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Matter Loading?

In my college debate club/team we occasionally have “Matter loading” (or “matterloading”) sessions for British Parliamentary debate (BP). In these sessions we talk about a variety of topics that we expect to encounter or use in debate rounds. For example, sometimes we focus on current events, such as the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (and may then relate this to some of the major concepts in colonialism and international systems theory). Often these topics can be useful in the moment, but some of them can lose value over time or when one deals with different issues. However, some of the concepts we discuss are timeless and can be used for a wide variety of debate topics. This article will introduce one of the most broadly useful real-world concepts I have learned to apply in debate (a category which does not include aspects of debate theory). In doing so, it will start two general article series: 1) matter loading topics and 2) breaking down broad principles (e.g., precedent, paternalism, responsibility) into specific, concrete “pro/con” concepts. Rather than try to explain that second idea in more generic language, I’ll just let the rest of the article illustrate what I mean.

Thus, let’s think about the formal purposes of punishment. 

Introduction, including topic applicability

Some people may be able to list some of the purposes of punishment in the criminal justice system, such as deterrence; many people may just think in broad terms of “we need justice.” However, there are numerous concrete, specific concepts to consider, some of which may not be so intuitive—especially when we are talking about situations that aren’t in the criminal justice system. Indeed, punishment is not just applicable to criminal justice/courts; you can apply the concepts to any situations/actions involving punishment, whether in society (e.g. social movements and public shaming), military, foreign policy (e.g., sanctions), personal life (e.g., commitment devices), business (e.g., predatory practices, whether to fire an employee), parenting, and so on. With that note, as I move on to (briefly) list and explain the principles, be thinking about the contexts where you might apply them:

The Standard 5 Purposes

These are things you will usually find in a criminal justice textbook or other overview (although occasionally one or two are different).

  1. Deterrence: causing someone to not do something by threat of punishment:
    • Specific: deterring a specific offender from offending again.
    • General: deterring others from committing crimes (i.e. “making an example out of someone”).
  2. Incapacitation
    • Preventing someone from committing crimes (e.g. by imprisonment).
    • Restricting someone’s access to things such as guns, driving, etc. 
    • Includes monitoring of various sorts.
  3. Retribution (+ Acknowledgement)
    • This is sometimes a finicky purpose to define, but it generally refers to the satisfaction felt by victims (or society) as a result of seeing “justice done.” Common expressions that denote this idea include: “closure,” “just desserts,” “vengeance.”
    • On a closely related note, punishment can also be an acknowledgement of victims’ experience/concerns, which can be comforting, cathartic, or otherwise beneficial for victims to believe that “someone cares.”
  4. Rehabilitation
    • Encouraging the person to contribute to society and reject crime, especially in two ways:
      1. Practical rehabilitation, such as by increasing the opportunity cost for doing bad (e.g. job training for prisoners).
      2. “Moral education”: Encouraging someone to internally feel bad about doing wrong (e.g., parents causing children to feel guilty).
  5. Restitution
    • Fixing/compensating damages, such as repaying for theft, community service, etc.

Strangely, most criminal justice textbooks and articles I have come across tend not to discuss many more purposes of punishment; some articles don’t even mention all of those above. However, I have identified additional noteworthy purposes.

Additional Purposes

  1. Consistency/Coherence
    • Sometimes you should punish someone or something even when it is costly to do so to make the system more fair (or at least convince others that the system/punisher is fair).
    • A common example/phrasing of this would be avoiding double standards (such as when black offenders are punished disproportionately more than white offenders).
    • Consider for example (not) punishing international allies that commit human rights violations.
  2. Coercion (and the threat thereof)
    • This is similar to deterrence, but this is where threats of punishment are used to get someone to do something.
    • For example: threats of large punishments can achieve outcomes such as “flipping” (getting criminals to act as informants) and plea deals (which arguably can be abused).
      • On a hybrid note: the very threat/risk of betrayal can potentially deter, restrict, or otherwise undermine crime—but organized criminals can use principles of deterrence to try to counteract this, as exemplified by the phrase “snitches get stitches”.
  3. Formalization
    • Specifically, formalizing punishment so it isn’t carried out (poorly) by someone/something else.
    • Imagine a society where someone commits a crime and the government does nothing: the community will be very upset, and some may believe they must take matters into their own hands (i.e., vigilante justice), which can cause serious problems (consider ethnic violence, for example). This becomes even more problematic when the blame/guilt is unknown (and thus enters the problem of lynchings).
  4. Reconciliation (and reintegration): 
    • The primary/direct beneficiary is the offender, but the target of change is the relationship that the offender has with others/society (as opposed to the offender’s individual qualities, such as skills, morals, etc.). Hopefully, this would indirectly lead to some societal benefits.
    • One way to imagine this purpose in practice is to consider a conflict between siblings: if one sibling wrongs another sibling but doesn’t get punished for it, the victim may grow to feel resentment towards the offender.
    • Often, this goal is undermined by the stigma inherently associated with most punishment.
  5. Containment, Exclusion, and Otherization
    • This involves preventing offenders from interacting with others not simply to prevent them from committing crimes, but from (indirectly) causing others to commit crimes, such as by teaching or normalizing the behavior.
      • This can be phrased as “one bad apple spoils the bunch.”
      • For a more-scientific perspective, consider social contagion theory (which this arguably-fun program explains).
      • As a concrete example: parents may not let their children play with certain other children because of the risk of picking up bad behavior.
    • Otherization in particular refers to the socio-psychological concept of “othering” offenders, so that a (non-offending) person in society is less likely to psychologically identify with those offenders.

And the list goes on…. Yet we are not even half of the way through the overall topic of punishment; we still need to consider the negative side of punishment, which I’ll cover in an upcoming article. Still, I hope you can begin to see how breaking down these principles can be helpful when it comes to actually applying those principles—especially in unfamiliar/non-traditional contexts (i.e., outside of the criminal justice system, in this case). 

If you want to add thoughts or ask questions (for example, do you think I missed something?) I would encourage you to leave a comment!

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