Frankly, we were skeptical when first contacted by Peter Shaw, Ph.D., a genial, tweedy, professorial type carrying a somewhat foxed and dog-eared manuscript boldly titled “My System.” It outlined, he claimed, a comprehensive solution to the leading social problems of our era. Despite appearances, the man was hard to dismiss, especially given his claim that his plan would be embraced with enthusiasm by liberals and conservatives alike.
Throughout the interview Shaw insisted that he was himself a liberal dedicated to preserving compassion, tolerance, and the other liberal virtues. But inasmuch as he sometimes slipped into describing these virtues as the liberal “mindset” and espoused liberal doctrine with an exaggerated unctuousness strikingly at odds with the hardheaded solutions he offered, we remain skeptical about where Shaw’s true allegiance lies. The somewhat frustrating interview, during which we might have pressed certain points a bit further, follows below.
Chronicles: What is your background, and what are your qualifications for offering a solution to all social problems?
Shaw: Crime is the biggest social problem. That’s what I’m going to talk about first. Figure out how to deal with crime and all the rest follows according to the same formula.
Chronicles: But what is your expertise in this area?
Shaw: The first thing is that everyone has to start thinking about crime in just the opposite way from what they’re used to. Mind you, I don’t question the received wisdom in this area—or in any other for that matter. Of course law-abiding citizens are contemptible—lawbreakers are society’s true heroes. I do not in any way challenge this truth as it has been admirably promulgated from our pulpits by educational leaders, thoughtful politicians, enlightened police chiefs, and TV news anchormen. All I propose is that—as a temporary convenience only—we agree to turn everything we understand backwards. This means that we would agree to regard unsocial and illegal behavior in the opposite way from how we know it should be regarded. We would, that is to say, regard such behavior as bad.
No, no, don’t interrupt! I can tell that you are shocked. Let me say that it is to your credit that you are. But before I am, as it were, shouted down and laughed off the stage, let me just indicate what would follow from adopting the assumption that I am proposing.
The first result would be instructions to the police to enjoin, detain, or even arrest people committing unsocial or illegal acts. It would also be necessary to assure the police that such actions on their part would no longer be condemned by the press, nor result in their demotion, even though these outcomes are indubitably right and proper.
I should pause to say here that, much as I regret it, such contradictions appear to be an unfortunate but unavoidable feature of the thinking-reversal exercise I propose. Yet the experiment must be seen through to the end if it is to be properly tested.
Chronicles: What you are really proposing, then . . .
Shaw (interrupting): To take an example of how the reversal would work, imagine a group of disadvantaged youths running through a New York City subway car understandably tearing down advertisements for merchandise they cannot afford. As they make their way through the car, they request that selected citizens give them money for recreational uses. Under my reversal plan this behavior, fully justifiable though it is, would be defined as unsocial and illegal (a certain amount of police retraining would be necessary here). As a result of this redefinition, the youths could be halted and detained by a police officer.
Chronicles: All you are really saying is that . . .
Shaw (animatedly and, in our opinion, somewhat self-aggrandizingly): In the months and years that I spent developing my crime plan, there were many weary nights when I admonished myself to stop. But an iron logic compelled me to suggest steps even more violative of the social understandings I hold most dear.
If antisocial and illegal behavior were to be regarded as bad, then it followed that the policeman who observes a citizen making his way down the street while shouting and gesticulating at the people around him should request that the citizen conduct himself in a less threatening manner. And if the citizen, understandably taken aback by the policeman’s unorthodox proceeding and properly jealous of a citizen’s constitutional rights as presently defined in their enlightened way, should fail to comply . . . the policeman should be allowed to restrain him.
I would even propose that if youths outside a rock concert hall should disagree over the qualities of the artistic performance they have just experienced, and if these youths should be agitated by their convictions to the point of arguing vociferously with and shoving one another, a policeman should be licensed to accost them. And if one of them should reach inside his jacket as if to draw a weapon, law officers present should search his person—even if he resists physically.
