Thursday, May 12, 2016

Reflections from the New Directions in Critical Criminology Conference


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

May 9, 2016


Many, many thanks to Lo Presser, Michelle Brown and all the folks from the sociology department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, for organizing and hosting the first biennial Conference on New Directions in Critical Criminology this past May 6-7.   It was uplifting to spend time with and hear old friends I hadn’t seen in several years, from Tony Platt whom I have known and learned from for over 40 years, to young activists and politically engaged students.  A central part of many of the presentations was defining one’s place in the realm of criminological research and action.  Now, back home, I find myself doing the same, within the realm of the “new directions in critical criminology” that I heard presented in Knoxville.

What I heard and learned about the positions various conference participants assumed in criminology carries me back to the distinction Karl Marx drew between two forms of “emancipation” in his essay “On the Jewish Question”:

All emancipation is a reduction of the human world and relationships to man himself. Political emancipation is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a member of civil society, to an egoistic, independent individual, and, on the other hand, to a citizen, a juridical person. Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.


                A good deal of the critical criminology I heard presented was focused on political emancipation, that is, on giving voice and clout to women’s, black and brown pain, fear, and anger, individually and collectively—to resist oppression—in Marx’s terms, for political emancipation.

                Like Marx, I believe that human emancipation entails political emancipation.  Unlike Marx, I believe that human emancipation can follow political emancipation in moments in our personal relations, which with experience can generalize from one personal social context to another.  My primary experience of the phenomenon came in victim-offender mediation, where routinely I found that when “offenders” (including someone who just happened to be picked out for starting a fight) felt safe to lay out what they had done and “anything else you want to say to _______,” and for victims to describe what had happened to them and to ask any questions of _______ they wanted, their conversation morphed into creating their own agreement, often without any prompting from us mediators.  That is the process I call “peacemaking,” transferable, I believe, to any social context, from policing, prosecuting and guarding, to adult-child relations.  In Marx’s terms, it is a moment of political emancipation’s evolution to human emancipation for all involved.

                I have inferred that Norway’s reduction of incarceration from 1960 US levels in 1840, to approximately current, internationally low levels by the end of the century, represents a cultural tipping point that grew from isolated local levels at the peak of the Viking Empire, some 25 generations earlier.  It rested on long-established open, democratic government.  At our stage of global communication, perhaps my own punitive and patriarchal US will reach an overall tipping point in less time.  But in my political culture of demanding “solutions” to our problems of violence and victimization, my commitment to understanding and spreading the experience of transforming conflict into cooperation rests on celebrating and enjoying the moments I am a part of it, knowing that the culture I die in will, on the whole, be about as punitive as it is today, living in hope for human progress toward power-sharing, expecting no solutions.

                I did find that I shared this cultural orientation with some participants, notably with my co-presenter, Denise Bentley, director of Tennessee’s youth courts programs, structurally for example in having among peer judges teens who had been in trouble with the law themselves.  Culturally, I heard it in descriptions of how the judges worked with those charged to help build their lives and relations—to take them out of social isolation.  I heard peacemaking in the stories of how cases emerged and the peer volunteers did and felt about their work.  I am not the first to discover that relations can be authoritarian in formally democratic institutions and groups, and cooperative in formally hierarchical organizations.  That includes whether people hold formal, as in state, or informal, as in private, power over others, or share it instead.  Formally, I prefer power over others to be held publicly rather than privately, because the law gives us access to what state actors do, while records and operation of privatized places remain private.  Whether emancipation is political or cultural, it requires access to the voices and experience of those with less power, so that they may be heard and attended.  I was a state actor for my entire 39-year career.  I held the grading power over students, the power to diminish some over others.  I tell myself that if I could, as I think I did, substantially transform the power of my knowledge in the classroom over “my” students, then cultural transformation of exercises of power over others can begin anywhere.   Love and peace, hal



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