“Crime does not exist, only actions do.”- Nils Christie.
To what extent is the above statement true? In this article, I’ll give two different examples of the social construction of crime and why the above statement might be true. Thereafter, I will give two more examples of why actual crimes might exist as a result of the way our bodies have been naturally conditioned to behave, act, think and judge an action as normal or abnormal, good or bad, moral or immoral.
Scenario 1: In a criminology class, an example was given— When a boy takes something that doesn’t belong to him, he is branded as a thief. In some societies, thieves don’t even get as far as being arraigned, getting tried in the court of law and facing jail time or massive bail on their heads but rather, they go through mob justice spontaneously orchestrated by the society and the people around the crime scene. Their reason or qualification for passing judgment on the supposed offender stems from the notion that stealing or taking what does not belong to you is a crime which must attract punishment that will serve as a deterrent for you and other potential thieves from committing such crime again.
Scenario 2: A girl is sexually attracted to another girl. In the USA, it is legally allowed to love whoever you want as long as your sexual orientation does not negatively affect another person’s sexual life (i.e., a lesbian forcing herself on a straight person or vice versa). In most parts of Africa, it is a taboo which earns the alleged offender 14 years’ imprisonment and a potential free card to the grave beyond when in prison with a bunch of cruel homophobes. This boils down to what has been defined as a crime based on the environment and context we identify with. In brief, it is branded as a crime in most parts of Africa, but it is not a crime in North America.
Now, as a result of further engagement with my mates in school (especially non-social science students), I have come to realize that since there are social constructions of crimes, there might be some acts that we naturally (biologically or psychologically) view as crimes and not based on a social construct. Consider the scenarios below:
Scenario 3: While in a primary and secondary school, a seven-year-old boy sees two unmarried early teenagers (13 and 14) having sex in the bathroom. The boy rushes down to the teacher or principal of the school and reports the case. He gets there, and he goes— “Senior A and Senior B are doing something in the bathroom.” Pointing towards the direction of the restroom. The teacher stands up and does what typical teachers would have done—runs down to the restroom and stops the ongoing show. Now, why would a kid think that the actions of those teenagers were wrong? Could it be that the environment has affected the way he sees and perceives things or there is an intrinsic morality (biological and psychological values) within him that had interpreted the action as evil or wrong before the teacher stepped in? Is it an African thing or is it the same everywhere? Take some time to imagine yourself at that same age and what you would have done if you caught one of your teenage sibling and another teenager committing the same act. Also, at that same age, would you be comfortable watching a show on TV where a man and woman are making out in the presence of your parents? If you wouldn’t, could this be a social construct or some intrinsic moral values that are biologically instilled in you from birth? If you would and still not feel bad, why? Think about it. There is a way we have been biologically made to think such that we cannot commit certain acts without feeling guilty.
Scenario 4 (Inspired by a friend): Two children (Child A and Child B) of the same age (2 years old) are put together in a place. They engaged in a fight, and Child A wins. You come and ask what happened. To protect himself, Child A lies and says the opposite of what happened. Try to take a closer look at Child A— that child knows that he has just told a lie and might feel bad afterward. What made the child feel bad at such a tender age? A research made by Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center, also known as “The Baby Lab” shows that babies can actually tell good from evil, even as young as 3 months old. What is it that makes children know what is right from what is wrong? Social constructionism or intrinsic morality?
Ask yourself why wouldn’t you kill someone? Is it because of the punishment that comes with it or the fact that your conscience won’t let you? If your conscience won’t let you, that means your conscience views it as something wrong (crime) which should not be committed at all. You’re thinking, if I should do this, it’ll be so bad and heinous. Could it be that the intrinsic morality in you is the one motioning you not to commit the act? Is it that as humans, there is a form of morality that comes naturally with the psychological conditioning of our bodies which causes us to view acts like murder as inhumane, acts like pornography as immoral and acts like theft as dubious? Or do we just jump into the social constructionism conclusion? During the enlightenment, people stopped using religion as a basis for decision and lawmaking in the society. They tilted towards the rational and scientific approach to things claiming that humans have free-will and rights and that things need to be rationally judged. Could it be that the rationality that comes with this thought process of changing things during the enlightenment was mixed with intrinsic morality? For instance, some few decades ago, if someone kills another person, that person faced the capital punishment of death which was interpreted by people as—because he committed murder and this act is bad, he’ll have to face the capital punishment. Why? Because we are human with good moral values who will not tolerate inhumane acts in the society and appropriate justice has to be served for the family of the victim. But now, capital punishment is not the case anymore, which is being interpreted as— even though you have committed a heinous crime, we won’t kill you. We’ll only give you a lengthy jail term. Why? Because we are not killers. We are human beings with emotions and good moral values.
Before you rush to conclude that all crimes are socially constructed with no attachment with intrinsic morality, consider this quote from Yale’s Brooks and Suzanne Ragen professor of psychology, Paul Bloom. In an opinion piece for CNN.com, he stated that— “Humans are born with a hard-wired morality, a sense of good and evil is bred in the bone.” Perhaps, some theories of old are about to be rewritten.
I really have a lot of questions right now, and I hope you do as well. Hopefully, we can help each other understand the question of– to what extent can an action be considered as a crime and what makes us think that the action is a crime? Could it be that the psychological and biological conditioning of our bodies and brains, or social constructionism is what is responsible for what we define as a crime? Or perhaps, the acknowledgment of the both? Thus, lingering questions that require substantial answers.