Punishment without humiliation

All punishment, says the Israeli writer Avishai Margalit in his book “The Decent Society”, aims to convey the idea that crime is a disgraceful act.  By punishing him, society inflicts on the offender a loss of social honor.  But does justice require that a criminal be also humiliated?

“If humiliation means damaging people’s self-respect,” Margalit argues, “then it is clear that a necessary condition for the just society is that it should be a society that does not humiliate its members.”  A decent society is one that is able to punish even its worst criminals without humiliating them.  “After all, a criminal is a human being. Every human being, even a criminal, is entitled to the respect granted to humans because they are human.”

Margalit distinguishes between disgrace or loss of social honor and humiliation or injury to a person’s self-respect.  The former may be seen as an automatic accompaniment of punishment, but, to Margalit, no crime is heinous enough to justify humiliation.  The question he therefore asks is “whether the humiliating element can be eliminated from the punishment of prisoners.”

He does not explicitly say so, because it is not the issue he is addressing, but I assume that Margalit’s concept of a “decent society”, in which institutions do not humiliate people, will have no room for the death penalty.  Unlike other forms of retribution, death no longer recognizes the prisoner as a moral agent, as a human being worthy of self-respect.  Capital punishment permanently exiles a criminal from the human race.

Yet, even the most jaded journalists, who have seen everything, tell us how they intuitively recoil at the sight of a man being put to death by the state in the name of all of us.  I do not think that anyone, even after witnessing three executions in a day, can ever get used to the idea of watching a person being killed without suffering a sense of being diminished by this collective act.  I would like to believe that this sensibility is our final link to one another in the human community.

“Punishment is the litmus test of the decent society,” says Margalit. How a society treats its criminals is a good way of determining whether that society is a decent one.  The reference, it must be noted, is not just to the penal institutions of the state but to all social institutions, including the media.

The disgrace inherent in being punished for a crime is now most effectively communicated through the mass media.  Thus the media perform the role of accomplice to the social degradation of criminal offenders.  It is a role that can however be played to unwitting excess. The situation is grave enough in our country to justify a thoughtful discussion of the ethics that should guide the reportage on crime.

As an example, I can never understand why the police and the media allow (in some cases, even prod) victims of crimes to vent their anger on suspects who have been apprehended.  These persons are still suspects; they have not been tried or convicted.  And even assuming they are proven guilty, the right to punish, under our system, belongs to the State and not to individual victims.

But most disturbing of all, to my mind, has been the treatment of death convicts.  I think that the showing of corpses of executed prisoners, whether in orange uniform or in civilian clothes, inside a prison van or a morgue or a coffin, is not only tasteless and unnecessary but also humiliating for the dead men and their families. I have also seen callous reporters brazenly intruding into the grief of a daughter, a wife, or a mother asking them to bare their innermost feelings before the camera.  I think the shoving of microphones and cameras into the faces of relatives in mourning, especially of children, violates every known ethic of decency.

On many occasions I have heard the impertinent voices of kibitzers prompting a dazed child to say something to a father who is about to die or to make a last plea to spare his life.  In the multiple execution held the other day, one reporter had the insensitivity to ask a boy who had just talked to his father what he intended to do with the little money that his father had given him before he was led into the death chamber.  And I began to realize how the daily work of journalists and the scramble for scoops can so dehumanize them that they become unmindful of the humiliation and degradation they inflict on others.

Social disgrace may be inevitable for a death convict, but there is nothing in our law or in our moral system that causes him to lose his right to self-respect and to a self-image.  That right is what is safeguarded by the convict’s relatives when they beg to be left alone with their grief.

It is not by chance that the indecency of institutions becomes most glaring when dealing with the poor.  For, being poor in our society also means that one is less able to protect one’s life or one’s corpse from being captured by the media for the amusement of a voyeuristic public.  Such invasion of privacy, in Margalit’s terms, “is always a central act of humiliation.” In a decent society, institutions consciously operate under the norm of self-restraint in order to avoid exposing people to situations where they cannot guard their self-respect.

In a decent society, the individual need not beg for the right to privacy. It comes with being human; nothing he does will make him deserve it less.


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