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Vigilantism

 

The Conversation

The Arrow and philosophy, part one: the morality of vigilantism

June 16, 2015 10.32pm EDT

Oliver Queen operates outside the law in pursuit of justice as the Arrow. fanabouttown/flickr, CC BY-SA

I’ve spent the last few weeks binge-watching The CW’s Arrow, the television adaptation of DC Comics superhero The Green Arrow. Like most of the world I’ve spent the last few years enamoured by superhero films and television shows. And they haven’t been short in supply. Not only are the plots usually gripping – having been tested with comic book audiences for years – but superhero films are able to prompt a number of compelling questions. Arrow is no exception. The issues that it covers warrant detailed exploration, which I’ll be undertaking in the next series of posts in the coming weeks.

Arrow tells the story of Oliver Queen, playboy heir to a multibillion-dollar corporation. Whilst yachting with his father, Robert, engine malfunctions sink the boat. Oliver finds himself adrift with his father, who admits that he was not the philanthropic businessman the media portrayed him as. Robert implores Oliver to survive, and return to Starling City in order right his wrongs. Then, realising there are not enough provisions for both of them to survive, Robert kills himself.

Oliver drifts through the North-China Sea before discovering a small island which is no safer than the open waters. Lian Yu (which literally translates as “purgatory”) is replete with lethal dangers: mercenaries, former assassins, an Australian intelligence agent cum ally cum deadly rival, and abandoned landmines from WWII.

Here, Oliver learns to fight, develops killer instincts, resourcefulness, and – most importantly – becomes a master archer. After five years he finds his way off the island and returns to Starling City, where he takes up as a vigilante. As the Arrow, he punishes the criminal activity of his father’s former accomplices with a bow and arrow, forcing them to correct the injustices that they have committed against the people of Starling.

The vigilante

For this first instalment of my philosophical treatment of Arrow, I’ll try not to spoil the general plot any further than the above. Almost immediately upon beginning his work as the Arrow, Oliver falls foul of the law: he is a vigilante who pursues his own brand of (admittedly effective) justice. The Arrow plays the roles of investigator, interrogator, judge, jury, and executioner. He is a law unto himself. Detective Quentin Lance, who heads the anti-vigilante taskforce designated to capture Queen, remarks:

My whole career, my whole life, even when I knew nothing, I at least knew right from wrong and I knew vigilantism was wrong. And the day that we take law into our own hands is the day that we become outlaws.

Lance is right, it is a tautology to say that vigilantes are outlaws, but is his certainty that vigilantism is wrong equally true? Despite the prevalent role it plays in literature, and the activities of online movements such as Anonymous, vigilantism is a question that has received scant attention from philosophers and ethicists.

What is vigilantism? The Encyclopedia of Criminal Justice Ethics provides a helpful working definition: “generally refers to a group activity performed by private individuals that uses violence or the threat of violence to enforce values in the absence of effective state intervention.”

However, although in the case of_ Arrow_, the activity eventually ends up being performed by a group, it is initially Queen operating alone, and it doesn’t seem clear why a group of people need to be involved to classify an activity as vigilantism.

Furthermore, it doesn’t seem obvious that an absence of effective state intervention is necessary to define vigilantism unless we hold a very high standard for ‘effectiveness’. Felicity Smoak, the IT expert who works with Oliver, frequently intercepts police communications so that the Arrow can intervene in crime prevention even when police are already present and actively working against the crime.

The vigilante is willing to violate procedure when obeying it will be detrimental to enforcing the natural justice that it is designed to protect. Vigilantes recognise the instrumental value of law, and therefore dismiss it in times when it seems unlikely to be effective. They prefer results over process.

Nomocratic and teleocratic thinking

In this regard, vigiliantism is a kind of teleocratic thinking. The political philosopher Michael Oakeshott distinguished between two modes of political thinking: nomocratic and teleocratic.

