Justice for all (?)
So writes the gay-rights theorist Richard D. Mohr, in his book The Long Arc of Justice. The title, of course, reflects a metaphor advanced by Martin Luther King. With reference to the civil-rights movement, King’s expectation seems to have been borne out, at least up to a point. More broadly though, in the sequel some groups seem to have fared better than others. The hope is an optimistic one, but is it likely to prove true across the board?
A more realistic view stems from the views of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) on crime and deviance. Durkheim rejected the conventional wisdom on criminality, which views crimes as simply the ensemble of acts that are harmful to society. He pointed to the enormous variations among societies with regard to the classification of the acts, which cannot in consequence be simply taken as manifestations of some abstract, transcultural norm of social evil. The only feature applicable to crimes in general is that they are socially proscribed and punished.
“The only common characteristic of all crimes is that they consist... in acts universally disapproved of by members of each society... crime shocks sentiments, which, for a given social system, are found in all healthy consciences.”
The punishment of offenders serves to mark out the moral boundaries of a community, reinforcing attachment to it. Contrary to common belief, the function of punishment is not deterrence, rehabilitation, nor retribution. Punishment strengthens social solidarity by reaffirming moral commitment among the conforming population who witness with satisfaction the suffering of the offender. In this way a fundamental contrast between the majority and the marginal element excluded from it is constantly maintained.
Durkeim challenged the conventional view that crime represents a social pathology that must be eradicated. Instead it is a normal and inescapable phenomenon which can play a useful part in fostering social cohesion.
Yet the defining marginal groups need not be consistently the same over time. What is important is the continuity of the function, not its specific content. Society is flexible in this regard.
In modern industrial societies such as America these groups are constantly changing. A hundred years ago business leaders like Henry Ford were excoriated; then for a while in recent decades they were lionized. Now they are out again. Forty years ago cigarette smoking was de rigueur; now smokers are increasingly marginalized. Not so long ago same-sex marriage was considered an impossible dream; now it is mainstream. Yet "promiscuity" is out.
A particularly interesting shift is that concerning transpeople and boy lovers. Thirty years ago it was established doctrine in the gay-lesbian movement that drag queens were abhorrent: they were mocking women. Even more unpopular were transsexuals. A friend who was a M2F transsexual sought at one time to play a role in the lesbian movement in the Bay Area. After her history became known she was forced out. By contrast advocates of intergenerational sex were more or less accepted in those days (sometimes with reservations to be sure).
Now this contrast is reversed. Trans people are increasingly lionized, while boy lovers are almost universally detested and shunned.
Perhaps the best metaphor for this pattern is one of those old-fashioned clocks with two little doors: as one figure emerges from the inside the other must retreat. All this suggests that the “long arc of justice” is not likely to deliver for all groups at all times. I take no joy in noting this conclusion, but it is difficult to avoid.