Violence and the Concept of Social Justice

The main reason that violence correlates with low socioeconomic status today is that the elites and the middle class pursue justice with the legal system while the lower classes resort to what scholars of violence call “self-help.” This has nothing to do with Women Who Love Too Much or Chicken Soup for the Soul; it is another name for vigilantism, frontier justice, taking the law into your own hands, and other forms of violent retaliation by which people secured justice in the absence of intervention by the state.

In an influential article called “Crime as Social Control,” the legal scholar Donald Black argued that most of what we call crime is, from the point of view of the perpetrator, the pursuit of justice.54 Black began with a statistic that has long been known to criminologists: only a minority of homicides (perhaps as few as 10 percent) are committed as a means to a practical end, such as killing a homeowner during a burglary, a policeman during an arrest, or the victim of a robbery or rape because dead people tell no tales.55 The most common motives for homicide are moralistic: retaliation after an insult, escalation of a domestic quarrel, punishing an unfaithful or deserting romantic partner, and other acts of jealousy, revenge, and self-defense. Black cites some cases from a database in Houston:

One in which a young man killed his brother during a heated discussion about the latter’s sexual advances toward his younger sisters, another in which a man killed his wife after she “dared” him to do so during an argument about which of several bills they should pay, one where a woman killed her husband during a quarrel in which the man struck her daughter (his stepdaughter), one in which a woman killed her 21-year-old son because he had been “fooling around with homosexuals and drugs,” and two others in which people died from wounds inflicted during altercations over the parking of an automobile.

Most homicides, Black notes, are really instances of capital punishment, with a private citizen as the judge, jury, and executioner. It’s a reminder that the way we conceive of a violent act depends on which of the corners of the violence triangle (see figure 2–1) we stake out as our vantage point. Consider a man who is arrested and tried for wounding his wife’s lover. From the point of view of the law, the aggressor is the husband and the victim is society, which is now pursuing justice (an interpretation, recall, captured in the naming of court cases, such as The People vs. John Doe). From the point of view of the lover, the aggressor is the husband, and he is the victim; if the husband gets off on an acquittal or mistrial or plea bargain, there is no justice, as the lover is enjoined from pursuing revenge. And from the point of view of the husband, he is the victim (of cuckoldry), the lover is the aggressor, and justice has been done—but now he is the victim of a second act of aggression, in which the state is the aggressor and the lover is an accomplice. Black notes:

Those who commit murder . . . often appear to be resigned to their fate at the hands of the authorities; many wait patiently for the police to arrive; some even call to report their own crimes.... In cases of this kind, indeed, the individuals involved might arguably be regarded as martyrs. Not unlike workers who violate a prohibition to strike—knowing they will go to jail—or others who defy the law on grounds of principle, they do what they think is right, and willingly suffer the consequences.

These observations overturn many dogmas about violence. One is that violence is caused by a deficit of morality and justice. On the contrary, violence is often caused by a surfeit of morality and justice, at least as they are conceived in the minds of the perpetrators. Another dogma, cherished among psychologists and public health researchers, is that violence is a kind of disease.57 But this public health theory of violence flouts the basic definition of a disease, namely a malfunction that causes suffering to the individual.58 Most violent people insist there is nothing wrong with them; it’s the victim and bystanders who think there’s a problem. A third dubious belief about violence is that lower-class people engage in it because they are financially needy (for example, stealing food to feed their children) or because they are expressing rage against society. The violence of a lower-class man may indeed express rage, but it is aimed not at society but at the asshole who scraped his car and dissed him in front of a crowd.

In an article inspired by Black called “The Decline of Elite Homicide,” the criminologist Mark Cooney shows that many lower-status people—the poor, the uneducated, the unmarried, and members of minority groups—are effectively stateless. Some make a living from illegal activities like drug dealing, gambling, selling stolen goods, and prostitution, so they cannot file lawsuits or call the police to enforce their interests in business disputes. In that regard they share their need for recourse to violence with certain high-status people, namely dealers in contraband such as Mafiosi, drug kingpins, and Prohibition rumrunners.


Folksonomies: violence social status

/law, govt and politics (0.406494)
/education/special education (0.333559)
/society/crime/personal offense/homicide (0.262598)

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Donald Black:Person (0.829184 (neutral:0.000000)), Social Justice:FieldTerminology (0.761213 (negative:-0.261996)), public health:FieldTerminology (0.596576 (negative:-0.147189)), Chicken Soup:Company (0.576875 (negative:-0.381292)), Houston:City (0.558522 (neutral:0.000000)), Mark Cooney:Person (0.530946 (negative:-0.613444)), partner:JobTitle (0.524718 (negative:-0.737162)), capital punishment:FieldTerminology (0.524094 (neutral:0.000000)), burglary:Crime (0.522406 (negative:-0.467009)), drug dealing:FieldTerminology (0.511161 (negative:-0.642574)), John Doe:FieldTerminology (0.506596 (positive:0.208567)), robbery:Crime (0.504326 (negative:-0.767590)), murder:Crime (0.486273 (negative:-0.515468)), prostitution:Crime (0.481941 (negative:-0.446327)), rape:Crime (0.480022 (negative:-0.767590)), 10 percent:Quantity (0.480022 (neutral:0.000000)), 21-year:Quantity (0.480022 (neutral:0.000000))

Crime (0.944589): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Homicide (0.921545): dbpedia | freebase
Domestic violence (0.917124): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Aggression (0.850471): dbpedia | freebase
Murder (0.822462): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Capital punishment (0.812935): dbpedia | freebase
Criminology (0.715133): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Theft (0.665656): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc

 The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Pinker, Steven (2011-10-04), The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Penguin, Retrieved on 2015-05-29
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  • Folksonomies: enlightenment culture ethics violence