Law in Contemporary Society

The Justice Myth: How Our Criminal Justice System and Media Representation of Gendered Violence Fosters a False Sense of Progress

-- By CeciliaPlaza - 25 Apr 2018

Individuals’ needs change whenever society’s material conditions change. According to Arnold, whenever the sociopolitical regime does not adapt to new needs, “revolutions” arise to create new structures that address that gap. However, because individuals unconsciously interact with social institutions and are often unaware of their tacit compliance with the status quo, they rarely recognize the incongruence between existing power structures and society’s needs. Arnold’s “revolutions” are thus superficial; the existing structures that “revolutions” seek to change merely bend in new ways that might seem, briefly, like social progress. Upon the eventual realization of the contrary, a new “revolution” arises to address the same gap, bringing another wave of temporary feelings of progress. This cyclical stagnation is then obscured by the myth that our criminal system is just and protects all individuals equally.

The Women's Movement: A Case Study

There is no better illustration of this phenomenon than the inertia of women’s historical social positioning. American societal power is founded on two pillars: American capitalism, which distributes power by imposing economic roles on stratified demographic groups, and the legal-political structures that reify capitalistic appropriations of power by dictating moral and cultural values and defining what is punishable. Women, and specifically certain subgroups thereof, are economically valuable producers with little control over their culturally devalued labor. Their lack of control is enforced by a pervasive culture of allowable violence. The criminal justice system identifies which kinds of violence are allowable against whom and solidifies these power divisions.

1. Proscribed Economic Roles

Women’s bodies are a site of capitalist expansion: They birth and socialize the future workforce. As physical producers, they generate a continuous labor supply. As moral reproducers, they are the center of the ideal nuclear family. Dominant cultural perceptions of femininity and womanhood devalue this economic potential, casting women and their bodies primarily as consumers and recipients while their labor is appropriated to support the structure that devalues them.

2. Devaluation Through Allowable Violence

Devaluation is reinforced by determinations of the kinds of people and behaviors that can be punished. Sexual violence, which disproportionately affects women, is not the “right” kind of violence: A rape happens every six minutes, but only 0.006% of rapists ever see the inside of a prison (FBI statistics). In fact, women victims are systematically punished for protecting themselves: Marissa Alexander was imprisoned for almost six years for protecting herself from her abusive husband, who she did not attempt to nor actually injure. This devaluation is racially and economically stratified. White upper-class women are victimized at lower rates and are more likely to be considered “worthy” victims than their minoritized counterparts. The “price” of violence varies with gender, race, class, and other factors.

3. The Justice Myth

We learn who the “right” kinds of victims are from highly publicized example cases in which “justice” was served. For instance, the week of the Central Park Jogger there were 29 violent rape cases, but only one involved a young, white, female investment banker. Consider, also, the Nassar case: The victims are mostly white, sometimes famous, athletically talented children. Innocents. Perfect victims. Media coverage of the case grossly appropriated and sensationalized their statements and a dramatic 125-year sentence so that we, as a society, can continue believing that we will not allow this kind of violence. The silent caveat is that such justice only applies to certain victims in certain circumstances. These cases, after all, are the exception, not the norm.

The “Revolution” Cycle

From this vantage point, it is no surprise that each new feminist “wave” is but a reincarnation of the last, simply with a new rhetoric. In all fairness, it would be incorrect to say the modern women’s movement has made no progress: Women vote. Women go to college. Women climb business ladders and become high-powered executives. Women are senators and congresswomen (but not president). Nonetheless, it is important to remember two things.

First, this is the minimum change necessary to maintain the illusion of progress and justice. The archetypal successful, free, modern woman is white and upper-class—and even her progress is limited. College women are still pressured to join (white) sororities that tout the same values of Christian purity they’ve espoused since the 1800s. They’re steered away from STEM and high-paying fields. They’re harassed and assaulted in the workplace and faulted for bearing children (and recall that this has historically been their most “productive” economic use) with unpaid leave and less opportunities for advancement.

Second, these frontiers of progress, while real and important, have obscured and effectively discarded the needs of minoritized groups. After four “waves,” white middle-class women are still excluding the interests of women of color, immigrants, the lower class, non-English speakers, trans* and non-heterosexual women…Ironically, most women. This exclusion perpetuates the notion, integral to the justice myth, of white, upper-class women as the only “right” victims.

This is the result of a pervasive fear permeating each “revolution” (not just the women’s movement) that change must happen slowly—almost so slowly as to be imperceptible. The fear is that if “revolutionaries” ask for too much, deviate too far from the status quo, their “revolution” will never succeed. This concern is perfectly reasonable; equality is a radical concept, repugnant to the historically entrenched hierarchical structures of domination that these “revolutions” seek to change. However, this fearful approach allows dominant societal structures to dictate what kinds and degrees of change are possible. A “revolution” ceases to be so when it goes only as far as dominant society will tolerate.

But the alternative is to bring a revolution of extremely uncertain outcome. A non-Arnoldian revolution might leave us with less than even false progress. So, we dissociate. We allow ourselves to believe the media coverage and say to ourselves, “thank goodness men like Nassar are punished appropriately by our legal system.” The mythology of justice becomes necessary for our societal functioning because it is easier to believe that we are revolutionizing, little by little, than to come to terms with the deeply unjust world in which we live.


Webs Webs

r4 - 25 Apr 2018 - 18:08:01 - CeciliaPlaza
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