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  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 2:37 am on October 3, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , crime, criminal law, , , , , , oj simpson, punishment, ,   

    #sorryimnotsorry: good apologies gone bad (Part 1/2) 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    A recent meme that’s been making the rounds on the Internet is the pithy, defiant Twitter hashtag #sorryimnotsorry: “Sorry [that] I’m not sorry [for my actions, clothing, attitude, words, etc.].”

    It’s the perfect little encapsulation of a pervasive attitude in our generation. Back off; it’s your problem that you have a problem with my conduct. (There’s even a book out called Sorry I’m Not Sorry.)

    Saying “sorry” is a funny thing. As a law student, I’ve been thinking about “#sorryimnotsorry” and how many parties in our readings are running that idea through their heads when they lose a case.

    Some of them should be sorry, to be sure. But if they aren’t, maybe they’re not sorry for a reason: they can excuse their behavior. Or maybe they can offer a justification that absolves them of guilt. (Or maybe they’re just jerks.) In our Criminal Law class, we are taught to examine a charged crime first in terms of the act itself, then the defendant’s mental state, and then finally any possible excuses or justifications that could explain and/or mitigate the crime.

    J. L. Austin, in his chapter “A Plea for Excuses” in Philosophical Papers (3rd edition), discusses ordinary language from the point of excuses, exploring “what we should say when, and so why and what we should mean by it” (181; emphasis in original), in order to draw some conclusions about the use of moral language to talk about behavior. He offers three justifications for this approach:

    (1) that “words are our tools” and they should be “clean,” i.e. understood by us when we use them;
    (2) that words aren’t “facts or things” — they can be arbitrary or imprecise or inadequate; and
    (3) that the words available in a natural language suffice to satisfactorily convey all distinctions that we might like to make (181-2).

    Austin draws a distinction between excuses and justifications, but we might also add apologies and confessions into our discussion, too.

    An excuse, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary in its sense most relevant here, is “that which is offered as a reason for being excused; sometimes in bad sense, a (mere) pretext, a subterfuge; a plea in extenuation of an offense.” An excuse seems to be most useful when one wants to distance oneself from responsibility in an offensive action. It’s rewriting the story of the speaker’s involvement in the deed. For Austin, an excuse aims “to defend [one’s] conduct or to get [one] out of it” (176).

    In criminal law, if a jury or judge buys a complete excuse (such as, say, insanity), a defendant may escape punishment.

    An excuse can be distinguished from a justification, which, in the O.E.D., is “the action of justifying or showing something to be just, right, or proper; vindication of oneself.” A justification doesn’t serve to distance oneself from an offense; it attempts to rewrite the story of an offense so that it’s no longer offensive. In Austin’s words, a justification argues that an action “was a good thing, or the right or sensible thing, or a permissible thing to do” (176).

    In criminal law, a justification may mitigate punishment. For example, a conviction of murder could be slightly reduced to voluntary manslaughter if a jury or judge finds a justification convincing.

    In both excuses and justifications, there is a rewriting taking place — the deed in question is being questioned, and the players and responsibilities are being challenged. For alleged criminals, excuses and justifications are often the last strings they and their attorneys cling onto.

    These two can be contrasted with an apology, which, in the O.E.D., is “an explanation offered to a person affected by one’s action that no offense was intended, coupled with the expression of regret for any that may have been given; or, a frank acknowledgement of the offense with expression of regret for it, by way of reparation.” A pure apology acknowledges that a deed has been done in the way that the audience has perceived it. One must apologize to someone for an action for which the speaker is responsible (and admits so) and because of which the audience was offended.

    So while excuses and justifications do not necessarily require an audience specifically wronged by the excused/justified action, an apology cannot be delivered without one. And while excuses and justifications seek to reframe the deed, apologies acknowledge it as it is perceived.

    There is also the confession, “the disclosing of something the knowledge of which by others is considered humiliating or prejudicial to the person confessing.” A confession brings new information to the table, whereas excuses, justifications, and apologies deal with information known already to the audience. But like an apology, a confession acknowledges a deed and doesn’t (yet) attempt to rewrite anything.

