Michael Fay, Victimology and Samoa: Response to Mike Lieber

douglass st.christian (stchri@MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA)
Mon, 18 Apr 1994 19:59:43 -0400

Mike asks what if any effect my work in Samoa had on my attitude toward
what is about to happen to Michael Fay in Singapore and the various
public outcries,both pro and con, that it has elicited.

I see two question in this. First, what did MY experience as a stranger
abroad do to my attitudes towards adapting to the laws of the lands we find
ourselves living in?

I think it strengthened my beleif that as visitors we have an obligation
to learn the limits and expectations of the place we are in, to strive to
abide by them, and to expect to be treated by those rules when we screw
up. We are entitled to expect to be treated no differently - that is, we
are entitled to expect the same rules to apply, not special rules for
visitors [ either with positive or negative effect on us].

This does not preclude working against systems or rules we feel are
unfair or otherwise political or morally troubling. what the limits to
that are I have no idea. I make judgements about other regimes as
critically as i make judgements about the regime I live under. I apply an
obviously personal moral and political standard to these judgements. I
try to determine the extent to which my moral or political distaste is so
much ehtnocentric bafflegab [ see for example much, though not all, of
the debate over female circumcision], i try to determine what the
intention behind rules and acts i find troubling is, to determine the
extent to which the basic moral standards i abide by may not have any
merit given that the motivational ground of an action i dislike may not
the the same as mine. I have no set list of expecations regarding the
amorphuous creature called universal human rights [ although i appreciate
and admire James Carriers list].

Are there things - anythings - which I feel can be defined as absolutely
and ineluctably 'wrong' under all circumstances? To be blunt, I feel I am
to good an anthropologist to even attempt an answer to that question.
There is too much I do not know. Are there things which I work against,
in my own ways, no matter where I am. I am too good a person to not say
yes. But it is always a troubling and open minded yes.

The other question, I think, is what did living with Samoans teach me
that effects how i feel about what is about to happend to Michael Fay's
unmentionable parts.

If nothing else, it taught me to take responsibility for your actions and
not retreat behind a mask of victimization or any other cop out. My
orginal concern in the post i sent in response to the other post about
Fay's punishment was the ease and increasingly prevelance of the victim
defence, especially in the U.S. The Menendez Bros apparent fabrications
about sexual molestation by their father as a defense for the brutal
murders of their parents is perhaps the most brutal and obvious example.

This phenomenon seems to have escalated while i was away from North
America and on my return, effected by what i think is a fundamental
dignity which Samoans derive from not eliding responsibility for their
actions, i found the hiding behind 'i'm not guilty, i'm the victim here'
difficult to swallow. If Mrs. Bobbitt had argued that her actions were
justifiable as a defense against Mr. Bobbitt's attacks, I would have
probably applauded her. However, through her lawyers, the argument was
not one of extending the concept of justification, and therefore
confronting one's responsibility and then arguing that ones actions are
legitimate. Rather, the lawyers argued that that she was driven into a
state of transient semi-madness, that she was not responsible.
In a kind of low grade way, defenders of leniency for Michael Fay are
engaging in the same sort of sleight of hand. Don't punish him, he's not
really responsible.

Are there circumstances where people are not responsible for their
actions? You betch. I have worked with and done research on elderly
psychiatric group home residents for over ten years now. When Blanche
comes out of the toilet and hurls a wad of shit at the back of my head, I
don't reach for the cane or the geri-chair or the electric cattle prod. I
might try and get Blanche to explain what the hell she hoped to
accomplish or at least to convince her that while she might find feces
volleyball a royal hoot, I don't.

Which is why i raised the Attention Deficit Disorder defense that has
been invoked in acking for leniency for Fay. I remain curious about what
effect this disorder has on hi ability to make reasonable judgements
about his actions.

So, after too many words, let's see where I am on Michael Fay's butt and
other things cerebral. First, caning as practiced by the Singaporean
courts is brutal and repugnant and we should be appalled by it. Calls by
some Americans for similar punishments in Ohio and the rest should be
resisted actively. Second, that Singapore has punishments like 650 dollar
fines for chewing gum and caning for vandalism is no more a human rights
issue than the constitutional provision in the US that only an American
citizen can be president. WE may be offended both morally and
politically by the repressiveness of the Singapore system and work in
whatever way we feel legitimate to change that system, but the human
rights issue, at least in this case, is a dodge and not an argument. in a
sense it is another way of evading responsibility, this time for ones
beleifs. ' you see, its not that I;m ethnocentric, its just this this is
a human rights issue." Don't run away or deny your ethnocentrism, admit
it, argue its merits.

Finally, what about Mikey's soon to be trembling glutius maximus. In the
absence of any argument of merit to the contrary - and I remain open to
news that a] he actually didn't do it or b] he is in some way mentally
challenged and incapable of making reasonable judgements about the
consequences of his actions - he deserves the punishment the signapore
judiciary determines, by its criteria, to be the punishment best suited
to crime. He's stuck. It's their rules, their ball park.

Hope this answers your question, Mike. It raises more for me.