Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Not at the dinner table...

They say you should never discuss politics and religion at the dinner table. But when it all comes down to it, what else is there? Simple matters such as the price of eggs or whether you prefer pink or blue can be broken down into plain indisputable facts or simple preferences, about both of which it is difficult to sustain a good old shouting match. But veer onto things that do actually matter and you get a stern ticking off from the hostess. (Not the host, note; he’s champing at the bit just like you, but he doesn’t get to leave at the end.)

Maybe the real reason is that if we are allowed free rein we’ll pretty much stumble onto an awful truth. Politics and religion are one and the same. There, I've said it; but think about it. Power and wealth, big imposing buildings, self-important people organised into hierarchies and spouting doctrine against which we must not dissent on pain of death… it’s all there. Voltaire is credited with saying that if God did not exist it would be necessary for man to invent him, which is to say man invented ‘Him’.

There seems to be a remnant herd impulse in the human animal; a need to follow something. Into the vacuum left by the recession of religion flows ideology and if that ideology isn’t ‘religious’ enough it has to up its game or else give way to another flavour of theocracy. Oh, hello Islam… I wondered when you’d be dropping by, but no thanks, we’re not talking about you, specifically tonight. Not round MY dinner table. (When I say ‘dinner table’ I mean, of course, Twitter.)

One hot topic round the table of late is the never-far-from-view, almost-taboo subject of capital punishment, or if you are against it, the more emotive ‘death penalty’. It’s emotive because, really, that’s the only hard objection to it. To those who believe in the absolute sanctity of human life the idea of taking ‘a life for a life’ is monstrous and those who advocate it are beyond redemption.  It is convenient to forget that this is exactly what we do in war and in a much more indiscriminate fashion than we would ever sanction for judicial purposes.

But we are more hypocritical than that. Our big brains give us a consciousness which we mistake for a soul and in so doing place ourselves on a higher plane than other herding animals, which we then deliberately breed and slaughter for food, inventing religious consent for our actions. Those animals we don’t eat we summarily eradicate if we believe they pose a threat to our safety, whether that threat is ever realised or not. All things bright and beautiful?

People die of their own stupidity and that of others every day. People die of ignorance and simple neglect in their millions around the globe. But very few people maliciously and individually set out to take other lives, either as the prime motive or as a consequence of other desired ends. Of those who are intent on causing misery, unacceptably vast resources are poured into catching, convicting and keeping them and attempting rehabilitation, which investment is often - more often than is acceptable - repaid by re-offending.

Yes you can set rigid burdens of proof and yes you can offer opportunities for reform, what civilised society wouldn't? But when the cost of caging an animal hell-bent on savage intent falls increasingly heavy you are really paying not for justice, but to salve your own conscience and adopt the mantle of the righteous. It isn’t about revenge, although vengeance is a perfectly acceptable and normal instinct. We lock people up after all and some suffer greatly as a result - it’s about whether it is right to take a life to save others.

Religion bangs on about the sanctity of human life - so do politicians when it suits them – but such sanctity exists not as a natural law, merely as a human construct. Indeed, when it suits or has suited them many religions and most political regimes have sanctioned execution, often on a grand scale, for the supposed ‘greater good’ and killing in self-defence may be a cause of regret but is rarely grounds for censure. Such killing, often under a hot-blooded and therefore irrational temperament is nevertheless excused, while a calculated decision by calm men to remove from society a great danger is met with horror and revulsion.

 Some of the objections to judicial execution are practical – the wrong man, the possibility of creating martyrs, the impossibility of appeal – but all of these can be guarded against. Very occasionally, a mistake may be made, but there is rarely smoke without fire and we should be pragmatic about that. Nothing is perfect. But most of the objections have a visceral, rather than an intellectual, basis. The instinctive, but irrational thought “What would that say about ME?” based on belief and not on truth.

And once again – as in all matters of faith - the believers are quick to anger, quick to blame and point the outraged finger of revulsion at those of us rational enough to be pragmatic about the meaning of life. Being savaged by a believer is much like being savaged by a socialist. They have no argument other than their faith and so revert to personal insult very early on, usually an attack on the state of development of one’s social and intellectual capabilities and their worth to humanity, oh the irony. Their final sally is normally to shake their head and profess to pity us.

We need to talk about pest control

In other words there is no real argument against the use of the death penalty other than that it offends some primitive and nebulous sense of worth, of godliness, which brings us back to Voltaire. Having a blind adherence to principles we conveniently ignore when it comes to other species, indeed to other nationalities when convenient, strikes me not as the behaviour of a higher intelligence but rather as one that is still hitched to our ancient, evolutionary origins in the herd. Isn’t it about time we were better than that?


  1. I'm not sure what your point is here. It's a nice piece but are you in favour of the death penalty or not? Or are you just saying that it isn't all that high a principle to not kill people who are dangerous?

    The concept of jail as a redemptive event is interesting, but flawed. Yes, we need to offer people the chance to reflect and redeem themselves and we know that in some cases (increasingly, I fear) it has no effect: if you wanted to kill someone because the mighty being you worship can't actually do it for his or herself then the feeling won't have gone away after so many years in jail. They come out and probably are hell bent on doing what they were stopped a while before, especially as they mixed with people as equally hell-bent inside.

    Most of us see prison as a way society can, temporarily, remove some threats and problems. We don't have Australia available now as a destination for the real wrong-doers* (and I'm not talking about stealing sheep) and we fear -- really fear -- the social and political stigma of taking the life of someone who was innocent.

    A lot of people think that if you set an example of kindness and tolerance then it will be reciprocated. A sort of domino effect of goodness. More specifically, by not killing people they in turn will not want to kill you. However as your high-flying morality may well be of no interest to them (and in fact ought to be crushed because it clearly follows erroneous principles) then it follows you are merely storing up trouble.

    One day, you have to unlock the door and hope...

    *Small islands off the coast of Scotland strike me as useful places for people to be exiled to. The savages among the exiled can sort out their own survival and moral principles, but they will never leave it. Oh, and I'd mine the waters around it to make sure they don't leave.

    1. You're not sure if I'm in favour of the death penalty? Of course I am. I am also saying that the few potential miscarriages of justice are a small price to pay for a sentence with a zero rate of re-offending.

      It's high time we stopped pandering to a soft, liberal elite.

  2. I believe in the not too distant future, we will realise that a civilized society destroys its monsters.

  3. Tsk why kill / exile when we can organ harvest... yes there will be the odd mistake but it might make people more law abiding...

  4. Drive into one of Jack Straw's Council Estates during working hours, head out of the sunroof holding a fishing rod with eight cans of Nelson Mandela hanging off it. Paint free beer on the sides of the car.

    Anyone of working age that approaches the car, shoot them dead.

    Is that the message that you're putting across here, or just the one I really want to hear?

  5. You certainly make a very good case 'for'. I'm against in present form on the miscarriage of justice point.

    Now, I think the fear of death penalty is hanging, electric chair, lethal injection, beheading.. All have varying degrees of barbarity. But if the convicted were humanely put down?

    I recall a documentary by Michael Portillo where he looked at death penalty methods, and one he demonstrated (to a point) the convicted goes out on a high (using a gas - cannot remember which). After all, dangerous dogs are 'put-down' - not tortured, burned or beaten to death; just humanely put down.

    Mark Williams (AKA "@Mardconsult" in Twitterland)