Crime and Punishment

I was shown an interesting blog article talking about the Game of Thrones tv series, and the conflicting drives (in the audience) of empathy and vengeance. You can read it here, but in summary it was addressing the way characters do horrible things, so we want them to be punished, but then get penalised brutally, so we feel bad for them.

At this point, I should clarify that I’m not a fan of GoT—it’s too … intense … for my tastes1. Given the popularity of revenge-based stories throughout history (as in, they usually inspire catharsis, not ambivalence), I suspect the makers of the show are trying to portray the acts of retribution in such a way as to emphasise their brutality and engender empathy in the audience. It would certainly fit with the theme of “everyone is equally nasty (and those that aren’t tend to get killed off quickly)”.

It does raise an interesting thought, though. When we see another human suffering, we feel sympathy. If we see someone wronged, we feel anger: we want justice. But what do we mean by “justice”? Sure, revenge is viscerally satisfying, but only if we dissociate from the other party (usually either through seeing them as somehow inhuman—monstrously evil and unredeemable—or by otherwise distancing them—they are from a rival clan/group).

Many stories of vengeance also convey the idea of “‘an eye for an eye’ leaves the world blind”. Our desire for punishment can be defused by seeing the humanity of the perpetrator. Some political parties like to focus on “tougher sentences for crime” as though it would help, but evidence suggests it does not: likelihood of punishment (“Will I get caught?”) matters more than severity of punishment in deterring lawbreaking.

This is all focusing on the penalties of wrongdoing, however (whether via an individual avenger, or state sanctions). And while the presence of these can mitigate our sense of injustice, I do wonder if they are ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff measures.

Perhaps the way to make the world a more just place would be to try and ensure there were no benefits to breaking the rules.

But we could go further. It’s also known that people are more likely to take risks to avoid a loss than to gain a bonus. So maybe the real problem (and the real injustice) is that following the rules doesn’t mean you’ll be successful.


1 I do know enough bits and pieces of history to recognise the reality of the political machinations; it’s been said2 that democracy doesn’t guarantee you the best ruler, but allows you to change them without bloodshed. It’s worth remembering. We don’t know how propitious are the circumstances, Frederick. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, a new sultan would have his extended family killed off to prevent the possibility of civil war over heirship.

2 I seem to recall a specific quote along these lines, but I cannot remember the wording, or who said it. If anyone does know, please enlighten me!

My Harry Potter is not your Harry Potter

Relating to my previous musings about fanfiction, and the recent short story detailing some post-Hogwarts events, it seems a good time to discuss this idea.

One of things I’ve found interesting about reading fanfiction is seeing different people’s takes on a character. This can even become apparent in seeing fan reactions to new stories/episodes/sequels/etc—some like it, some complain that a character has changed (the more adamant even claiming the writer(s)—in many cases the one(s) who invented the character in the first place—has gotten the character wrong).

You see, for any (significant) character, the writer has probably delved into vast screeds of back-story and analysis that colours how they expect the character to behave. The audience usually doesn’t have access to this information (which is fortunate, as it probably doesn’t make for exciting reading), so will fill in gaps with their own preconceptions, expectations, and assumptions.

We do the same thing with real people. Note that I’m not saying this is wrong; we’d find it much harder to empathise if we didn’t (as we’d have no frame of reference). It’s essentially the “putting yourself in their shoes” idea; the more you know about them, the more accurate the metaphorical shoes will be. It’s another of the sensible cognitive shortcuts that help us deal with the world around us. The only problems arise when the other person’s experience is so different to ours that we make completely wrong assumptions about them, and the only way to correct this is to be aware of the error, and be open to learning something new.

Which can be hard to do, especially if you’re a white male in western society (which keeps telling you you’re the norm), but it’s definitely worth it for the chance to see the world from a new perspective.