What does it mean to say that a people is “civilised”? It is rude today to consider any nation or ethnic group anything other than civilised, and yet for the term to have any real meaning it must be possible to be uncivilised. In common usage it is taken to mean mannerly, non-violent, and of an advanced level (or, not to be rude, any level) of technology; and it is indeed true that all cultures define the acceptable in manners and personal violence, and employ technologies.
But this, I think, misses the distinguishing meaning of civilised, which, from its Latin root “civis”, and “civitas” meaning “city” or “state”, is essentially political in reference. To civilise does not just mean “to bring out of barbarism” (Oxford Dictionary), but to change social behaviour in a particular way.
This can perhaps be best illustrated by contrasting civilised social conduct with tribal. The defining feature of civilisation is the depersonalising of political, economic, and certain levels of social behaviour – of ceasing to privilege on the grounds of familial, clan, or ethnic attachment, and recognising the legitimacy and obligatoriness of the same standards of behaviour, in these areas, towards all members of the community in its largest extent.
In a civilised society, because of these requirements, standards of behaviour are sanctioned not just at the familial, clan, or ethnic level, but by the state, whether city (as in Ancient Greece) or nation. In the exemplary fable: “ ‘Ah,’ said the traveller in relief as his ship approached land and he spied a gallows on the cliff top, ‘a civilised country!’ He did not need to fear random assault where there was the rule of public law.”
According to historian G.M. Trevelyan, England, unlike Scotland and Ireland, de-tribalised and began to civilise early in the second millennium or even before, possibly because its suffering of successive waves of invaders obliterated tribal origins, and aided by the influence of Christianity, with its doctrines of universal love and neighbourliness divorced from ethnicity. As early as the 13th century, King Edward I provided the necessary structural backdrop for a civilised England when he established the system of local courts and travelling justices that, astonishingly, is essentially still with us today.
When the state takes on the right to administer justice and exact punishment (as compared with its administration by sub-groups in tribal societies), an important mental shift in relation to wrongs suffered must take place in the population. Crimes must cease to be perceived as primarily against individuals or clans, but rather, are against the state, the king, the law, the society as a whole.
The people must, to this important end, relinquish the concept of justice as residing in individual reparations or vengeance (its most common forms in non-civilised societies), and accept that reparation under criminal law belongs to the state (via fines and various forms of physical punishment, including imprisonment and the death penalty).
This is a huge mental re-orientation, and it can only be secure to the extent that the justice provided by the state is reliable and effective. It was not achieved in its fullness in England under Edward I, for monarchical control was still uncertain and incomplete. As the Paston Letters of the 15th century show, disputing families often took matters into their own hands, when the arm of justice was short. Nevertheless the letters also show that the expectation was there, that, in the long run, the king’s justice would prevail; and this was eventually achieved.
For most of the 20th century, law in its civilised form appeared to be second nature in this country. But in recent decades there have been disturbing signs, at first promoted within the legal system, later by the media, that we are losing this sophistication of civilisation and are de-civilising in the sense that crimes are again being conceived as against individuals and families, rather than against the society as a whole.
A first move was the system of asking victims of crime to meet with the perpetrators, putting the onus on them, rather than the law and justice system, to impress on the offender the error of his ways. Next, reparations, not only for victims of crime but for their families, were brought into existence, returning to the old concept of personal rather than community injury when a crime is committed. And lastly, we now regularly see the media applying to the families of victims of serious crimes for confirmation as to whether or not the punishment meted out satisfies them personally.
Most people, fortunately, still resist this prompt to a personal exultation or outrage, which would turn criminal justice into vengeance, by referring to societal needs for adequate punishment or sequestration; but the slippage is, nevertheless, unmistakable.
Why should we be reverting to tribal attitudes to social misdemeanour at just this juncture, when, if we wish to preserve our civilisation, we are faced with inducting immigrants from societies that still observe familial or clan rights to retribution into its ethics? (For example, the British parents of a young woman who was murdered while working as a nurse in one of the Arab countries had imposed on them the obligation to decide whether her murderer should be put to death or go scot free – an appalling prospect for gentle folk in the British tradition of justice.)
We can only expect to maintain respect for a criminal justice system, however, if the state is prepared to deliver punishment (in place of vengeance) at a level that, in general, the people feel and observe is able to keep illegal behaviours under control, and that they in general see as proportionate to the crime. There is ample evidence that these conditions were not met in Australia in the last decade of the 20th century.
Criminological theory, at mid-20th century, held that punishment did not deter criminals, citing recidivism as evidence. This misapprehension may have been partly due to the extremely low rates of crime for most of the first half of the century, so that those few who committed them tended to be truly unreclaimable.
Nor did theory take stock of the statistic that the majority of the incarcerated were under 30, and consider that the decrease in crime with age might be attributable to the experience of punishment. And the theory took no account of the much larger proportion who were deterred by the prospect of reasonably certain and severe punishment – a situation that also obtained throughout that same period.
Police were progressively emasculated when it came to intervening to prevent crime, and sympathy in academic social theory switched from the offended against to the offending (criminals were reclassified as victims of social injustice). Judges and magistrates complied, with lighter sentences for even serious violent crimes (as little as three years for murder) and prison policies inclined to rapid release. This was accompanied by rising rates of crime, making Australia in 2000 a very different country from in 1950 as regards the civility of its citizens.
This leniancy has been reversed in this century. It is what in all likelihood prompted the rebellion of appealing to the victim’s family to voice its sense of injustice.
A stimulus was possibly the invocation of “mandatory sentencing” – an attempt by government to secure social needs when judges would not. But this introduced the betrayal of a prized element of our political system: an independent judiciary.
However, a reciprocal element in the depersonalisation of justice, the eschewal of individual reparations by victims of crime has, as we saw, suffered erosion and has been institutionalised, albeit at almost insultingly token levels.
Meanwhile, the media continues to undermine this civilised understanding of justice by asking relatives of victims when the sentence is handed down if they are satisfied, prompting them to say they have “closure”, that their hurt is obliterated, and reinforcing the atavistic notion that vengeance is theirs, rather than simply that justice under the law has been served.
Fortunately, most Australians are sufficiently imbued with the tradition of eschewing personal vengeance and reparation to have delayed the loss of this attitude essential for civilised societies, despite the failure of government to assert the contract in clear terms, and the media’s collusion.
But we cannot expect this tolerance to last indefinitely. We must fear any impetus for people to start taking matters into their own hands.
Lucy Sullivan is the author of Rising Crime in Australia (CIS, 1995).