Superman is Not Responsible for Violence

I am doing some research on mea culpa and the role of mitigating circumstances when it comes to being held responsible for crimes. In 1978, Harvey Milk, a Californian activist was shot dead by Dan White. This case was famous not only for the murder of America’s first openly gay politician, but also for the “Twinkie Defense” where  his defendant lawyers successfully claimed that White acted out of character and persuaded the jury that he had experienced a mood swing exacerbated by his consumption of sugary foods. The jurors found White incapable of the premeditation required for a murder conviction, and instead convicted him of voluntary manslaughter.

Similarly, in the Jamie Bulger case, where two 10-year-olds, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson abducted and murdered the two-year-old toddler, questions about who and what to blame were raised by the public whipped up by the tabloids. Every week, there seems to be some unbelievable crime that is attributed to television, pornography, horror videos or poor parenting. It is our human nature to look for a culprit.

Now we have the return of the supermale syndrome myth where males born with an extra ‘Y’ chromosome (‘XYY’) are thought to be more aggressive and violent then the rest of us ‘XY’ lesser males. In a report from New Zealand, Michael Knight (17) left a party around 1am, broke into a house, stole jewellery, cameras, money and guns, and made his getaway in a $280,000NZ Audi (are they really that expensive) that he later crashed. When questionned by the police he had no explanation for his behaviour because he did not hold a driver’s license or a gun license. How bizarre and strange that a young man would act in such a way after a party. Roger Philip his lawyer however entered a plea of not guilty because he claimed that his client had reactive attachment disorder, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and an extra Y chromosome.

The supermale syndrome was discredited years ago, and so it is right the judge promptly gave Knight a year in prison. Nevertheless, we are entering a new era where genetic predisposition is increasingly going to be used by lawyers to argue that their clients are not guilty. “Honest, m’lord, it wasn’t me but my genes what done it!” Interesting times.

18 Comments

Filed under General Thoughts, In the News

18 responses to “Superman is Not Responsible for Violence

  1. Hi Bruce,
    Do you look at this as erroneous thinking (e.g., self-serving bias or fundamental attribution error) or desperate measures taken by desperate people to escape accountability? May it also be a personality disorder (if only everyone else was perfect like me) or an age old disorder called HUAD (head up ass disorder)? I think it is the desperate times – desperate measures defense – praying on the gullibility of the masses/jury. What do you think?

  2. brucehood

    I love HUAD!!!!… I think there has been an epidemic in British Government recently.

  3. It occurs to me that this “I’m innocent because my genes made me do it!” line of argumentation only works because of an ill-specified belief in free will. I don’t want to get into an “is there free will?” discussion, but it’s undeniable that many people seem perceive a difference between a choice made because of a confluence of our genes, our early environment, recent stimuli, etc., vs. a choice made sui generis by some kind of imaginary ghost in the machine that sits independent of all that. Which, whatever one thinks about “free will”, is obviously utter hogwash if one thinks about it for just a moment.

    “My genes made my do it” might be an argument in favor of compassion, though generally I would argue it is the mark of an ethically advanced society if it is able to show compassion to its worst criminals in any case. But it is most certainly not an argument for innocence. What’s next? “My neurons made me do it!” (Sadly, I think dualism can be so powerful that some people might actually buy that one…)

  4. brucehood

    James we’re talking the same language! This is precisely why I am doing some research on mea culpa, twinkie defences etc… I am preparing my next book and as you can imagine, I have my target sights firmly aimed at that old charlatan, Free Willie! (which in Scotland means something completely different)

  5. Aritz

    Well, I guess that a further step in that line of reasoning could be: “Yes, I admit I made a stupid thing, but it’s not my fault, since I am stupid. You could only blame me if I were smart.”

  6. The twinkie defense was truly a sad day in courts everywhere, opening the door to so many lame-assed excuses . . . HUAD seems much more appropriate and truthful.

    So, so, so sick of these criminals who blame their mothers for not holding them, or their fathers for whatever, or their teachers for not recognizing that they were spree killers in the making because of their doodling. Grow up. Grow a pair. Take responsibility you maroons.

  7. Adoptive Mom

    As an adoptive mom to 3 kids who greatly suffer from RAD, PTSD, ODD, and a myriad of other mental issues caused by extremely traumatic early years, I am highly offended by your rude remarks after this young man’s diagnosis. They are not an excuse for what he did but they certainly explain the impulsivity and inability to think rationally. Shame on you for making fun of someone’s didabilities, that you obviously know nothing about.

  8. brucehood

    Adoptive mom, I accept I went too far in ridiculing the various conditions in charicaturing the disorders. And I have removed them, but my basic point still holds – what makes the individual responsible? I daresay he knew the difference between right and wrong and the chap may have learning difficulties (but not inevitably and what is normal anyway?) but I think reductionism down to the level of the gene is not going to remove the problem of attributing blame and guilt.

