Hal Pepinsky, email@example.com, “peacemaking” at pepinsky.blogspot.com
June 21, 2013 (summer solstice in Ohio)
When I took my required year of research methods in graduate school, I became fascinated by how the studies I was reading in other classes blatantly violated basic assumptions of the statistics they used to get results. The most glaring example in criminology is applying actuarial predictors of recidivism for groups of people to individuals. All statistics by definition assume that the probability of any single case falling at any particular point along a distribution is zero; hence the fallacy of affirming the null hypothesis (that one thing equals or is another, which as Gregory Bateson pointed out is true only as a tautology—true by definition). Regardless of the “fact” that someone has offended, the odds that s/he is now an offender are 50/50: either s/he is or s/he isn’t, period. Whether s/he is an offender is ultimately a matter of whether s/he is so named, as in “being duly convicted of a crime,” or in “self-report studies,” whether s/he admits doing what the researcher defines as an offense. In the language of statistics, “offender” is a “nominal variable.”
We criminologists and our audiences won’t settle for treating who we “are” as a nominal variable. I surmise we implicitly agree that laws and their applications are so numerous that practically all of us have broken the criminal law. To “treat” offenders, criminologists and the lay public all assume that some offenses are worse than others, and that by extrapolation, some entire people are worse offenders than others, more “at risk.” Even self-proclaimed “penal abolitionists” generally concede that prison is necessary for “the worst of the worst,” for “the most violent offenders.” That leaves many “critical criminologists” in the position of arguing whether other people—wealthy people, powerful people, or “persons” known as “corporations”--are worse offenders than those we incarcerate. We may settle for not being able to set a zero to 100% scale from those whom “we know” to be perfectly law abiding, we virtually insist that “meaningful” results be scaled ordinally, that is, be ranked. And from there, we slip into cardinal scales—forsaking “better” and “worse” ranking of events and people for “best” and “worst,” without noticing the leap in logic.
In this respect, criminologists sound like conversations I hear all the time in everyday life and news. In lawyer-speak, we tend to ask each other leading questions about experiences we have had and people we refer to. “What is your favorite movie/song/composer/vacation spot?” “Who are you best of friends with?” “What is your greatest fear?” “Are you doing your best?” “Are we the greatest nation on earth?” “How do we achieve justice?” “I have some really good students this term.” “Who is the top-ranked [fill in the blank]?” “What are you doing to better yourself?” “What or who is the greatest threat to national security?” “Who have been our greatest presidents?” “Are we maximizing return on our investment?” “Who is the world’s richest person?” “Are you spending/using your time efficiently and effectively?” And ultimately, “How do I rate?” “What value do I have to the people, whose opinion of me I depend of me on, place on whether I live or die, eat or starve, suffer at my lack of productivity?” Commodifying the value of our lives in cardinal or absolute terms entails setting beginning and end points to our lives—a fruitless effort that among other things leads to eternal debates in the face of physical ambiguity over when life begins and ends, our ultimate fear that of dying, let alone becoming, a nobody. Whether we surrender or not, pressure on ourselves from birth is enormous for us to show others that we rank high enough on some reference group’s scale that we have social worth. And given that we never get high and mighty enough to ensure our social status, we tend to rely heavily on invidious comparisons of others to “ourselves” to “belong” somewhere with like-minded people, in Erving Goffman’s terms, stigmatize others for the sake of “status identification.”
The more I allow myself to settle for living nominally rather than ordinally, the more I recognize not only that every person is uniquely situated and experienced, but that no one has a single personality, let alone is deviant or “perfectly normal” (that is, has arrived at some statistically arbitrary midpoint where no one really exists). Centrally, this enables me to forgive myself for my own mistakes and missteps, most dramatically, recently, of validating my resistance to being labeled “an alcoholic” by embracing and thus being able to negotiate with my own conscience the possibility that I was not only a drunkard, but had always also been one to appreciate that another part of me was equally capable—if only I acknowledged it—of enjoying life without drinking. I notice these days that social scientists are recognizing this if only as a personality trait as “resiliency” among communities that are “socially resilient”—in Darwin’s or systems analysts’ terms to accommodate uncertainty. And so, in the criminological part of me, I have repeatedly found myself able to gain mutual respect and trust with prisoners who are known as incorrigibly violent or sociopathic, in one case as it turned out literally to have had my trust requited by a “career offender” who saved my life when he saw (as I see it in retrospect) that he had no alternative but to kill someone before he killed me. For over forty years until he died of cancer at 64, Fred Villaume became an enduring, close friend and companion.
For 10 years until she too died of cancer, my friendship with Mable Linder in Bloomington led me to join her in singing with older people in “skilled care” and “adult daycare.” Repeatedly, I met great grandmothers who had spent their lives devoted to family well-being seldom being visited by those they had known including family, dying sadly and in isolation. It dawned on me how precious it was to reach a point in life with assurance that I knew in my soul that I had made a significant difference in the life of even a single other person. More than that, once I gave myself credit for being of such seemingly minor “accomplishments” in my life, it became easier for me to accept that I didn’t have to prove my worth by this or that professional recognition. Living to learn how to respond to conflict rather than eliminating it turns out to be pretty relaxing in its own right, to let go of defending the rightness or wrongness of what I do, and to embrace my many mistakes rather than trying to make sure I never make that mistake again. What a relief that is. Love and peace--hal