Beyond these measures we surely cannot go. Yet logically several others do seem to follow. I hereby state my personal abhorrence of what I am about to say and hope it will be understood strictly as an intellectual exercise—a jeu d’esprit, if you will. First, upon committing an illegal act, a citizen—no matter how reduced in circumstances or disturbed mentally—would be subject to arrest. Should the citizen resist, the arresting officer would be allowed to subdue him by force. Second, at the subsequent trial the testimony of the policeman would be treated oppositely to the humane way now in favor. That is, the presumption would be that the officer had acted in a professionally correct manner, rather than in a spasm of irrational violence as was more probably the case. Third, upon the handing down of a guilty verdict in a trial, the prisoner would not only be sentenced, as is sometimes the current practice, but also actually sent to jail and made to serve out the time specified by the judge.
The mass murderer on New York’s Long Island Railroad provides an excellent example of how my new plan would work in practice. For in February 1992, nearly two years prior to the Long Island Railroad killings, Colin Ferguson was involved in exactly the kind of action and subsequent trial I am describing. Ferguson shoved and verbally abused a woman on the subway, then ran away from officers to whom she pointed him out a few minutes later. He fought the officers, called them racist pigs, and charged police brutality. Ferguson was found guilty of “harassment,” the lowest category of crime, and soon released. This was sensitive and correct. Society’s responsibility in this case was to reduce white racism and to strengthen gun control laws. Taking into account that Ferguson was able to buy the gun with which he did the killing after a 15-day waiting period, it follows that citizens fighting for tougher gun laws must now fearlessly press for a 21-day waiting period. Some of the victims on the train, well educated and familiar with liberal values, have themselves called for stricter gun laws.
Under reversal of thinking, though, the Ferguson case would have been handled differently. His physical resistance to police officers back in 1992 would have been treated as a felony. The police would have been commended for their swift action. Ferguson would have been incarcerated for a period of at least two years—that is, until some time after the date on which the killings took place.
To be sure, incarceration instead of a compassionate response to Ferguson’s life experiences with racism entails a severe social loss. Even if Ferguson had “cooled down” in the “chiller,” to adopt the vulgar terminology of society’s punitive thinkers, his creative potential would have been ignored or, still worse, stifled. Such waste of human potential is the undeniable drawback to reverse thinking, and it should not be denied. So discouraging is this drawback, in fact, that I find it difficult to go on. Nevertheless, I will continue to trace out the sequence that began with defining illegality as bad.
Fourth, during incarceration the prisoner would not be eligible either to receive Pell grant money to pay for creative writing courses or to earn a college degree. Nor would he be permitted leave from prison to accept any humanitarian awards (except those presented directly by the legislature or governor of the state where he is incarcerated). Any prisoner committing murder or rape during a temporary release would automatically forfeit his right to future temporary release. (I realize that this draconian measure constitutes a violation of a fundamental human right, but such are the lengths to which speculative theory sometimes takes us.)
On the same point: that all of the harsh measures I have described are unconscionable is evident on the very face of the matter. One can all too easily imagine the setbacks both for enlightened penology and for those forced into committing acts of violence if potential criminals had to contemplate obduracy of the kinds I have described. Jail would deny them the understanding and help in dealing with their corrosive life experiences that they have a right to expect. Consider the situation of a criminal committing what is perhaps his first, tentative illegal act—striking down a privileged, socially uncaring woman and tearing from her neck a gold chain worn with invidious ostentation. The needy, Jean Valjean-like, so-called perpetrator faces a speedy trial and conviction, followed by sentencing and jail time with virtually no hope of early release. Nowhere in this draconian process is the human potential of the condemned in any way recognized, celebrated, or nurtured.
Chronicles: Exactly which side of the question are you on, Dr. Shaw?
Shaw: That’s OK, you can just call me “Professor Shaw.” You’re probably interested in hearing my next plan for mentally reversing the correct opinion we currently hold about virginity versus sexual license, about education to foster self-esteem versus education to impart information, about . . .
Limitations of space made it impossible for the editors to print the remainder of Professor Shaw’s somewhat rambling yet challenging lucubrations.