Punishing Viewing

Something I wrote a while ago, somewhat rewritten.  I’m re-posting it to mark the release of ‘The Mind of Evil’ on DVD.  In brief, being in colour doesn’t make it any better.

There is a very old idea about ‘human nature’, that we are born with certain social characteristics already implanted or programmed in our brains, usually inherited from our parents and ancestors. You will find this idea laced throughout the whole of modern Western culture. Ruffians and villains in Conan Doyle are often said to have “vile antecedents”. Oliver Twist is incapable of being a pickpocket because, despite being raised in a pauper’s orphanage, he is a middle class child displaced amongst the scum classes. Similarly (because J.K. Rowling is nothing if not studiedly unoriginal) Harry Potter is filled with love just like his late mum, despite being systematically emotionally and psychologically abused up to the age of 11.  I could go on at great length.

This conception of human nature (please take the quote marks as read whenever I use that phrase) is directly and inextricably linked to class, and to questions of social role, crime, etc. It is still claimed today that people end up in prison because they have inborn tendencies which lead them there. These days we use the language of genetics. Before genes, people used the language of blood. Before that, people used the language of the Bible. The medieval church claimed that drastic and dreadful social divisions were justified because people were born into one category or the other, based on their bloodline. They were the descendents of Cain or Seth, and thus carried the blood of a vile murderer or a goody-two-shoes. Of course, the idea that the peasants were peasants because they had murderer’s blood doesn’t account for the massive amount of warmongering and killing and torturing and executing done by the supposed descendents of Seth (i.e the Kings and Dukes and whathaveyou). Of course, even today a great deal of chin-scratching cogitation goes into deciding what genetic factors might be causing black urban gun crime… while nobody wonders if the carpet-bombing Prime Minister must have killer genes. And, as John Ball pointed out, if we’re all descended from Cain or Seth, that also means we’re all descended from (non-murdering) Adam and Eve… so how does that work?

As many thinkers have pointed out, being in prison isn’t necessarily a mark of violence or evil (or even, in many cases, actual criminality) so much as a mark of refusing to play your assigned social role. It starts in childhood, with kids medicated for personality disorders for such heinous sins as “disrespecting authority” etc. Also, prisons are a massive system of social control and punitive reinforcement. Vast numbers of people in the American prison system today (which increasingly resembles a kind of privatised system of gulags) are there for non-violent drug crimes. There are many examples of, for instance, disabled people sent away for life because they were caught with a few ounces of weed that they obtained to use personally as a palliative.…

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