Crimes against humanity

February 5, 1999

Genetic scientists who violate the balance between person and body are in the same league as serial killers, argues David Canter.

In a telephone kiosk outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Tara and her colleagues advertise their services on postcards. Tara is willing, presumably for a fee, to be spanked. By contrast her colleague, Severe Mistress, charges for the privilege of humiliating, binding and torturing her clients in a "fully equipped dungeon".

The irony of these services being on offer so close to one of the highest courts in the land is, of course, that those courts would never countenance spanking as fit punishment for insubordination, no matter how extreme. Neither would they endorse humiliation and torture as an appropriate redress for even the most serious crimes. This irony reflects the changing views we have of our body and what officialdom is allowed to do to it. It also illustrates clearly how much violation is in the eye of the beholder. An act that is violation in one circumstance, in another is a service for which people will pay.

At first sight the difference in circumstance appears merely to be volition. But there is a subtler and potentially more important distinction. The courts are concerned not to violate the person and the rights that person should have. Tara's clients claim the same freedom to do to their bodies as they wish. Confusions between these distinctions of violating the body and violating the person are at the heart of many debates about the impact of modern science, particularly biomedical science.

Claims that genetics can explain mental prowess, that mood is simply a product of our physiology or that two identical humans can be created by a laboratory technician, and all the other proposals emerging from rapid advances in pharmocology and human biochemistry, challenge the view we hold of our own rich and complex existence as individuals. They generate debates that may be couched in religious or moral terms. The intensity of emotion they inspire, though, has more fundamental roots than religion or ethics. The proposal that each of us is only our body threatens the core constructs on which our minute-by-minute transactions with one another are founded.

The relationship between the person and their body is at the heart of any recognition of violation. Two dominant themes seem to define this relationship. One emphasises the person, limiting the significance of the body, which can lead to mutilation of the body as a by-product of attempting to change the person. Here the process of change is dominant. The other gives primacy to the body. In this case the body is modified in the belief that the body is the person.

The emotional release of self-inflicting pain is difficult for most people to understand. But accounts of serious self-injury do indicate the sorts of apparent comfort that may come from the services Severe Mistress has to offer. They help us to see that if an individual is in deep turmoil over who they are as a person and that is confused further by the way their body has been abused, then the distance self-injury places between body and person can be disturbingly soothing.

Anthropologists have helped us to understand this interplay between body and person. Alfred Gell, exploring tattooing in Polynesia in previous centuries, echoes Foucault by stating that "it is through the body, the way in which the body is deployed, displayed, and modified, that socially appropriate self-understandings are formed and reproduced".

He shows that in some societies, such as Samoa, it is the process of inflicting the tattoo that is paramount because it is in part permanent evidence of having undergone that process. In other societies, such as the small islands of Mangareva, tattoos indicate a person's role or significance.

Distinctions between the process of mutilation and its product are helpful when moving across the crucial divide into violent assaults. Attempts to use empirical psychological procedures to assist police investigations have drawn attention to the ways violent crimes may be committed.

This has opened our eyes to the significance of what happens in violent crime rather than attending only to its tragic consequences, while statistical examination of the actions that occur in violent crimes indicate that the themes running through all human explorations of person and body can also be found in criminal violations.

For example, in serial murders, one style of killing typically focuses on the process of the murder itself. The victim is undressed and may suffer sustained sexual assault. During the process of exploiting and debasing, the victim will be killed. In rare cases the victim will spark some human recognition in the assailant and may even be released. Here the humiliation and degradation takes on its significance because the personhood of the victim is what is being attacked. This is an extreme form of the "spanking" Tara provides. The killer and client derive a release of tension from the power they wield over another person. It is the mirror of the power the Samoans find in having their bodies tattooed. In violent crimes, these are the psychopaths, the unfeeling manipulators of others for their own ends.

There are important parallels in other forms of abusive crime, notably in understanding paedophiles. For some of these offenders it is childishness and the contact with children that is the attraction. It is the particularities of young people that they want to take advantage of. The abuse grows out of the attempt to control and manipulate the sort of person the child is. These people may be remorseful afterwards and will not seek to harm their victims physically. They react with outrage when called perverts or abusers because they see that as implying an assault on the body, where they think they are attempting to relate to a person.

But among child abusers there is another group. These are the people who are violent to their victims and want to exploit their vulnerable bodies directly. They may often be involved in other forms of violent crime, including sexual assaults on adults. They are less concerned with the person than with what the victim's body has to offer. If people of this propensity are of an even more violent frame of mind and evade capture they can become the most nauseating of serial killers. They may insert foreign objects into the body, indulge in necrophilia and carry out rituals around the body. Like the clients of Severe Mistress the body is distinct from the person, to be subjected to the whims that will relieve the tensions within the perpetrator. The victim's body is the obverse of the Mangarevan tattoo. Its individuality is destroyed by the acts perpetrated on it.

The practical implication of these distinctions is that these different styles of offending are characteristic of the transactions the individual has with the world. It is therefore possible to approximate some account of how the person may appear in non-criminal contexts from examining their criminal actions.

These violent offenders bring us up sharply against what it means to be human. Our civilised beliefs that the body has to be handled carefully because of the person it contains can be traced to the earliest humans who buried their dead and made provision for a non-corporeal hereafter. The struggle with this duality of mind and body is at the heart of most human endeavour. It is a struggle that aims constantly to recreate the fiction of personhood in defiance of the laws of nature. It is in the transaction between self and non-self, the dialectical relationships between mind and body, that humanity emerges. Too great an emphasis on one or the other leads to barbarity and degradation, whether it is promulgated by genetic scientists or by serial killers.

David Canter is professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool. He delivers a lecture on "The Violated Body" at Darwin College, Cambridge, today as part of the Darwin College lecture series.

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