Nomocratic politics is interested in the preservation of the political association itself, as well as using law to enable citizens to choose for themselves what kind of lives they ought to lead. It strongly supports the upholding of impartial systems and ideals (the separation of powers, for instance) and relies on the integrity of that system.

Telocratic politics is characterised by the unification of individual efforts toward a singular, substantive goal. Teleocratic thinking tends toward grand narratives, but risks subsuming real people into a more far-sighted project: the achievement of some state-of-affairs that is the ultimate goal of activity. It prioritises the goal over the structures that aim to protect our society.

So, if the goal is to “stop the boats”, it might seem acceptable to pay money to people smugglers. Oliver’s stubborn commitment to righting his father’s wrongs – envisioning a world where Starling’s elite have been punished – is a kind of teleocratic thinking.

Teleocratic thinking is appealing, especially in times of fear and conflict (and that’s why it’s quite common in Australia today). Unsurprisingly, Oliver learns his way of thinking on Lian Yu, where the only morality is that of survival. And it is when our survival seems threatened that we refer back to such thinking.

In such times, the rule of law begins to appear as a burden to justice rather than its servant, and grand narratives that promise a world free of danger become all the more appealing. There is some merit to this: nomocratic politics can stubbornly insist on adherence to procedure even when it clearly promotes procedural justice at the expense of natural justice.

For instance, in an early episode of Arrow, Oliver learns that a man on death row has been framed to take the fall for a member of Starling City’s elite, Jason Brodeur. Initially, he urges Laurel Lance – a lawyer and former lover – to take the case, but when it becomes clear that acting within the law is unlikely to get the job done, he beats a confession out of one of Brodeur’s men in order to free the innocent man. Queen gets the job done, but at the expense of the law (and, as I’ll discuss in the next post, his own soul).

The lure of the vigilante

Oakeshott was sceptical of the viability of teleocratic thinking as a viable framework for a democratic society for this reason. It is liable to suspend individual rights and liberties in favour of broader pursuits. Sometimes these suspensions might be justifiable. As might vigilantism if, for instance, traditional law enforcement proves unable or unwilling to act in a way that promotes justice, but the cases where this will be justifiable are few and far between.

But that’s what makes superheroes – especially vigilantes – so appealing in times of fear, conflict, and terror. There is a romantic visual of the vigilante hero who does what is necessary in spite of what society dictates is right or wrong. The vigilante and hero possesses an acute sense of his or her own responsibility. Nothing is accepted as beyond the hero’s control, and if a better world is possible, the hero will bring it about.

And so Tony Stark builds artificial intelligence despite the obvious dangers, Daredevil tortures those who might be able to help him, and in Arrow, the secret government organisation ARGUS retain a crew of disposable supervillains, the “Suicide Squad”, to perform high-risk missions (and insert explosives in their spinal cord that can be detonated if they try to escape).

And we, the audience, although occasionally squeamish, are willing to forgive these indiscretions because these heroes are serving the greater good. They indulge our tendency toward the teleocratic. But even for these vigilante heroes, there are lines that cannot be crossed. After the death of his best friend, Oliver takes a vow against killing; Matt Murdock will never kill another person as Daredevil; and even Captain America’s nationalism has its limits. Vigilantism teaches us as much about the shortcomings of teleocracy as its merits.

Because they are visually compelling and narratively seductive, superhero violence teaches us a great deal about morality; as Damon Young argues, “superhero comics can be particularly nuanced in their depiction of violence” and, despite the textual differences, superhero television and film can be as well.

I’d suggest that’s part of the reason why we tune in each week, as Game of Thrones continues to throw morality out the window altogether, and in turn highlight other moral deficiencies in us, it’s refreshing to see superheroes appealing to the better angels of our nature.

Next week I’ll focus on what Arrow teaches us about the ethics and psychology of killing, and draw some analogies between the moral challenges facing veterans today, and those that Oliver faces in the series.

If you’re a fan of the show, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if there are any specific burning questions you’d like to discuss!


This is the first in a series of articles on Arrow and the morality of vigilantism. You can read part 2 here.