    An apology or confession, in the context of criminal law, would come from guilty defendants. They might be overt, such as in a killer’s teary trial testimony, or they might be covert, such as in some interpretations of O.J. Simpson’s post-trial book If I Did It.

    #sorryimnotsorry doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories. It starts off with an apology — “sorry” — but the whole sense isn’t really apologetic. It has attitude. It’s almost a confession: I confess that I feel no regret; I apologize if I hurt your feelings with my attitude. But it’s not even that–people who use #sorryimnotsorry aren’t really apologetic about anything. It has undertones of that annoyed teenage response: “sor-ry!” The implications held in the tone of voice and manner of presentation indicate that the speaker/writer isn’t sorry at all.

    In other words, it’s a “sorry-less sorry.” It drains the word “sorry” of its usual meaning and ascribes to it a new, totally opposite definition. (In that sense, it reminds me of that linguistics joke John posted a few weeks ago.)

    In the context of the law, some judges might even approve sanctions on lawyers if they don’t stay within these four categories of excuses, justifications, apologies, and confessions.

    “This court has recognized that requiring counsel to apologize for errant conduct can have an exquisite impact … The letters [of apology] shall not contain qualifying or conditional language [such as] … ‘Because the court has required that I do so, I am apologizing…’ or ‘Although I disagree with the court’s decision, I am apologizing…’ ” Crank v. Crank, 1998 WL 713273, N.D. Tex. 1998.

    A defendant who had the attitude of #sorryimnotsorry wouldn’t get very far. In fact, a defendant who wanted to get any drop of sympathy from a judge or jury would have to engage in one of the four acts described above. We don’t seem to like apologetic statements that stray outside of these categories. Consciously or not, we are often negatively predisposed towards those who attempt to construct an apologetic statement beyond these acts.

    But what about celebrities’ public apologetic statements? Tomorrow: Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, and the art of making a public apology.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 10:07 am on August 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: alice in wonderland, , criminal law, , , humpty dumpty, just a theory, , , legal analysis, , speech community, ,   

    Humpty Dumpty and the meaning of words 

    posted by Sandeep

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

    A lot of legal analysis hinges on the technical meanings of words. These definitions can be identified by statute (for example, if a government explicitly defines a criminal law term in its penal code) and by common law (what have previous courts decided that same term means?).

    If neither statutory law nor common law have defined a legal concept, lawyers and courts can also look to a dictionary definition, although this is rare. Nearly three centuries of accumulated law in the United States, building on even more centuries of law in Great Britain, have meant that almost all broad legal concepts have been defined and analyzed. The legal profession even has its own dictionaries — I, myself, just bought a fresh new copy of Black’s Law Dictionary.

    Today in my Criminal Law class, we discussed the meanings of words. Much of the discussion focused on the dichotomy between voluntary and involuntary acts. In common parlance, “voluntary” and “involuntary” have broad meanings: “voluntary” indicates some sort of will or want to achieve an end result. “Involuntary” indicates the absence of that will.

    But in the context of the law, the definitions are much narrower. Understanding these narrow senses is critical to forming an adequate defense to a criminal act. Let’s say John accidentally hit a pedestrian with his car. In normal conversation, we might describe John’s act as “involuntary” because he certainly didn’t mean to hit the pedestrian.

    But in the eyes of the law, a criminal act can’t be considered “involuntary” just because it is unintentional or the actor didn’t foresee potential consequences. Understanding what “involuntary” means is important because the law cannot punish “involuntary” acts.

    “No act is punishable if it is done involuntarily … The term “involuntary act” is, however, capable of wider connotations; and to prevent confusion … in the criminal law an act is not … an involuntary act simply because the doer does not remember it … nor … simply because the doer could not control his impulse to do it.”

    Bratty v. Attorney-General, 1963 A.C. 386, 409-410 (H.L. 1961)

    So wait. John could face years in prison for something we understand as “involuntary”? [Fear not, John--you would probably just get off with involuntary manslaughter, not murder!] Because the law is concerned with what our conscious mind causes us to do, an “involuntary” act cannot encompass things done with a conscious mind, even by accident or under duress, so its definition is narrowed to acts conducted while unconscious, asleep, hypnotized, or seizing. This definition is confusing enough, but to add to the confusion, sometimes the criminal law switches between the colloquial use of “involuntary” and the strict legal definition!

