A Careful Response to: “To be a criminal is also a choice” – Hidden Power of Words Series, #18

According to the dictionary, crime is “an action or omission that constitutes an offense that may be prosecuted by the state and is punishable by law” or more simply “illegal activities.”

“To be a criminal is also a choice” involves a variety of problems and limitations: 

It fully embodies essentialism and not constructionism to classify and analyze actions. 

Essentialism suggests that all things are absolute and that there is no subjectivity in the world – no room to question or analyze.

Examinations of history make abundantly clear the historical reality that “criminal” has no one, no universal definition. What is a “crime” in one place or time, is “normal” or “tolerated” or “celebrated” in another time or place. Enslavement, homosexuality, or being an outspoken women were all “crimes” not too long ago, to just name a few examples. Also, a “crime” is not necessarily a “moral” wrongdoing. “Crime” does not necessarily have “victims.” 

Additionally, the “to-be-a-criminal-is-also-a-choice” rhetoric ignores the role of genes. Notions of biological determinism are dangerous, of course, but we cannot ignore the role of nature and nurture. We also cannot ignore that some studies have shown some people are more prone to violence. Likewise, we cannot ignore that memories and trauma are transmitted, at least some, through DNA for generations. 

“Criminals” don’t necessarily have a choice due to circumstances, too. For example, Black Men for over a century have been almost prohibited from working in the so-called main stream economy. Society forces these people into an underground economy that is subjectively criminalized. Due to structures of the overall Criminal Justice System, those released from imprisonment almost have no choice but to return to prison.     

“To be a criminal is also a choice” ignores all evidence that says minorities are targeted for “crime” far more often. If we say “crime” is a “choice,” we also have to look at enforcement of said laws. Many, many “criminals” never get caught – especially White Men who are CEOs or who are politicians. What about the “choices” involved here – both of law enforcement and of those involved in “illegal”/“immoral” acts that most clearly do hurt all life.   

Criminals are also by no means fully “bad” even if they did something really “bad.” The negative connotation associated with “criminals” is too strong to allow objectiveish conversations. 

When we internalize history and biology and studies from psychology, anthropology, and sociology, we know all very little we have any choices, per se. Far more is predetermined than anyone wants to acknowledge. Far more is guided per se and created per se vis-à-vis interactions with others (i.e., texts.). Everything is created and re-cretaed through hermeneutical relationships. 

(White) United Statesians, given the pervasiveness of Horatio Alger like-myths, are very hesitant to consider and internalize that anything except a person’s hard work (or lack of hard work) ties to their everyday life. It continually baffles me that we have trouble acknowledging that hard work has little to do with anything tangible in terms of economic or social compensation. It also continues to frustrate me that we have so much trouble recognizing the role various demographic variables play in everyday life.  

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Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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3 replies

  1. We must all live with the consequences of our choices, good and bad, but the difficulty lies in determining what constitutes criminal behavior. If all laws are just, then any lawbreaking activities are necessarily unjust, but if we acknowledge that unjust laws exist, then how do we describe any activities that violate unjust laws?

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  1. Proposing a New Model of Justice « Andrew Joseph Pegoda, A.B.D.

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