Of Crimes and Punishment

The sexual assaults and ghastly treatment directed against our children often by their close relatives is a definite and clear sign of a “sick society” out there

“In countries such as ours there must be a thorough-going revolution in education if we do not want to see them (our children) — as some are already — perpetually distorted, wasted and deformed, like the Horatian monster — with a gigantic head and an impressive heart, trailing the flagging feet, the withered arms all skin and bones.”

– José Marti, Cuban Revolutionary

Almost every single day newspapers seem to carry their lot of crimes committed all over the country, each one more horrendous than the other. The sexual assaults and ghastly treatment directed against our children often by their close relatives is a definite and clear sign of a “sick society” out there.

We shall leave it to social psychologists and other specialists to investigate the deeper reasons for such malfunctioning of family structures which traditionally used to provide a haven of protection for the weaker elements including children and the old. It cannot escape any independent observer though that most of these crimes are committed within the poorer sections of the community, often among people most susceptible to manipulation of their miserable conditions by all brands of “witch doctors” and other “religious” charlatans.

In the face of such traumatic events there are two popular reactions which need to be guarded against. The first is a line of thinking which blames this rotten state of affairs on what is summarily described as the “breakdown” of the family unit, especially with regard to the new role of women (mothers), who are often engaged in occupations that keep them away from what is deemed to be their “traditional” responsibilities in the upkeep of children. This kind of argument is associated with a “romantic”, indeed reactionary, view of the old family structures which basically corresponds to a level of development of productive forces which is a thing of the past.

As in so many other similar instances such simplistic reasoning as leads their proponents to propose solutions which may seem to be right for the one problem at hand but are in fact totally unworkable from a larger perspective, because they have unintended consequences which create other problems that make matters even worse than the problem which they are intended to solve. In this ideal/typology, for example, it quickly follows that there is therefore no need for girls to “waste time” going to school!

On the other hand, it is now the established view among child development specialists that the character and personality of human beings are largely determined by the treatment received and their living environment in the very early formative years. The true solution, which has failed to receive the attention that it really deserves, is to ensure that the children of every family are provided with the best possible alternative while both parents are at work. Progressive countries all over the world from Cuba to Finland and Norway have indeed shown the way in these matters. Modern, well-regulated “crèches” and kindergartens made accessible to the children of all working couples will not only provide the needed sanctuary but also contribute to providing the best opportunities for each of them to lead a fuller life.

Yet another worrying trend observed as a consequence of the dreadful series of crimes in the recent past has been the call for stricter penal sentences including the demand for the re-introduction of capital punishment. The appeal of the age-old principle of “an eye for an eye” is observed to be directly proportional to the hideousness and frequency of crimes in the country and therefore to the level of “panic” among citizens.

Supporters of capital punishment are quick to seize on these circumstances to lobby for their cause by taking advantage of the irrational and fear-driven reactions of what is construed to be the views of the majority of the population. Let us remember that such demagoguery which plays on the temporary emotional weaknesses of citizens is the worst kind of manipulation.

Last but not least, the connection between the sorry state of affairs described above and the dominant economic model cannot be denied. The level of development of a nation, it has been justly postulated, is not judged by the standard of living of its more well-off citizens but by how its poorer communities fare. Applying such a test to the state of society in Mauritius would arguably uncover a most damning conclusion for the political and economic elites of the country.

In the same vein if we were to gauge the state of the country in terms of the “happiness index” these days we would surely come out with the most deplorable results. This is surely the kind of social and psychological environment par excellence for nurturing the type of deviance and anti-social behaviour which has become the bane of society today. All those who have constantly condemned the prevailing model of development — premised on the view that economic growth leads to a trickle down of benefits to the poor — are therefore (unfortunately!) being vindicated by the turn of events in the country.

In the light of such crude evidence of social malfunctions, is it not high time to reverse the “conventional wisdom” associated with classical economics and its new-fangled versions spread by the new apostles of “austerity economics” (serre ceintures) that wealth has to be created first before it can be distributed? Isn’t that another way of stating that we shall create poverty and then design “poverty mitigation” policies?

A new policy framework premised on the need to stop the ever-widening disparity between the wealthy and the poor is urgently called for. Operationalizing the concept of “inclusive growth”, instead of it being brandied around as a mere slogan, requires the active participation of the State for identifying a systematic, empirical foundation to guide strategy for such inclusive growth.

A new progressive policy framework will be designed in such a manner as to combine wealth creation with a fairer distribution of the same through embedded mechanisms. These will in turn ensure that the benefits of economic progress are not disproportionately captured by the owners of capital and an elite bureaucracy through legal means and otherwise.

Although it is not being suggested that there is one single cause that can explain the above phenomenon, it would still be very risky not to acknowledge the close causal relationship between the all too common perpetration of such sordid criminal acts and the growing inequality of income and wealth, especially in a small closed island society like Mauritius.

 

* Published in print edition on 1  May  2015

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