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Ch. 11: Crime and Punishment

The human concept of Sin has had its uses no doubt; and our special invention of a thing called Punishment has also served a purpose.

Social evolution has worked in many ways wastefully, and with unnecessary pain, but it compares very favorably with natural evolution.

As we grow wiser; as our social consciousness develops, we are beginning to improve on nature in more ways than one; a part of the same great process, but of a more highly sublimated sort.

Nature shows a world of varied and changing environment. Into this comes Life--flushing and spreading in every direction. A pretty hard time Life has of it. In the first place it is dog eat dog in every direction; the joy of the hunter and the most unjoyous fear of the hunted.

But quite outside of this essential danger, the environment waits, grim and unappeasable, and continuously destroys the innocent myriads who fail to meet the one requirement of life--Adaptation. So we must not be too severe in self-condemnation when we see how foolish, cruel, crazily wasteful, is our attitude toward crime and punishment.

We become socially conscious largely through pain, and as we begin to see how much of the pain is wholly of our own causing we are overcome with shame. But the right way for society to face its past is the same as for the individual; to see where it was wrong and stop it--but to waste no time and no emotion over past misdeeds.

What is our present state as to crime? It is pretty bad. Some say it is worse than it used to be; others that it is better. At any rate it is bad enough, and a disgrace to our civilization. We have murderers by the thousand and thieves by the million, of all kinds and sizes; we have what we tenderly call "immorality," from the "errors of youth" to the sodden grossness of old age; married, single, and mixed. We have all the old kinds of wickedness and a lot of new ones, until one marvels at the purity and power of human nature, that it should carry so much disease and still grow on to higher things.

Also we have punishment still with us; private and public; applied like a rabbit's foot, with as little regard to its efficacy. Does a child offend? Punish it! Does a woman offend? Punish her! Does a man offend? Punish him! Does a group offend? Punish them!

"What for?" some one suddenly asks.

"To make them stop doing it!"

"But they have done it!"

"To make them not do it again, then."

"But they do do it again--and worse."

"To prevent other people's doing it, then."

"But it does not prevent them--the crime keeps on. What good is your punishment?"

What indeed!

What is the application of punishment to crime? Its base, its prehistoric base, is simple retaliation; and this is by no means wholly male, let us freely admit. The instinct of resistance, of opposition, of retaliation, lies deeper than life itself. Its underlying law is the law of physics--action and reaction are equal. Life's expression of this law is perfectly natural, but not always profitable. Hit your hand on a stone wall, and the stone wall hits your hand. Very good; you learn that stone walls are hard, and govern yourself accordingly.

Conscious young humanity observed and philosophized, congratulating itself on its discernment. "A man hits me--I hit the man a little harder--then he won't do it again." Unfortunately he did do it again--a little harder still. The effort to hit harder carried on the action and reaction till society, hitting hardest of all, set up a system of legal punishment, of unlimited severity. It imprisoned, it mutilated, it tortured, it killed; it destroyed whole families, and razed contumelious cities to the ground.

Therefore all crime ceased, of course? No? But crime was mitigated, surely! Perhaps. This we have proven at last; that crime does not decrease in proportion to the severest punishment. Little by little we have ceased to raze the cities, to wipe out the families, to cut off the ears, to torture; and our imprisonment is changing from slow death and insanity to a form of attempted improvement.

But punishment as a principle remains in good standing, and is still the main reliance where it does the most harm--in the rearing of children. "Spare the rod and spoil the child" remains in belief, unmodified by the millions of children spoiled by the unspared rod.

The breeders of racehorses have learned better, but not the breeders of children. Our trouble is simply the lack of intelligence. We face the babyish error and the hideous crime in exactly the same attitude.

"This person has done something offensive."

Yes?--and one waits eagerly for the first question of the rational mind--but does not hear it. One only hears "Punish him!"

What is the first question of the rational mind?

"Why?"

Human beings are not first causes. They do not evolve conduct out of nothing. The child does this, the man does that, _because_ of something; because of many things. If we do not like the way people behave, and wish them to behave better, we should, if we are rational beings, study the conditions that produce the conduct.

The connection between our archaic system of punishment and our androcentric culture is two-fold. The impulse of resistance, while, as we have seen, of the deepest natural origin, is expressed more strongly in the male than in the female. The tendency to hit back and hit harder has been fostered in him by sex-combat till it has become of great intensity. The habit of authority too, as old as our history; and the cumulative weight of all the religions and systems of law and government, have furthermore built up and intensified the spirit of retaliation and vengeance.

They have even deified this concept, in ancient religions, crediting to God the evil passions of men. As the small boy recited; "Vengeance. A mean desire to get even with your enemies: 'Vengeance is mine saith the Lord'--'I will repay.'"

The Christian religion teaches better things; better than its expositors and upholders have ever understood--much less practised.

The teaching of "Love your enemies, do good unto them that hate you, and serve them that despitefully use you and persecute you," has too often resulted, when practised at all, in a sentimental negation; a pathetically useless attitude of non-resistance. You might as well base a religion on a feather pillow!

The advice given was active; direct; concrete. "_Love!_" Love is not non-resistance. "Do good!" Doing good is not non-resistance. "Serve!" Service is not non-resistance.

Again we have an overwhelming proof of the far-reaching effects of our androcentric culture. Consider it once more. Here is one by nature combative and desirous, and not by nature intended to monopolize the management of his species. He assumes to be not only the leader, but the whole thing--to be humanity itself, and to see in woman as Grant Allen so clearly put it "Not only not the race; she is not even half the race, but a subspecies, told off for purposes of reproduction merely."

