Freedom From Theory So As To Theorize About Freedom

Picture of birds flocking.
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Picture of birds flocking.

A student asked me recently what I thought was the most formidable criminological theory. I responded, saying “Richard Quinney takes wonderful pictures of birds.” But I should have begun with her by apologizing for having written a criminological theory myself, so please take this as a humble and heartfelt apology to you on her behalf. I will be more careful in the future. Let me explain why.

Some of my students are angry about the state of mainstream criminological theory. Of course I can’t say I blame them. But for some, I think, the anger they feel is a function of something deeper, darker, as yet undisturbed within them. There exist some solid abstract arguments regarding criminoetiology, but even these leave a great deal to be desired. In the main, theory disappoints, and perhaps that is its crowning virtue.

Having said this, I must tell you all that I love deeply this discipline, this dialogue, and our canon of work. I take every letter of it to be a gift. Some of it is utter and unmitigated claptrap, yet even the claptrap I prize above its weight in gold. How might this be? We have come by our current place honestly; we have examined dark alleys and dead ends, asked hard, even bizarre questions, all in search of marrow-deep wisdom. We have, to be sure, earned our scars.

About that wisdom, though, let me make a few things clear. I take as axiomatic a couple of key points. First, like a number of my friends, my substantive interest is more toward the realm of zemiology – the study of harm. That’s not all that weird. From this, though, I assume the core purpose of criminology is the transformation of harm into wisdom and thus into insight. Attendant to this transformation is the eradication of certain more egregious forms of harm.

Second, I assume that the foundational purpose of criminology/zemiology is the cultivation of justice which, as I understand it, represents a kind of freedom discussed only too rarely in such terms: love. I assume that the highest criminology is a criminology that liberates when it oppression finds, that heals when wounds are presented, that builds when the ground is clear, that has the brilliance and bravery to see and confront harm and blemish in all manifestations, yet the compassion to respond with healing instead of self-indulgent, wasteful, and ultimately indefensible punishment.

Vaclav Havel’s argument, that our social institutions contain our illnesses and therefore reinfect us with them is among my favorite and often-used ideas. It is thick with meaning, and it is a veritable Swiss Army knife for critique. But it has in it an implication that deserves careful scrutiny, and which may render obsolete the practice of theorizing like we do. In other words, the illnesses we see around us are us.

I grow nauseous at the thought of the millions of displaced Syrians huddling in UN tents in Turkey or pre-bombed tenement buildings in Beirut. I am repulsed by the Michigan government’s cavalier approach to the poisoning of thousands of children. I am sickened by the biomass of damage done by mass incarceration in the United States.

Of course we are.

The illnesses we see and react to in our wider social vantage are a manifestation of ourselves rendered like lead paint on a cheap canvas. We are repulsed by what we see, and perhaps also frightened, some taking shelter in increasingly ardent and devout religiosity, others losing themselves in pocket copies of the Constitution.

Some find comfort in political extremism, some prefer hiding behind weapons carried in the open, and still others simply self-medicate. We are repulsed by what we see around us, in the news, on others and in others. But we are repulsed most by what we see in ourselves, by what we are ourselves. The shelter we seek oftentimes is shelter from connecting, from feeling, from accountability, from investing.

Our incomplete understanding of ourselves and the world around us serves to aid our self-deceptions, but also leads us to fear shadows, not always of monsters, but of trees even full of life.

And herein lies a fundamental failure of criminology: we have failed to seek our quarry where it hides.

We hunt the Loch Ness Monster in the Sinai, we hunt the Yeti at Wal-Mart. We can be forgiven for our error, of course; harm exists in the world around us, and so it is reasonable to seek its causes where the debris lies. But harm begins not where it ends, at least not the harms authored before us today. Harm’s etiology likewise cannot be distilled into a set of psychological constructs. The human mind is far too beautiful and terrific a machine to be shoehorned into the DSM. Where, then, should we look?

Not where, really, but how.

Be still, and breathe. Smile.

If we truly seek answers to the questions we ask in criminology, we must begin in silence. Whether we like it or not, regardless of our fear, we are one. When a child hurts, I hurt. When someone harms another, I am harmed. And you are harmed; not in some vague, mythical social contract sense, but directly. We belong to each other, yes, but we are each other. We are nondual: we are one and yet also distinct. I am not qualified to make claims about the metaphysical nature of our existence, but we, such as we are right now, are impermanent, as are all things. Waste food becomes compost which becomes delicious food. Our identities are invaluable, yet they are also arbitrary.

Again, this is nothing new. Richard Quinney and Hal Pepinsky introduced Eastern philosophical tenets to the study of crime decades ago. But they did not seek merely to deepen the current dialogue. They sought to change it utterly, and if one has eyes to see, they still do with music in the park and pictures of birds. If we are still not meeting the wisdom we seek, perhaps we sit like the novice meditator, one eye open, watching the master. To do is not to do. There is no attainment, but only though realizing no attainment is possible can one attain. But you must forget I said even this.

– For Arnel Pineda.

Michael DeValve, PhD
Department of Criminal Justice
Fayetteville State University

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