    Ugh! So how does a simple word like “involuntary” have so many conflicting meanings?

    Technical jargon sometimes conflicts with popular understandings of what a word means. When a specialized technical register exists (say, in law or in science), it often develops independently of colloquial usage, mainly because the technical and colloquial register would never interact with each other. So we might imagine a legal scholar ages and ages ago, grappling with the idea of unconscious criminal acts, coming up with two types of acts: involuntary and voluntary, based on the popular understanding of those terms. Over time, other legal scholars might have found limitations in the popular definitions and sought to narrow down their meanings. When the two worlds collide (in John’s criminal trial proceedings, for example), we get confused at the strange, specific usage of apparently familiar terms.

    Another popular example of this discrepancy between popular and technical jargon is the term “theory.” In scientific research, a “theory” is a model used to explain a natural phenomenon. A theory must stand up to rigorous testing and extensive peer-reviewed research before it can be called as such.

    In contrast, our popular understanding of the word “theory” is closer to the meaning of “hypothesis”–an unproved hunch about how a natural phenomenon might work. Disparaging the theory of evolution by natural selection, for example, as “just a theory” subscribes to this colloquial sense, even though evolution by natural selection, like other scientific theories (e.g., the theory of gravitation, germ theory), is a nearly-universally-accepted model of how a natural phenomenon works.

    But why the discrepancy? Why can’t we just all agree that a word means what it means?

    Complex social and individual forces determine the particular meaning ascribed to a word. As I have described above, the same word might mean different things in different contexts. The same word might also carry different social valence in various groups (such as the N-word among some African-Americans versus other racial groups, or vulgar profanity among some social classes versus others).

    Whether a word can have an inherent, inalienable meaning is hotly debated among linguists. I am skeptical that a word can ever have an inherent meaning. Some language prescriptivists (see John’s great post about Americanisms below), especially dictionary authors, believe otherwise.

    Dictionaries record definitions that are meant to document common usages, to be used in a particular speech community at a particular time. An English dictionary from the year 800 (if it existed) would be useless to us today [whether that language could be considered English at all is another topic altogether]. Several entries in a British dictionary would be useless in America today, and vice versa. Do you know what “pukka” means? It’s a word in Indian English: ostensibly a variety of the same language we know, but loaded with terms whose meanings we will never be able to deduce without context or explication.

    Indeed, context is crucial for deducing what particular meaning you are referring to– not only technical contexts (such as law) but also the speech community, register, geographic location, social class, ethnicity, etc. When I say “table,” am I referring to the thing with a flat surface and four (or three? or six?) supporting legs? Or am I telling you to “table” a discussion for our next meeting? Or am I studying the water “table”? Going to “table” for my local non-profit? Maybe “table” is New Jersey slang for the shape of The Situation’s hair.

    Language changes. Languages changes across contemporaneous speech communities (so my New Jersey terminology might be slightly different from John’s Virginia vocab) but it also changes over time. For example, many of the words we use today are derived from French terms (whose origins themselves are in Latin, and so on and so on) with narrower, broader, or completely different senses than their present English definitions.

    Words cannot have inherent meanings when their very existence is so tenuous and malleable.

    Lewis Carroll, in creating the character of Humpty Dumpty (see above), suggested the doctrine of “stipulative definition,” meaning that we can make words mean whatever we want, as long as we explain ourselves beforehand. Scholar Michael Hancher (in the linked article) disagrees, saying that a word’s meaning must be constructed by the commons — we all must agree on what a word means, and by doing so, we give it meaning. This becomes a complex, thorny issue when we consider how many different “commons”–that is, speech communites–exist in our world.

    So, Humpty Dumpty, a word can’t be just what you make it to mean. Sorry. We all have to come to a consensus in each of the languages we speak, whether in a colloquial context (John hit the pedestrianinvoluntarily) or in a technical context (John did not commit an involuntary act) or in some other context.

    Navigating this wonderful, awful complexity, I think, is one of the privileges, and prices, of participating in many different speech communities at once. The alternative, of course, is living in isolation, like Humpty Dumpty (and we know how that turned out…).

     
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