The Psychology Behind Vigilante Justice

Very interesting article. Hard for me to post. Funny, my computer was acting up every time I came to this site. Oh, some vigilantes made a mistake about that a paediatrician.
I certainly have not been able to come to grips with a group of people going my hearsay – Lies: libel and slander. I keep coming up with scenarios. Well, they can. Plus, in gangstalking, I think there is a lot of “do your job” and it’s best if you don’t know what others do. Right? I think so. I can’t stand the thought that people might think of me in such terms. Oh, yeah right? Gangstalkers DON’T think. They are puppets on strings.
I am still shocked at how many stupid, idiot gangstalkers are out there. That people are lured into gangstalking doesn’t surprise me. Sort of like the Christian churches having rallies to gather members to join the KKK. Oops. The people found out about the true anti-goodness.
The Paedophile Hunter: The Psychology Behind Vigilantism

Stinson Hunter and his associates Stubbs and Grime in Channel 4 documentary The Paedophile Hunter / Channel 4

There is – and has always been – a paradox at the heart of vigilantism. Participants regard themselves as standing up for a mainstream moral code

Newton’s third law of motion has any number of applications.  Just as the internet has enabled paedophiles to satisfy their predilections, so it has facilitated the vigilantism of individuals who would seek to expose their activities. The action and the reaction can be combustible.

Channel 4’s unsettling documentary, The Paedophile Hunter, is the latest examination of a type of rough justice that increasingly takes advantage of modern technology to tackle alleged wrongdoers. Yet vigilante action is hardly a new phenomenon. History is littered with examples of individuals – or the mob – taking the law into their own hands, long before the Spanish word ‘vigilante’ entered the English lexicon.

There is – and has always been – a paradox at the heart of vigilantism. In practical terms, such activity exists outside the bounds of an official policing or legal system, yet its conceptual core is generally conservative. Its participants regard themselves as standing up for a mainstream moral code, even though their own actions often put them outside the law.  It is the tendency towards protecting mainstream values which has led in some circumstances to extra-legal groups effectively becoming the de facto agency of law enforcement. Massive population growth and rising crime in the American West in the 19 Century, for instance, led to the establishment of a Vigilante Committee, most of whose members were prominent businessmen.  Until normal order was restored, the community of San Francisco effectively entrusted the roles of judge, jury and executioner to the Committee.

In recent times, in the west at least, notions of vigilantism have changed. It is now individuals or small groups at the forefront of such action, usually motivated by a belief that state agencies are unwilling to confront and tackle those guilty of crime or immoral behaviour. The Death Wish film franchise starring Charles Bronson romanticised the idea that there are times when it is legitimate to take the law into one’s own hands.

Indeed, fictional portrayals of vigilante justice can give an interesting insight into the motivation of real-life private crime-fighters. Big-screen vigilantism is perennially seen to be driven not only by a desire for justice but also as a response to real or imagined injustice against the vigilante him or herself (usually him): think Bronson, Batman, even the A-Team.

4.superhero2.ap.jpg
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from “The Dark Knight.”

These depictions tap into a basic human desire to right the wrongs we have suffered, preferably by our own hand. They also shine a light on the idea that the psychology of vigilantism is generally underscored by a feeling of marginalisation or victimisation.  As the forensic psychologist S David Bernstein has noted: “Whether or not other people…agree that this victimisation was occurring is irrelevant. The individual is clearly experiencing [it] as real…”

Paedophilia has become the most obvious focus of vigilante activity in Britain since the turn of the century, with fears about child abuse heightened by tabloid newspaper campaigns and action made easier by technological innovation.  The News of the World’s campaign in 2000 to allow the public to access information about paedophiles in their communities led to several attacks on individuals.  Most infamously, a paediatrician in Gwent was forced to flee her home after her professional role was bizarrely mistaken as an indicator of sexual proclivities.

