Sympathy for the Criminal

I often find myself debating, or at least wishing I could make headway in debate with people unwilling to consider various criminals as human. I’ve long found it horrifically ironic to see would-be lynch mobs ready to tear a person down for a crime they have or have been alleged to have committed.

Easy case: If we present capital punishment as a response to murder, there’s an implicit endorsement by a state of the act of murder. So how do we explain to a criminal that violence is okay, but only as long as it has the endorsement of enough people? Oh, wait, but then only if we’re on the winning side, or if there are more of us..

I believe these attitudes are entirely counterproductive for everyone. I’d like to present my perspective.

When I was younger, acting like a jerk was my response to what I perceived as an unfair world. And I was quite the jerk.

I had reached the following conclusions by the time I was 16:
The majority of people were hapless sheep, the remainder were manipulative jerks taking advantage of them.
I had long since ceased expecting to be respected or valued as a person by people I’d never met, and perceived this as being simply because I was ‘different.’
I fought it as a kid, tried very hard to fit in and be accepted, I truly wanted to help people and the world, until I accepted the idea, unfortunately, that my efforts were wasted.
Developing a mindset like that, you lose any sense of obligation for fair dealing and positive treatment of others. Why be loyal to a self-destructive system which seems to be hostile to your growth and well-being, as an intellectually curious and critical individual?

We tend to forget that people even in our neighbourhood may have lived completely different lives with a set of experiences quite alien to our own. It’s these experiences which shape a person, what they expect from others, and their responses. A single event in a person’s life can inflict permanent change upon them, modifying how, why, and to what degree they can function.

But I digress. These negative perceptions of the world stayed with me, slowly evolving throughout my early to mid 20s, before I met someone whom demonstrated that even if I couldn’t change the world, maybe I could still be a positive force, which the people around me would appreciate, leading to a happier life for myself and those around me.

I never say that it’s right to commit criminal acts but I know exactly how it can be to find yourself pitted against the world. Punishment doesn’t change or diminish criminal activity because it’s simply perceived as systemic hostility by those used to encountering violence (whether physical or otherwise.)

Incidentally, this is why we shouldn’t continuously berate or beat our kids, especially if they don’t comprehend what or why they’ve done wrong. They will learn that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems or to get people to do what they want which is, I would say, a fairly counterproductive way of dealing with people. It would also teach them to hide when they’ve done wrong, that parents and/or authority figures are not approachable with some or all issues, and in some cases, that accidents are never acceptable. Consider the repercussions of just that last case – if everyone caused damage and never sought to fix it, or to make amends, because they feared punishment, how could we hope to survive as a society? How could you run an enterprise effectively with employees who cover up mistakes?

It’s for these reasons that I often take the sympathetic stance, even when reading about the worst criminal cases. There’s always another side to the story, and many people are not necessarily beyond saving. Evolution as a species, changing the underlying problems which foster the creation of the maladapted is far more important for society than labeling and judging people, and locking them away.


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