Monday, December 17, 2007

Hate Non-Crimes

This time, a conservative student in an Ivy school says he was attacked, then admits he wasn't.

When I was much younger, and doing my first stint as a newspaper editorial writer, nasty, racist notes started appearing in the lockers of the handful of black students at a rural high school. Since the topic of this post already makes it clear where this is going, I'll cut to the chase: After a long investigation and a lot of denunciation of passive community racism, the notes turned out to have been written by one of the black students.

I never expected it. I already had written that the perpetrator of the act, if identified, ought to be dealt the full measure of punishment allowed. After the revelation, I remember thinking, "Great, what do I say about that now?" And I frankly don't remember what answer I ever got, if any.

But I've thought about that kid every time a story like this comes around.

Rick's explanation , in the post, I linked to, is this:

I suppose this is what happens when you criminalize thought. That is, hate crimes receive an inordinate amount of attention compared to a run of the mill assault. We have already seen numerous “victims” of hate crimes – most recently a fireman from Baltimore who faked a threatening note that was accompanied by a hangman’s noose – who filed false police reports because of the national attention drawn to racially motivated or religious bias attacks.

Most of the perps are young like Nava although a few teachers have also been caught faking on campus hate crimes. It raises an interesting question about the efficacy of criminalizing incorrect thinking.

That may be part of it. In some cases more than others. But I think there's some deeper psychology at work, too. A clue might lie in recent science news stories like this one:

The research, conducted by a team of scientists at the University of California in Los Angeles, claimed to prove that the two neural zones which respond to physical pain also react to social exclusion.

In your mind, you feel a social suffering as a physical pain. But you can't get the same level of validation for it from society. Say, "my tooth hurts," and you can get medical care. Say, "People are mean to me," and you're likely to hear, "Welcome to the club; get over it."

I don't think an infant knows the difference between physical and emotional pain. I think that has to be learned. In some people, perhaps, it's learned imperfectly. And any way there's an inner infant lurking in most of us. And different people have different sensitivities to that sort of pain.

I think that's why in some cases adults "recover" vivid memories of early childhood abuse at the hands of teachers or parents. It is the emotional suffering they genuinely felt, but can never force other people to see, translated into the kind of pain people will recognize, and sympathize with, and validate.

I don't think this happens in the level of consciousness. Irrationally, the lie tends to make whatever genuine suffering is felt seem the less valid once the lie is uncovered.

In some cases, the falsifiers claim to have been physically attacked or abused. In others, they claim to have been victims of "hate speech." I think that's where Rick's point comes in: By elevating some speech to the level of a physical assault -- abhorred and punished in the same terms -- we've closed the gap between the inner, felt reality of some people and the scale by which society at large judges such traumas.

[Poets, typically, have been alert to this for a long time. Gray's "Elegy" has a discourse on it. How the range of passions and pains in one breast is not limited by the scale of the circumstances, but by the individual's scope. The illiterate farmhand who stands up to the bully boss in the field does so with the same thrill and fear he'd feel if he was the nation's hero standing up to the king.]