  9. Arno

    Wow, the lawyer didn’t even blame video games? I thought that was all the hype these days

  10. I think there can be a fine line between ridiculing the legitimate observation that a lot of anti-social behavior can be the result of early upbringing and genetics vs. what I think Bruce intended, which is that, for the most part, it makes no sense to argue for reduced punishment because a genetic or early-environmental causal mechanism can be identified. (An exception would be when the resulting anti-social behavior was likely to respond to treatment and/or rehabilitation)

    The point is that every behavior has an external cause, particularly if you start considering genes to be external. Although I tend to think it will always be impossible in practice, in theory we could trace the chain of events, starting with Bruce’s conception, his brain development in the womb, experiences in childhood, education in adolescence and early adulthood, what he learned writing his book, etc., and how all of those events influenced his neurological makeup, and eventually show all of the external events which eventually caused his neurons to fire in such a way to inspire him to write the blog post which so offended Adoptive Mom. Does this absolve him of the responsibility for doing so? Of course not, that’s silly. And yet, we have this innate human tendency to create a false dichotomy between our choices made as a result of all of these “external” factors vs. choices made “freely” — when, depending on your definition, the latter is either illusory or else simply synonymous with the former.

    The problem we are seeing manifest is that our knowledge of genetics and neurology and psychology advances, we will have explanations for more and more behaviors. When we couldn’t explain most behaviors, the influence of dualist thinking on perception of responsibility was no big deal — we don’t know why he did it, so it must have been a freely-made choice; hang ‘im! But now we can explain more and more of these “free” choices — does that mean the perpetrators are any less responsible? That it was any less they who were committing the crime? I don’t think so.

    It is good for Adoptive Mom to remind us, though, that while these causes don’t eliminate responsibility, it doesn’t mean those causes aren’t real; it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show compassion; and it certainly doesn’t mean we should just turn our backs and ask people with clearly-identifiable anti-social triggers to “grow a pair”. (I was somewhat uncomfortable with poietes’ remarks even before AM chimed in — no offense!🙂 ) It seems quite plausible to me that many criminals wound up the way they did largely because “their mothers weren’t holding them enough” or whatever derisive way you want to characterize it. We need to try and understand that, both for compassionate reasons, but more importantly for preventative reasons. The only thing that changes when you discard magical dualist notions is that you see that these reasons don’t diminish society’s need to protect the innocent and punish the guilty.

  11. To clarify: I was taking to task those criminals who use bizarre defenses to excuse their crimes, case in point, the Twinkie defense. Or how about the ambien defense in which a man claimed that he was sleep-walking when he took a hatchet to his mother-in-law. Or the defense used by drug dealers in Washington, D.C.: white supremacists. Or, I love this one, involuntary intoxication, a defense used by a Virginia woman in the slaying of her 83-year-old mother . . . If you look at my comment, I never talk about people who are suffering from legitimate disorders. If you knew me, you would know that that is something that I would never do. I stand by my “grow a pair” comment: If people are going to commit crimes knowingly, then they should have the stones to use a real defense, not some off-the-wall claim that too much sugar or too much caffeine caused a psychotic reaction.

  12. brucehood

    Ooooh.. these comments are great – that means that it will be controversial whatever I end up writing.

  13. @poietes: No worries, from your previous comments on this blog, I was quite sure you meant nothing harmful or crazy. 🙂 I stand by my mild discomfort with your previous remark, but I don’t mean any offense by that. I would never have put it that way, I guess, is all. You’re certainly entitled to put it that way though!

    @bruce: Indeed, it seems like this is a topic that inspires strong emotions on both sides of the political aisle. Keep us posted!

  14. HUAD – I like it!

    I had previously known it as cranio-rectal insertion.

  15. Bruce,
    Yes. It promises to be a very good topic.

    Nobbly,
    Cranio-rectal insertion is equally applicable and kid of poetic.

    James,
    No worries.

  16. brucehood

    Well this is a tad spooky… this article just out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/02/04/0915161107.full.pdf+html

    Cashmore isn’t saying anything new and in fact re-stating most of the well worn arguments but still PNAS is very impressive for an opinion piece.

  17. I love this: “The Lucretian swerve.” Not sure how I feel about the “illusion of responsibility” or having my free will compared to a bowl of sugar, but what do I know.

    You’re right, though. The timing is a bit, shall we say, woo . . .

  18. Blaming genes for behaviour shows a misunderstanding of how they work, as if there was a gene ‘for’ everything. It ignores context – the complex interaction of genes with other genes and with the external environment.

    Even if someone has a gene or set of genes that may predispose them to certain behaviours, they may have other genes that predispose them to a whole other set too. So someone who has genes that might predispose them to being more violent may also have genes that make them good at sport, through which they work off their more violent tendencies and never get in trouble.

    I suppose blaming genes is a change from blaming the devil.

    If only I could blame my behaviour on my massive daily consumption of sugar. The carbs made me do it.

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