When the employment rate goes unchanged for months, and the number of individuals still seeking jobs declines, is it not understandable why there is a recourse to activities that are not wholesome, productive, and life-affirming? How arrogant is it to expect people who are scarcely making ends meet for themselves and their families, if at all, to remain psychologically well-adjusted and socially responsible? Who is really at fault when a person under such duress and in the public or domestic arena behaves in ways that are antinomian, violent, and ostensibly misanthropic? In this particular sitz im leben, if you will, how can we rightfully indict and convict only the individual, while the causes of miscreant conduct relate to inadequate income, perennial political powerlessness, availability of unhealthy substances, poor neighborhood schools, and no remedy in sight? These are societal forces that are virtually out of the control of the individual.
Certainly, it is difficult to ascertain how to hold both the individual and the society accountable for civilian and criminal offenses. Some may argue that the judicial system is unable to make this type of accommodation, but I disagree. In the 1980s, that very system was allowed to engage in racial discrimination by counting possession of crack cocaine as worse than the possession of powder cocaine–causing an intensification of the crackdown, so to speak, on urban blacks and incarcerating them in record disparate numbers. That policy was wrong, but it demonstrates that the courts can be made to consider alternate ways of attributing and distributing blame!
Black youth between the ages of sixteen and nineteen have been experiencing massive unemployment to the tune of forty-five percent. What type of nation are we that permits pernicious poverty to permeate the core of tomorrow’s adults? The desperation they must feel, the sense of hopelessness and the realization they may not earn a decent living in the foreseeable future, cannot help but incline them towards misadventures antithetical to community and productivity in order barely to survive and sustain their families. A society that is silent and unhelpful when people are experiencing such dire straits is guilty of tyranny and must be held commensurately responsible. After all, it is execrable our nation tolerates this persistent declination of a part of the population, yet responds to their plight by imprisoning a disproportionate number of their young men.
The sheer numbers of people who are poor and who are locked up show that the problem of social dislocation and illegal activity pervades all of human cultures and groupings. Clearly, there is no genetic predisposition here. What is consonant among these categories of people is the interlocking, interdependent nature of economic depression and lawlessness. Because of this mutuality, we as a society must find a way to penalize structures and processes, policies and services, that conspire to alienate people, who resultantly acquit themselves adversely among their neighbors. The violence to which humans in terrible and urgent circumstances resort are symptomatic of the multiple and cumulative causes wrought upon them in systemic ways.
It is a common ethical question whether prisoners of war are generally excused for giving information to the enemy when they are being tortured and tormented by their captors. Many would claim that autonomy is a prerequisite of moral decision-making, and POWs usually have their liberties severely truncated–thereby exculpating them from blame or guilt. Certainly, groups of people such as unemployed African American youth are held hostage by institutionalized racism and the capitalist juggernaut of class separation, so much so that the prosecution of their lives into violence only mirrors the wreckage wrought upon them by the structural and procedural dynamics in which they live. They are similarly constrained as prisoners of war and cannot be expected to maintain a moral compass executed by those whose incomes are stable, habitats are safe, and participation in the body politic unencumbered.
A society worth its mettle assiduously works to eliminate poverty and to provide equitable opportunities for its members to satisfy their existential needs. In this regard, the probity of our country is, metaphorically, insufficiently ironed. And what we promote, we permit!