Under this monstrous assumption, his sex-attributes wholly identified with his human attributes, and overshadowing them, he has imprinted on every human institution the tastes and tendencies of the male. As a male he fought, as a male human being he fought more, and deified fighting; and in a culture based on desire and combat, loud with strident self-expression, there could be but slow acceptance of the more human methods urged by Christianity. "It is a religion for slaves and women!" said the warrior of old. (Slaves and women were largely the same thing.) "It is a religion for slaves and women" says the advocate of the Superman.

Well? Who did the work of all the ancient world? Who raised the food and garnered it and cooked it and served it? Who built the houses, the temples, the acqueducts, the city wall? Who made the furniture, the tools, the weapons, the utensils, the ornaments--made them strong and beautiful and useful? Who kept the human race going, somehow, in spite of the constant hideous waste of war, and slowly built up the real industrial civilization behind that gory show?--Why just the slaves and the women.

A religion which had attractions for the real human type is not therefore to be utterly despised by the male.

In modern history we may watch with increasing ease the slow, sure progress of our growing humanness beneath the weakening shell of an all-male dominance. And in this field of what begins in the nurse as "discipline," and ends on the scaffold as "punishment," we can clearly see that blessed change.

What is the natural, the human attribute? What does this "Love," and "Do good," and "Serve" mean? In the blundering old church, still androcentric, there was a great to-do to carry out this doctrine, in elaborate symbolism. A set of beggars and cripples, gathered for the occasion, was exhibited, and kings and cardinals went solemnly through the motions of serving them. As the English schoolboy phrased it, "Thomas Becket washed the feet of leopards."

Service and love and doing good must always remain side issues in a male world. Service and love and doing good are the spirit of motherhood, and the essense of human life.

Human life is service, and is not combat. There you have the nature of the change now upon us.

What has the male mind made of Christianity?

Desire--to save one's own soul. Combat--with the Devil. Self-expression--the whole gorgeous outpouring of pageant and display, from the jewels of the high priest's breastplate to the choir of mutilated men to praise a male Deity no woman may so serve.

What kind of mind can imagine a kind of god who would like a eunuch better than a woman?

For woman they made at last a place--the usual place--of renunciation, sacrifice and service, the Sisters of Mercy and their kind; and in that loving service the woman soul has been content, not yearning for cardinal's cape or bishop's mitre.

All this is changing--changing fast. Everywhere the churches are broadening out into more service, and the service broadening out beyond a little group of widows and fatherless, of sick and in prison, to embrace its true field--all human life. In this new attitude, how shall we face the problems of crime?

Thus: "It is painfully apparent that a certain percentage of our people do not function properly. They perform antisocial acts. Why? What is the matter with them?"

Then the heart and mind of society is applied to the question, and certain results are soon reached; others slowly worked toward.

First result. Some persons are so morally diseased that they must have hospital treatment. The world's last prison will be simply a hospital for moral incurables. They must by no means reproduce their kind,--that can be attended to at once. Some are morally diseased, but may be cured, and the best powers of society will be used to cure them. Some are only morally diseased because of the conditions in which they are born and reared, and here society can save millions at once.

An intelligent society will no more neglect its children than an intelligent mother will neglect her children; and will see as clearly that ill-fed, ill-dressed, ill-taught and vilely associated little ones must grow up gravely injured.

As a matter of fact we make our crop of criminals, just as we make our idiots, blind, crippled, and generally defective. Everyone is a baby first, and a baby is not a criminal, unless we make it so. It never would be,--in right conditions. Sometimes a pervert is born, as sometimes a two-headed calf is born, but they are not common.

The older, simpler forms of crime we may prevent with case and despatch, but how of the new ones?--big, terrible, far-reaching, wide-spread crimes, for which we have as yet no names; and before which our old system of anti-personal punishment falls helpless? What of the crimes of poisoning a community with bad food; of defiling the water; of blackening the air; of stealing whole forests? What of the crimes of working little children; of building and renting tenements that produce crime and physical disease as well? What of the crime of living on the wages of fallen women--of hiring men to ruin innocent young girls; of holding them enslaved and selling them for profit? (These things are only "misdemeanors" in a man-made world!)

And what about a crime like this; to use the public press to lie to the public for private ends? No name yet for this crime; much less a penalty.

And this: To bring worse than leprosy to an innocent clean wife who loves and trusts you?

Or this: To knowingly plant poison in an unborn child?

No names, for these; no "penalties"; no conceivable penalty that could touch them.

The whole punishment system falls to the ground before the huge mass of evil that confronts us. If we saw a procession of air ships flying over a city and dropping bombs, should we rush madly off after each one crying, "Catch him! Punish him!" or should we try to stop the procession?

The time is coming when the very word "crime" will be disused, except in poems and orations; and "punishment," the word and deed, be obliterated. We are beginning to learn a little of the nature of humanity its goodness, its beauty, its lovingness; and to see that even its stupidity is only due to our foolish old methods of education.

It is not new power, new light, new hope that we need, but _to understand what ails us._

We know enough now, we care enough now, we are strong enough now, to make the whole world a thousand fold better in a generation; but we are shackled, chained, blinded, by old false notions. The ideas of the past, the sentiments of the past, the attitude and prejudices of the past, are in our way; and among them none more universally mischievous than this great body of ideas and sentiments, prejudices and habits, which make up the offensive network of the androcentric culture.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman