Sometimes, I wonder… If all (or at least most) human beings are rational, then why do they commit crimes and “wrongdoings”?
Often times people blame a behavior on someone’s character or personality. But today, I want to ponder this question through looking at a person’s situational factors, and how could it influence people to commit deviant behaviors.
Here, “fate” refers to the circumstances that one is living in, and the extent that people feel that they have “no choice”.
Some time ago, I was reading a journal article on Ugly Criminals by Mocan & Tekin (2010) that conveys a fault in the world’s system of rewarding wage premium to “beautiful people” that were able to accumulate good capital formation during their school days, while disregarding the ones that were born “unattractive”.
Basically, it suggests that if you’re fortunate enough to be born beautiful, then you get preferential treatments in school, and have better wages in the workplace. Of course, it isn’t fair. But it’s the harsh reality of the imperfect world that we’re living in right now.
The danger here is: the less-fortunate individuals who are regarded as “unattractive” by society, gain less confidence and form less capital formation during school. Consequently, they are unable to secure higher wages, which then increase their propensity for misbehaviors.
Now, my question is: how could society punishes these “unattractive” individuals by giving them lower wages and thus increase their propensity for misbehaviors, when it is the society’s faulty standard in the first place, that causes these “unattractive” people to gain less confidence and form less capital formation during their school days?
The more I thought about this, the more I realized that there is a contradiction in the world’s system that people inadvertently practice: that while the dominant society condemns deviant behaviors, it also punishes people for reasons beyond their control, to the extent that these people had to resort in deviant or illegal behaviors.
Indeed, many of deviant behaviors and crime could actually be attributed to the structural problems in society.
In Singapore for example, there is a contradiction in money lending. On one hand, people without stable annual income of S$20,000 cannot borrow from legitimate banks. However, on the other hand, these poor working class people are the ones who actually need the money the most for their daily life (which is shown by the fact that most of the people who borrow from loan sharks actually borrow less than $1,500). Without the appropriate means to meet their needs, these people must resort in borrowing money through illegal means, and are often forced to assist these loan sharks in order to pay up their debts.
Now, how can we condemn these people, telling them that borrowing loan-sharks is illegal and wrong, when they don’t have the choice to pursue the legal means?
Another striking example of such contradiction that I notice, is the effect of stratified school system in categorizing high-performing and low-performing children. While I understand that such system may motivate students to achieve, I could not help but to wonder about the kids who come from the working class family. Often time, these kids are in a home where English is not their first language, and their family could not afford tuition or sending them to pre-school.
Without English, they could not do well in school, even in Math and Science paper. However, children are being streamed based on their ability before they even enter Primary 1 education. The low performing children from working class society who could not cope with the education system, would be more likely to be influenced by gangs, and often ended up being labeled as “youth-at-risks”.
Therefore, we are able to see that the environment and the condition of their childhood, are likely to influence the environment that these disadvantaged children will engage in when they grow up.
Putting it into context, if one’s childhood environment could be classified as a “barrel”, then when a child grows up in a disadvantaged condition, we can assume that he would be more likely to spend his life navigating through one bad barrel to another, compared to a person who has the privilege to grow up in a pampered environment of a middle or upper class family.
Again, the question is, how can we classify a child as a “low performing” student and condemn his future, if he is put at a disadvantaged position, by the income disparity that he has no control over?
This struggle of escaping a bad barrel is also aptly portrayed in Les Misérables. In the story, ex-convict Jean Valjean who was convicted because he stole a bread to survive, and tries to redeem his life as the good and generous Monsieur Madeleine. However, despite of his attempts to start anew, his past life seems to continuously haunt him, as he is unable to completely escape the lingering shadow of the bad barrel that he was in.
Looking at these cases, I recognize that my reflection here poses a quite a pessimistic outlook towards the system of society. However, I do understand that there are rare instances where exceptionally resilient people do rise up above their circumstances to become successful people.
Nevertheless, I believe, that we should question the structure of our society that may involuntarily push people into committing workplace deviant behaviors and crimes.
As I reflect upon these, I wonder if we are living in a world where there are almost no second chances. I wonder that if we were put into bad barrel in the beginning, do we have no choice but to continue being tossed from one bad barrel into another bad barrel?
Many of my examples above, are taken from my observations during my experience of staying in Singapore (which is considered by many, as a good developed country). No doubt, when I turn my eyes to my own country: Indonesia, we would be able to see many more examples of structural strains.
So next time we see a crime or wrongdoings, don’t be quick to label him or her as “deviants”. Let us first examine ourselves: did we unknowingly became a part of a society that pushes people into a corner and condemns them for things that they have no control over?
Let us not judge, but try to empathize, love, and help.
Because after all… all of us have our own untold story.
And all of us are striving for hope, in our own ways.
Photo by csallai
Mocan, N., and E. Tekin. “Ugly Criminals.” The Review of Economics and Statistics 92.1 (2010): pp. 15-30.