America’s legions of unsung, largely unknown regulatory boards naturally reflect public opinion and the culture.
What passed for enlightened debate among the members of one such board last Friday is reflective of our increasingly therapeutic ethos. And it suggests that the common-sense assumptions about justice which once ran deep in American life now hang by an ever-thinner thread.
Last Friday, Colorado’s Sex Offender Management Board — responsible for the rehabilitation and monitoring of Colorado’s sex offenders — debated whether the label “sex offender” was overly “stigmatizing” to individuals who, as most right-minded people might believe, deserve as much opprobrium as possible.
Up for discussion was the tender suggestion that more “neutral” and “respectful” and “therapeutic” words — such as “clients,” “individuals” and “defendants” — replace the phrase “sex offender” in the board’s official acts and policies.
Perpetrators of sexual offenses do not deserve forever to be tagged with the “stigma of ‘sex offender,’” declared Susan Walker, director of Coalition for Sex Offense Restoration.
Arapahoe County Deputy District Attorney Cara Morlan, a paragon of common sense, told the board that “clients” visit doctors, dentists, and hairdressers. While sex offenders are indeed “individuals,” not all individuals are sex offenders. Such is the state of reasoned debate in certain sectors of American life that these things even need to be said.
The moral absurdity of adopting the word “individual” — a word so broad as to include everyone and thus no one — is driven home by pondering how a rape victim might best describe her attacker: “An ‘individual’ raped me yesterday.”
Yet having been marinated in a therapeutic culture in which sociological blather passes for serious thinking on the human condition, one can scarcely begrudge those prone to taking a kid-gloves approach to evil. Yet misdirected compassion dressed up as mercy diminishes our humanity, instead of enhancing it. It proposes that human beings are not free moral agents but hapless actors in life’s circus, thrashed about by circumstances largely beyond our control, and that our punishments should be meted out accordingly.
A related urge, with a long pedigree, is to strive to “see the humanity” in individuals committing manifestly inhuman acts. It calls to mind an event that rocked New York, in 1989, and about which George Will has written brilliantly: the “wilding” in Central Park, in which a 28-year-old jogger was raped, slashed and clubbed by a gang of marauding boys.
John Cardinal O’Connor visited the victim, Trisha Meili, as well as the rapists. “I didn’t want to be seeming to single anyone out,” he said. Congressman Steny Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, declared that “there was a tragedy on both sides” — the side of the victim, and the side of the rapists, whose disturbed childhoods were the psychological groundwork for their atrocities.
The habit of assigning “tragedy” to both the guilty and the innocent is a close cousin of the impulse to flinch from assigning blame from people who deserve it: Witness the Obama administration’s upcoming “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism” — meaning extremism perpetrated not by radical Islam but, in White House spokesman Josh Earnest’s words, “individuals who carried out an act of terrorism.”
Evidently, “individuals” (not “evildoers,” mind you) are running rampant, causing mischief not just in Colorado, but globally.
When Martin Heidegger maintained that “no one dies for mere values,” he was highlighting the distinction between values — freely chosen in the cafeteria of potential moral choices — and virtues, which transcend our capricious choices and are eternally part and parcel of our moral fabric. When Friedrich Nietzsche called human beings “the esteeming animals,” he was contending that the dignity of our humanity rests on uttering the words “good” and “evil.”
If we posit or choose our “values,” we can, of course, just as easily “un-choose” them. Ideals are loved not because they are good. By modern lights, they are good if we choose to love them. Commitment becomes an act of the will, not a reaction toward virtues which entice one to sacrifice the self on behalf of transcendent goods.
Those in thrall to “values talk” grimaced when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire.” They blanched when the least morally ambiguous president of this century, George W. Bush, spoke of “the Axis of Evil.” Their ethic lives on debates about Colorado’s Sex Offender Management Board and in an administration resisting precision of language lest “Islamophobia” be awakened.
Should a one-time shoplifter be labeled a “thief”? Perhaps not. But is it a “tragedy” for a criminal to be “stigmatized” by the lifelong appellation of “sex offender”? One suspects most Americans’ resounding answer would be: No.
Anyone who, for example, solicits a child for prostitution — an atrocity which will earn the “sex offender” label — is worthy of lifetime banishment from the ranks of civilized humanity. His label is the neon badge that no board should discard.
Writing of “the present age” over 150 years ago, Soren Kierkegaard anticipated that a new era of “leveling” would “leave everything standing but cunningly empty it of significance.” Much the same might be said of Colorado’s board, which chose finally not to retire the “sex offender” label. The “stigmatizing” language remains, but the debate to discard it magnifies our ongoing slide into a linguistic condition somewhere beyond good and evil.
Bob Stump is Chairman of Phoenix Opera and serves as a Commissioner on the Arizona Corporation Commission, a statewide elected body that regulates most of Arizona’s utilities. You can follow him on Twitter at @bobstump.