How to stop being human

July 23rd, 2020
by Chris

Toby Buckle has done an episode on dehumanisation on his Political Philosophy podcast which I strongly recommend. OK, it’s rather over an hour, but I think well worth a listen. It takes him some time to get there, but in the last third of the podcast he raises an issue which has been troubling me a lot.

An absolutely standard response from people with significantly more conservative political view than mine to the multiple examples which have come up of mainly black people being shockingly treated by police, mostly in the US but also in my own country, has been that “they’re a criminal”. Not that they have at some point in their lives done something which is against the law, but they ARE a criminal. Somehow, this seems to excuse treating them as not entirely human, not entitled to the same respect for life and limb as the rest of us – and I note that in both our countries, the principle of “innocent until found guilty” applies, and similarly previous conduct is not generally considered a sufficient reason to believe that a crime has been committed on this occasion (in the UK, it is something which is not allowed to be raised by the prosecution before a verdict except in special circumstances).

This even extends to suggesting that people are already excluded from being treated as citizens with all the normal rights of a citizen because they have “failed to comply with an order” of a law officer (which has sometimes included arguing that the order is not lawful), because they have crossed the street at the wrong point, because they have a defective tail light on their vehicle… Or, of course, because they are black, and therefore conform to a description in which the only salient point of similarity is “black man”, or on the somewhat spurious basis that they are more likely to have committed a crime because they are black (or, in this country, sometimes west asian) – which is, I suppose, statistically correct, but neglects the fact that they are still, at worst, only around 5% likely to have committed some provable crime. Indeed, sometimes, just standing in the street (or on their own property) or walking along the wrong street at the wrong time, or having no home seems sufficient. There is a clip from “Not the Nine O’Clock News” from 1979 which is satire – but these days, it has come to look so much like actuality as to be painful to watch.

Our theory, in both countries, is that if someone does commit a crime, the court sentences them to some punishment and when that is expired then “their debt to society is paid”. But neither country actually practises this; ex-offenders find it somewhere between difficult and impossible to get a job, for instance, (unless they lie on job applications and so commit an offence of fraud) which propels them straight back into crime. In the UK, despite the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which is designed to underline this principle by making it legal for people not to mention a conviction after some years have passed (varying depending on the offence and sentence), insurers can ignore this (which means ex-offenders can’t get insurance – and sometimes not having insurance is an offence), employers sometimes find devious ways round the provision, and any position involving a position of care for others (particularly children) also circumvents the Act. In the USA, not infrequently, ex-offenders are denied the vote as well (it is notable that the European Court of Human Rights has determined that voting is a human right which should as a general rule be retained even by prisoners serving a sentence, something which the UK signally fails to implement). This is, of course, not to mention the forced labour in the US prison system, which is effectively a modern slavery.

So, it appears that in both countries, although far more so in the US than the UK, we are creating individuals with only partial human rights, only partial citizenship – and, if you are effectively allowed to shoot someone without being prosecuted and jailed merely because they are “a criminal”, that is effectively a form of outlawry, stripping away the most fundamental human right of all.

It’s worse than that, however, if you’re a Christian (and even these days, a majority of people in the UK self-describe that way, and a massive proportion in the US). I could rehearse the list of instances from the gospels where Jesus made it clear that no-one was outside the circle of humanity, the circle of his followers, and indeed “the last shall be first and the first shall be last”. Women, children, the disabled, members of foreign occupying forces, collaborators with the invaders, heretics, foreigners, even members of a hereditary enemy country were all to be included. However here, I want to concentrate on one instance, the thief on the cross. “Today you will be with me in paradise” is fairly unambiguous – the man was a condemned criminal and hadn’t even clearly repented his crime, but he was still included. It is not open to us as Christians to treat “criminals” as less than fully human, fully Children of God.

Just to underline this, St. Paul had some words to say in Romans 3:10-12 (inter alia) on the subject of criminality, borrowed from either Psalm 14 or Psalm 53: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” If there is any temptation in our minds to say “Ah well, I am not a criminal”, we should read that – and ask ourselves whether we have ever contravened a traffic regulation, fudged our taxes a little or employed someone for cash (conspiracy to commit tax fraud), overstated an insurance claim, puffed up our resume to get a job or overstated our achievements in order to get social approval, or, perhaps even been standing on or walking down the wrong street at the wrong time – and that’s only considering laws which we actually know about, given that almost no-one knows all the law – ignorance of which is no excuse (“ignorantia juris haud excusat”).

OK, I’ve always thought that Paul was overstating with the entirely laudable aim of stopping people being complacent and lacking in self-awareness and self-criticism. I’ve met a very few people who I suspect have never, at least in adult life, broken any law. Not many, to the extent that I think they constitute maybe 0.01% of the population. I am definitely not one of them, and I deeply suspect anyone who claims they are (those in that category are not likely to boast of it, I’ve found). Thus I cannot subscribe to the Calvinists’ “total depravity” – but would argue that, when it comes to the law, the overwhelming likelihood is that each of us is guilty of some “criminal” act – and there need be no intention. George Floyd tried to pay with a forged note which he almost certainly didn’t know was forged, something which I once did (but obviously without the dire results he suffered). In the eyes of the “but he was a criminal” brigade (who I suspect of being closet Calvinists) that made me a criminal too.

And, apparently, being a criminal means that you don’t have the rights of citizens (in the US, definitely including life). You don’t have the rights of humans (under the European Convention on Human Rights definitely including life). You don’t have the right to be treated as a child of God. as all of humanity is. Or as Christ – missing from the categories in Matthew 25:31-46 is “When did we treat you as less than human?” and “When did we shoot you because you were a ‘criminal’?”, but they should possibly be there in a 21st century version.

Of course, eventually they crucified Christ because he was “a criminal”. Perhaps it’s time to stop crucifying Christ?

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