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Another thought on Readercon: on the purpose of punishment

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So the Readercon mess goes on apace; we're currently waiting on the Convention Committee's vote and response. I'm thinking about a confusion in the Board's decision about the purposes of punishment.

It's the line in their statement that "if, as a community, we wish to educate others about harassment, we must also allow for the possibility of reform," which is so problematic and confused, and where I want to jump around and try to sort out the confusion of premises.

This goes back to the philosopher Cesare Beccaria (1738—1794), who was one of the first people to talk about how there are three very different reasons for punishing people. Before him, people had considered punishment to be a form of vengeance, primarily concerned with hurting people the same way they had hurt others. The most charitable way of looking at it was that it was looking for justice, making things fair. In practice, it led to some of the most terrible cruelties of the prison system.

Beccaria, on the other hand, took a utilitarian stance. In his book On Crimes and Punishments, he argued that the purpose of punishment is actually to increase the total amount of happiness in the world. There are two ways punishment can do this: reform, or causing the criminal to not take the action again, and deterrence, or preventing other people from doing the same thing. Reform is more focused on making sure that individual doesn't commit the same crime again; deterrence is more focused on making sure that other people see that example and don't commit that crime.*

What the Readercon Board is doing here is valuing reform over deterrence. They're saying that it's more important that Walling not be badly hurt for doing something wrong, and for which he repents (they say) than that other people get a strong message that this behavior is not okay.

What just about everyone except the Board seems to be saying is that deterrence is more important than reform. That a con where people are free to go safely about their business without being harassed is more important than whether individuals who have hurt others Learn A Valuable Lesson.

A strong argument against the Board's side is that the deterrence move (banning Walling permanently, in keeping with the stated policy), does not actually preclude reform. Many people have pointed out that not getting to go to this con is not the end of a person's life, and real long-term consequences for actions are a great way of people understanding that what they did was serious, and necessitates actual change.

On the other hand, what the Board did, theoretically favoring reform, strongly prevents deterrence (because people will understand that the policy has no teeth and won't be enforced), but doesn't actually give strong motivation for reform.

The really confused bit of thinking in the Board's statement is the bit about how "we wish to educate others about harassment." Because that sounds like they think they're talking about deterrence. Like their interest is in the community as a whole, rather than one individual. That's been jumped on roundly, and rightly so-- it's obvious that it's in the community's best interest to not have people harassed at the con, full stop.

I... think the intended meaning was "we have to show harassers that there's a purpose to them stopping their behavior on their own. We have to show them that if they stop, there will be a reward." But the unnerving implication there is "harassers won't stop unless they know they'll get something out of it."

No. Harassers should stop because it is clear that harassing is not accepted. They should stop because there will be consequences if they don't, not because they will get rewarded if they do.

I don't know what the Board is thinking, that they're valuing a man's right to bother a woman over a woman's right-- the right of everyone in the con-- not to be bothered. That they seem to be thinking that not harassing someone is virtuous, is going above and beyond the norm. That appalls me. But I can't figure out what else their language could imply.


*A major problem of the legal system in this country is that we try to do all three of these things at once, and they contradict. A young criminal thrown into the hells of our modern prisons will probably be badly hurt, pick up new trauma, new criminal skills and contacts, and have little motivation to reform. But if we give criminals job-training programs and decent living situations, people taking the justice side argue, aren't they just being rewarded for doing wrong? And with the great confusion between these two, people don't seem to know what will actually work best to deter future crimes.

Reading: Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, Dennis Covington.
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On August 1st, 2012 03:44 pm (UTC), strange_selkie commented:
I am trying to stay clear of the Readercon clusterfracas because it makes me so angry that I will end up recreationally sucking benzodiazepines, but unrelatedly, Mr. Covington and his wife, Vicki, are very nice people. He seemed equal parts baffled and accepting of his research on the snake-handling churches at the time. (Vicki Covington also writes -- wrote? -- sort of slow, Southern, introspective wimmin's fiction.)
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On August 1st, 2012 07:06 pm (UTC), asakiyume replied:
slow, Southern, introspective wimmin's fiction
--interesting sounding! As is gaudior's current reading.
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On August 1st, 2012 07:15 pm (UTC), strange_selkie replied:
Night Ride Home and Gathering Home are the two I remember owning/reading; she had some profound personal struggles with anxiety and depression that made her work especially resonant with me at the time.
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On August 1st, 2012 07:08 pm (UTC), asakiyume commented:
gaudior, I should respond directly, too, as well as leaving a comment for Selkie, but I ... have been unable to come up with anything coherent to say about all this, though I've been reading widely.
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On August 1st, 2012 11:08 pm (UTC), cascadil commented:
An ounce of exclusion
I love your explication, but it skips an important consequence of removing an offender from a place/event/community: that offender then will not be able to offend in that place/event/community, because that offender will not be present. Whether this is punishment or not is irrelevant to that consequence.

In American society at large, we put a lot of faith in the notion that our environment will be safe(r) if we just keep bad people out of it. That belief leads to gated communities and an insanely high incarceration rate. A related belief is that we can identify bad people and that their badness is immutable. That belief leads to zero tolerance policies, mandatory sentencing, and three strikes laws. I think it's clear that these policies are not working. That doesn't mean that nobody should be locked up, but such policies should be applied and imitated cautiously and examined critically. Most of these policies are discussed in terms of punishment (whether retributive or deterrent), but I think the bulk of public support for them is due to their removal of people from our environment.

In this case, many people clamoring for the permaban are simply hoping that this particular serial offender will not be there in the future. The role of the policy should not be to punish offenders; it should be to protect attendees.
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On August 2nd, 2012 09:34 am (UTC), tithenai commented:
This is an excellent post. Thank you.
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