaviour? Punishment is the classical answer. Delivery of pain to the offending party might satisfy the victim and also lead to some sort of satisfaction in the surrounding system. Justice has happened, the offender got what he or she deserved. In addition; the offender will learn not to do it again, and potential offenders will get to know what will happen to them if they act in the same evil way.

The problem with this solution is that offenders and/or potential offenders often seem not to learn. In prisons, offenders meet others in the same situation, and gain strength in deviance rather than in conformity. And history doesn’t repeat itself. New conflicts are different from every previous one, and moreover, this next conflict is a conflict where we will win.

And then another major defect in the classical answer: Punishment happens through a process of degradation. It is a process that pushes people out of accepted society.  It leads to expulsion, rather than integration. If it is around a political fight, it is a process that keeps the conflict going, not one that brings peace to the system.

Mediation has at least a potentiality for integration. People are being brought close together. It is a situation that calls for peace more than for war, and for explanation more than for strategically oriented defence. Arguments are not limited to what is relevant according to penal law, but related to what the parties find useful for understanding what happened and of each other. Then there is the possibility for compensation as a part of the process. The administration of pain to the offender might satisfy certain victims. But understanding and compensation might have more to offer, both to the victim and to the general social system. In small-scale societies, this is often clearly seen. With punishment, chances are great that a useful member will be driven out of the system, or turn into a more dangerous person than before. With mediation, a healing process might be initiated.

Interviewer: The concept of restorative justice has been invented on African soil, the South African Republic chose this method to come to terms with the decades of apartheid. Desmond Tutu, as one of the strongest supporters of this method, was very clear that this is not about forgiveness, but reconciliation via getting out in the open everything that had been done. The main mover behind this process is that individuals who had committed crimes undergo the process voluntarily.

The problem is that once we start discussing the reconciliation programs of this kind on the soil of former Yugoslavian republics, the picture is not quite as straightforward. The reconciliation programs, which have been introduced in the area, came in the same package with the economic means of help for building up the country from ruins in which it still is. More precisely, the so-called reconciliation programs conditioned the economic means. In this case I am thinking particularly of the case of Bosnia. It is very doubtful how far this kind of ‘forced reconciliation’ can go. Down there, the main focus had been on ‘getting on with it as soon as possible’ while getting out in the open only discussions about the biggest crimes committed. There are no open discussions between the local environments; the conflicts are suppressed until further notice. This will remain so until some point in a (hopefully) very distant future, when as many Western politicians cynically claimed (while turning their heads in ignorance, not to see what was really going on) yet again “history will just repeat itself”. How do we deal with this straightforward cynicism then and now? Or is this an attempt of defining away their partial responsibility for the genocide Serbs committed in Croatia and Bosnia?

Christie: But punishment, can we forget about it? Not totally. A person might have done something awful, or at least think he had. He might seek punishment insist on being punished. Or he might not dare to face the person he has harmed, – rather then rotten in prison for life. It might also be that the offender never ceased to represent a danger to other people, and it was beyond doubt that this was the situation. Or the offended against would not accept any peace-process, but insist that punishment was the only possible answer.

In such cases it might be unavoidable to use some sort of enforced measures against the person. Some would say: Let us call these measures treatment, or confinement. My preference would be to see it as punishment. Within that framework, it becomes clearer what we are doing. And particularly; Penal law gives most protection to the person(s) receiving the enforced measures.

Punishment is to inflict an evil intended as evil. Generally, we think of our societies as places where we attempt to reduce sufferings. Why not also think like that when it comes to unacceptable behaviour. In my value-system, a society with a low level of pain-delivery is a better society, a more decent society, than one with a high level of pain-delivery.

August 28, 2005.




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