No Blame in My Game

May 23, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Texas school board approved those guidelines. They rehabilitated Thomas Jefferson – apparently he did well at the re-education center – but I fear that sociology did not fare so well. According to an earlier report,
In the field of sociology, another conservative member, Barbara Cargill, won passage of an amendment requiring the teaching of “the importance of personal responsibility for life choices” in a section on teenage suicide, dating violence, sexuality, drug use and eating disorders.
“The topic of sociology tends to blame society for everything,” Ms. Cargill said.
It’s not just Texas. Ms. Cargill’s comment took me back to a brief encounter during my first tour on jury duty in New York – nearly two weeks of boredom and frustration. I was eager and curious to serve on a jury, but I could never make it past voir dire. The prosecutors rejected me every time. (In principle, you are not told which side rejected you, but it was not hard for me to guess.)

One afternoon when I came back from lunch, I went to the men’s room, and there at the sink was the district attorney who had kept me off a jury that morning. “Why did you toss me off your case?” I asked trying to sound innocent. “Are you kidding?” he said. “A sociologist? You people don't think anyone’s responsible for what they do.”

At the time, I didn't know what to say, and the conversation ended there. But what I should have said is this: You are confusing two separate questions. It's one thing to understand the social forces that may have made a person more likely to commit a crime. It is quite another matter to absolve that person of legal blame for the crime. For a lawyer or a juror (even a juror who is also a sociologist), the question of guilt is paramount. But for the sociologist who is thinking about crime as a social problem, the issue of individual guilt or innocence is much less important.

I might have even offered this analogy from the tort side: if there’s a traffic accident, and one driver is suing another, we have to figure out who was to blame. But if we notice that several accidents have occurred at this same location, we also talk about “a dangerous intersection.” We’re not “blaming” the intersection. We are just saying that if you want to reduce the number of accidents, you can exhort drivers to be more careful, and you can punish those who smash into other cars. But you’ll have more success if you put in a stoplight.


Anonymous said...

Come on Jay, it may be true that you're quite capable of drawing a distinction between micro/macro or proximate/ultimate culpability but you also reject the notion of retributive justice. It seems like the prosecutor made the smart call in your case, even if for not exactly the right reason.

Jay Livingston said...

The trouble is that at voir dire I was being interviewed only for the position of juror, not judge – a shortcoming on the part of the New York court system, I know, but that’s the way it worked.

Anyway, I don’t reject the idea of retribution completely. I just don’t accord it as much weight as I once did. At the time of this incident, I was much younger and clear-thinking. Given the right crime and criminal, I would have eagerly imposed retribution big time, and doing so would have given me the kind of emotional and moral satisfaction that I now, unfortunately, find much more elusive.