PQfEW and the price of an ethical dilemma

Which is nine dollars, if you’re curious.

I had jury duty today.  I reorganized my comp class’s readings for the prior three sessions and cancelled today’s session.  I packed two books, one of which was the source for this week’s quotes.

Curiously, I was Juror Number 1.  That meant I got to be the line leader as we marched up to the second waiting room and down to the courtroom.  In the courtroom they gave us all numbered placards, which we were to hold up if we answered “yes” to any of the judge’s questions.  Would anyone be incapable of walking down nine flights in case of an emergency?  No response.  Is anyone related or closely acquainted with the defendant, any of the lawyers, or the judge?  No response.  This is a criminal trial for multiple charges.  The primary charge is murder.  There is a chance – not a certainty, but a chance – that the jury would be asked to consider capital punishment.  Does anyone have a religious, ethical, or conscientious objection with the death penalty?

Pause.  Do you?

I mean, I have a vague distaste for the death penalty.  I think the entire justice system would benefit the community more if it focused on rehabilitation instead of punishment.  Punishment might take the criminal out of the world for a little while or for life, but it doesn’t solve the conditions that lead to crime in the first place.  That’s as far as I’ve ever gotten when reflecting on the death penalty, except in cases where I was so horrified by the scope of the crime that my gut reaction was this man does not deserve to live

But to make that call?  When someone says to you, Citizen you must look at this man who may have killed a human being.  If he did, would you object to the responsibility for killing him in return?  Quick now.

Resume.  I slowly raised my placard, as did about twenty others in the sixty of us.  I’m still not sure if that was the right answer.

Being Number 1 meant that I was first to be called into a little room, where a man asked me why I raised my placard on a question about hardship.  (The trial will probably go on for a week, and I would not be able to cancel or find a substitute for all of multiple classes.)  Then I read for a little while longer, and by 1pm I was released into the hall with a dozen or so others, and was handed a check for $9. 

Interestingly, my reading for this week had much to do with law.  I was reading the introduction to Feminist Geneaologies, Colonial Legacies, and Democratic Futures in which M Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty do more than just criticize the state of globalization and the stumbling development of transnational feminism: they describe what a real democracy might look like.  To do so, they have to dismantle some of the preconceptions of Democracy (they capitalize this intentionally) in the US is practiced. 

“The citizenship machinery is not ‘blind’ to differences; in fact, it uses a legal apparatus to transform difference into inequality.  In its efforts to remain ‘blind’ to differences in the name of equal treatment, the law often perpetuates the naturalization of heterosexuality and the production of psychic economies that conform to the dictates of the ideological superiority of the heterosexual family… on questions of homosexuality the state reneges on its promise to protect all citizens from terrorist violence.”

That’s just the first of several built-in inequalities they pick apart in this introduction.  They describe the imagined recipient of welfare as a young black female (although this is not always the case) and the consequent erasure of young black females as citizens due full rights.  Alexander and Mohanty both immigrated to America, and they have quite a bit to say about the process of gaining citizenship legally and ideologically.  (By the way, how do you love “psychic economies” as a creative way of talking about ideologies?)  But the overvaluation of the heterosexual family seems like a good place to start, since ENDA was recently revised in a way that doesn’t sufficiently protect transgendered people from workplace discrimination.

Actually, discussing how not-blind the law is makes a good connection to last week’s quotes about objectivity and who is presumed to possess it… additionally, Thinking Girl recently read an article questioning whether women and blacks could be impartial judges.

The second quote is a good one for me to remember – it’s so easy when discussing the cultures of hate in our own society (not to mention other ones!) to think of the objects of this hate as, well, objects.  And victims.  The example Mohanty likes to use is the veil… Westerners just love to go on rants about the veil and the seclusion of women in other countries, but the veil can also have significant personal and religious meaning.  The trouble is not the veil itself, but the forced choice of whether to wear it or not.  Regardless, it’s not useful to think of veiled women (or any women) as victims of the veil or their womanhood, because to do so erases the personhood right out of the picture.

“Women do not imagine themselves as victims or dependents of governing structures but as agents of theur own lives.  Agency is understood here as the conscious and ongoing reproduction of the terms of one’s existence while taking responsibility for this process.”

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5 Comments

Filed under Gender, Ideas, Navelgazing, PQfEW

5 responses to “PQfEW and the price of an ethical dilemma

  1. Beau_Nidle

    Personally, I have no moral, ethical, or personal problem with the existence of the death penalty, and I believe I could recommend it if I were a juror. However, my reasons might not be entirely in line with the court’s.

