Wallace Shawn on Punishment

Jason Farbman interviewed Wallace Shawn; in part:

Farbman: Throughout the book, you are making structural arguments, and about people being compelled in certain directions. It was interesting to me how you traced this line of thinking to a discussion of punishment, about what to do with capitalists after the revolution.

Why are you thinking about what to do with the rich after the revolution?

Well, I believe in radical change. I don’t think the rich should rule the world, as they do now. But if a different system should replace the current one, the character of the new system will be determined to an important degree by how it treats those over whom it would then have power, the former rulers. I don’t believe in revenge or even really in punishment, and I think that people who take revenge against formerly powerful monsters become at that moment powerful monsters themselves. Of course I’m a member of the bourgeoisie, and so are most of the people I know and love, so you might suspect my motives when I say these things. You could say I’m trying to protect the asses of the bourgeoisie, and my own ass is one of the ones I’m protecting. But I can’t deny my own beliefs simply because someone might suspect my motives. Those are my beliefs.

I don’t believe in punishing the poor. And I don’t believe in punishing the rich, either. I don’t believe in punishing the innocent. And I don’t really believe in punishing the guilty. I realize that leaves a lot of questions on the table that I don’t resolve in the book. For instance, what do we do with serial killers, who are driven to commit murder again and again? There must be some way we can cope with those people. We don’t want them to kill everyone.

Punishment of some kind is a very articulate way for society to express its disapproval of certain actions. There should be some way that society can express its disapproval of what was done. But I don’t really believe in punishment, because I think it’s based on an erroneous idea of how people make decisions. Person A decides to murder Person B. Well, a lot of forces go into what we call “a decision,” and a lot of those forces are unconscious and not under the control of the person making the decision. Blaming the murderer assumes that he could have behaved differently. It’s hard to prove that.


laurent Beaulieu's picture
laurent Beaulieu on November 1, 2017 - 16:20 Permalink

A very interesting approach. We do live in a world where the middle-class we use to call it the bourgeoisie in the 1960's rule or in the current state of governance in Canada are being favoured by our PM. With it comes all of the values and prejudices the bourgeoisie uphold and there is a good measure of hypocrisy in it all. The way our world in Canada functions is dictated by the whims of the bourgeoisie so after the Revolution, I wonder if there will be any bourgeoisie left. Any violent movement has a certain amount of uncertainty as to who the enemy is, the rich, the middle class, the poor, who is a class enemy? So a lot of punishment will be meted around, unfortunately humans views of punishment has always had a strong revenge element to it.