The pitfalls associated with exposing or punishing misdemeanours outside the confines of due legal process are numerous. The kind of stings operated by ‘Stinson Hunter’, the star of Channel 4’s documentary, in which potential paedophiles are lured in by fake internet profiles posing as underage girls are not necessarily helpful to formal police investigations. As Hugh Davies QC noted in the programme: “The risk is that very important evidence will be lost if it’s not the police in control of the operation”.

Various targets of such stings have maintained that they were led to believe the individuals they were chatting to online were not underage. Others have contended that the public ‘film shaming’ which is part of the modern-day vigilante modus operandi ruined their lives despite there being no evidence of criminality. Gary Cleary was the subject of a sting by a group in Leicestershire, Letzgo Hunting, which posed as a 14-year-old girl.  He was subsequently arrested but then killed himself after being released on bail. One of Stinson Hunter’s operations also ended in the hunted taking his own life.

Quite what motivates Stinson Hunter is unclear. He had a troubled upbringing and is evidently less than keen to address the question of whether he has ever been the victim of abuse himself. It is a notable feature of his endeavours that what he seeks above all else is to help win convictions, as he has done on several occasions. That brings us back to the notion of vigilantism as an inherently conservative force. It also legitimises his actions in the minds of many, maintaining their ‘belief in a just world’, a concept brought to prominence by social psychologist Melvin Lerner in the 1960s. Even so, Warwickshire police have reportedly asked Hunter to stop his operations.

Hunter has reportedly admitted that “Guys that I catch generally aren’t paedophiles”.  Rather they are lonely individuals who jump at the idea that somebody, anybody, has paid them attention. If that is the case, it tends to back up the belief that the vigilante stings themselves are facilitating the behaviour they seek to prevent

The Gathering

I started hearing about a movement……….I thought it was just a U.S. movement. No. World wide…………..one question? WHY in heaven’s name are people against all abortion (how about the baby whose organs were all outside its body and the heart was going to give out – at five months – you people I guess never took a genetics class or talk to real people). Why are they also against birth control? Maybe it’s because their groups want their numbers to skyrocket. Hey, I hadn’t even thought about that until just now.

Anyway – The Gathering and other extreme groups…………real extreme. Oh, did you know that the number of women involved in “gangstalking” is higher than men? That was in some article. I don’t know if it is true. But, imagine husbands or ex’s who want revenge………..what a better way to not have to get a divorce than to push that person over the edge. I wonder…………Stronger than he thought. Never underestimate someone with my genealogy and family and the hells I have been through.  Put together to read about The Gathering. Wonder if there are any people besides White Caucasians in this group.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles

/2014/09/25/the-1-billion-a-year-right-wing-conspiracy-you-haven-t-heard-of.htm

https://thegathering.com/

National Christian Foundation

https://www.ncfgiving.com/videos    I didn’t know that you can maximize your giving by setting up your portfolio with a group like this. Did see more than White Caucasians…………..mostly in roles of needy but I did see one Latino giving business advice. Sure they must be broader than just white. Though not in Sebastopol or Petaluma. 99%

Oh……………..look up the Founding Fathers and their Christian Beliefs. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist and look at his Jeffersonian Bible. John Adams? But, these groups are worse that the ones who wrote my history textbooks…………….they can’t handle the truth, so they are going past white washing history and rewriting it. Well, pretty close the two.

I thought I had come up with the term Neo Christian, but it has been around for decades……referring to a movement from years back. This guys take on Neo Christian  is what I think of as Neo Christian. Someone who wants to shove their beliefs upon you…………and even though God is the one who is supposed to “judge”………..there is the “You can’t be Christian because you are okay with Homosexuality…………heard about the anti miscarriage drug that leads to a higher rage of homosexual boys. Oh yeah…………..it’s all choice. No, nothing to do with hormones or just who you are. Tell that to Mark – a friend who was an Eagle Scout and went on a double date with my ex and myself.

Totally off topic, but I am interested in this group.

http://www.peaceandjusticesonomaco.org/node?page=1