    First, the phrases “death penalty” and “capital punishment” are semantically ridiculous. Penalties and punishments are forms of behavior modification. Killing the subject does not count as modifying behavior. I have always preferred “judicial execution”. It calls to mind my main consideration when thinking of such a sentence – can the court declare that this individual’s mere existence represents an intolerable risk to society? This is not punishment (agnostic, I don’t trust afterlives to handle such things – punishment begins in this world), it is a statement that we can not prevent this person from harming us, and we are therefore in a Hobbsian state of war against him.

    If a person commits murder, and convinces me that his motive was something specific enough that only his victim(s) were ever at risk, and whatever caused them to go on his “to kill” list could not reasonably be duplicated, then I would not recommend execution, because that person can be rehabilitated. Sure he must be punished, but he need not die to ensure the safety of others. To me, execution is the last possible resort to prevent recidivism. The folks who say it isn’t an effective deterrent have a fair point, but not a relevant one. After all, it’s not an effective fertilizer either. It is, however, a 100% effective way of preventing one particular nutter from climbing another tower. It’s up to the jury to decide whether any other possibility exists.

  2. I’m inclined to agree with your second paragraph, although I still think that punishment itself is not effective behavior modification… it’s not that criminals aren’t aware of punishment and it’s often not that that they think they can get away with it… it’s that they have come to believe that there are no other or better viable options. (Wow, I sound like a Quaker.)

    But I think I can roll with the removal-from-society for pathological killers. Or pathological rapists… had I been on that Philadelphia jury for Jeffery Marsalis’s case and had the death penalty been an option, I believe I would have had no compunction about it. That man was a menace to society pure and simple and I’m profoundly embarassed that the jury lightly tapped his wrist and sent him off to rape in Idaho or wherever he struck next.

    But I didn’t have that kind of information at the beginning of this trial, and it made me queasy to think I might be in a position to kill one man who killed one man (there was one murder victim and miscellaneous unstated crimes).

  3. The death penalty leaves me feeling queasy. Partially this is related to the numbers I’ve seen in the past– the racial breakdown of people executed is very ugly, and shows a nasty bias in the system. Even more, though, is that our justice system is too far from perfect, and executing someone who is innocent is absolutely abhorrent to me.

    If the racial bias in the application of the death penalty was fixed, it would be a start. But this still leaves the problem of innocent people being executed; brief googling says that DNA evidence has shown at least 14 cases in which the convicted was innocent after the fact (and 124 released from death row after being proven innocent before being executed).

  4. These quotes were hard to understand! I’ve read them several times, and I think I understand the general thrust, but while ‘psychic economies’ may be a creative phrase, it’s hard to immediately grasp!

    At any rate, I liked the second quote. I’ve been occasionally pondering recently, as I’ve made a couple visits to a Sufi Muslim fellowship, why these women have made these *choices* about their clothes and worship place.

  5. Fwph, I haven’t seen the stats lately but I’ve certainly heard them before, along with the argument that depending on the preferred form of execution in a state, the costs of capital punishment often exceed the costs of incarceration.
    All of these are serious considerations, and good causes for judicial reform. However, until that happens, when someone puts you in the jury box and says Decide… well… you just feel queasy. And question yourself.

    Joanna, yeah, when you take a quote way out of context like I’m doing, it’s going to be a little difficult to penetrate. I confess that my purpose is a little self-serving since I use these quotes and my commentary to help shape my response papers on the topic, but I do also hope that they click with some curious readers, so I’m really glad you are reading them! The second quote is really the most practical, I think, and you saw yourself that it’s useful. It IS important to look at cultures critically in the way they hierarchize the citizens whose needs they purport to serve – but at the same time it’s so important not to impose our Western whiteness on those cultures.

    Here’s “psychic economies” unpacked… economy recalls another phrase theorists use a lot: cultural capital. Capital is meant to evoke the exchange and consumption of money; cultural capital suggests that there are ideas or texts or images or beliefs that are circulated in a given culture like money. So, a person interpreting The Waste Land might suggest that all those descriptions of dead bodies in the poem are part of the post-WW1 capital in Europe: photographic advancements made photos of massacred bodies ubiquitous and shocking.
    Playing off of that sense of capital, economy suggests a particular order and organization of ideas/beliefs/etc. and psychic, of course, indicates that it’s a mental and psychological matter that’s being traded and ordered.
    In the context of this quote: laws that rule in favor of the heterosexual family unit “produce psychic economies” because the laws take beliefs/ideologies that are already extant (“heterosexual families are better”) and make them material in that some people get to be legal families and some don’t. Then new people come into the world, look around, and see (among other things) that the law only defines families as heterosexual, and absorb that idea into their psyche… and so forth.
    Wow, that was long and boring.