Binaries, Bullying, and the Boston Bombing

Jonathan Turley is unhappy with the sentence handed down by a judge:

These shaming punishments degrade our legal system and turn judges into little Caesars meting out their own justice to the thrill of the public. We have seen judges force people to cut their hair in their courtroom or clean their court bench with a toothbrush. These sentences make justice a form of public entertainment and allow judges to turn their courtrooms into their own macabre productions.[1]

Turley is reacting to the case of Edmond Aviv, an Ohio man who is apparently racist and intolerant of people with disabilities.

“Parents told us to stay away from the house. He would just stand on the porch and just call us names,” [Alex Simmons, 21, a former neighbor] said, adding, “Justice had been served.”

Aviv was accused of calling the neighbor, Sandra Prugh, “Monkey Mama” as she held her adopted, disabled African-American children and of smearing dog feces on their wheelchair ramp. . . .

Prugh said Aviv has spit on her, tried to run down her wheelchair-bound daughters and directed spotlights at her windows at night, according to court documents.

Last year, authorities discovered Aviv had cut a hole in his garage wall and was using a fan to blow kerosene fumes into Prugh’s back yard.[2]

I think Turley is right in practice, and wrong in principle. When I say practice here, I refer to our society as it actually is, rather than what it needs to be. Let us assume at least for the moment that Aviv is every bit as heinous as he is being made out to be, and correspondingly, that Prugh is every bit as worthy as she is being made out to be:

Aviv certainly does not sound like a nice man. He was long accused of harassing his neighbors and has three prior convictions for harassing conduct. Prugh is also a highly sympathetic victim, a women who has two adult adopted children with disabilities and a paralyzed son.[3]

Turley is highlighting an important binary of the “highly sympathetic victim” and the highly unsympathetic perpetrator. In doing this, he is recognizing that reality is rarely so simple, that there are very few absolute saints and very few absolute demons in this world. He drops this point, but I will return to it.

My perspective is different, and I am inclined to judge Municipal Court Judge Gayle Williams-Byers, who imposed this sentence, less harshly than Turley does. First, my suspicion is that Turley, a white, downplays the matter of race. Both Prugh, the victim, and Williams-Byers are Black.[4] They do not benefit from white privilege. I have been critical of Turley for his failure to acknowledge this privilege in the past, specifically in the case of George Zimmerman, who murdered Trayvon Martin, but was acquitted.[5] Turley suggests that Aviv could have been charged with one or more felonies, but this is blind to a reality, which I have also noted, that the system of justice in this country is founded in and functions from unacknowledged wealthy, white male privilege against subaltern groups, but especially against the poor and people of color.[6] Systematic discrimination can safely be said to limit the interest that the system has in prosecuting a white male perpetrator on behalf of a black female victim, quite possibly making such an escalation unfeasible.

Second, in my heart of hearts, as a deeply wounded child who has suffered violence that has insidiously compounded itself in physical, economic, and verbal forms throughout my life to a point where it is disabling in important ways, I feel that Aviv deserves every bit of the humiliation that the judge has subjected him to—and more.

An Ohio man sentenced by a judge to spend Sunday wearing a sign reading “I AM A BULLY” at a busy suburban Cleveland intersection was greeted by a boisterous stream of honking car horns, jeers and insults. . . .

A probation officer was on hand on Sunday to protect Aviv and make sure he served out his sentence.

“I didn’t do this,” Aviv said to a reporter who asked if he was sorry.

As he spoke, someone in a passing car yelled: “Douche bag.”[7]

However, what I also see is that Aviv remains defiant, that he is even in denial that he has committed acts of brutality against his neighbors that he had to have been conscious of doing to have done. While he has yet to serve his full sentence, one can reasonably question whether the humiliation is effective, and in a way, here, Turley has a point:

While judges talk a good game about their effort to be creative, they clearly enjoy this role and the publicity that comes from making people demean themselves. It appeals to the lowest common denominator of our society and unfortunately there are many who enjoy to see others degraded.[8]

This is why the binary that Turley highlighted, of highly sympathetic victims and of highly unsympathetic perpetrators, is important. But it is only one aspect of a much broader, wider binary in our society. This is, in fact, the same binary that protects the rich and that stigmatizes and criminalizes the poor, the same binary that divides the world into good and evil, male and female, human and non-human, white and black, deserving and undeserving, and many others,[9] even if, in this case, the victims are Black and the perpetrator is white.[10] It is a binary in which wealthy white males are, with only exceedingly rare exceptions, the only consistent winners, a binary that forever divides “us” from “them,” the “other.” It is a binary that places beings on one side or the other of socially constructed borders. It is a binary that functions to oppress. It is a binary which is violent, verbally, economically, and physically, and not only in all the ways that I have personally experienced.[11]

[T]here is significant evidence to suggest that elites . . . are substantially concerned with who may do what to whom and what, in what territory, and that this has been a principal concern for them for more or less as long as they have existed. Because it is so evident that war exists largely to advance elite ends as to physical territory, this control invites examination of other boundaries beyond those of physical territory to see how conflict may advance elite interests in other realms. These borders are the boundaries of ethnicity, race, gender, sexual preference, and ability, the innumerable ways in which humans seem determined to distinguish themselves from each other (de Beauvoir, 1949/2010). To the extent that control may intrude upon these realms, it creates the possibility of pervasive control. Judith Butler (1991/2010) argues that “identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression” (p. 563). Race, for instance, is a brutally reified fiction (Gates, 1986/2010), but whether these categories have any validity or not, whether they are social or biological constructions, these labels essentialize those “others” and “us,” and it is in such dichotomies as that between “us” and “others” that “additive models of oppression are firmly rooted” (Collins, 1990/2010, p. 542).[12]

The fact is that we live in an incredibly violent society. It is physically violent as a defining feature of sovereignty,[13] in an ongoing defense of torture that is tied to masculinity, in its intrusions into the privacy of innocent people, in an ever expanding definition of terrorism that encompasses more and more people, and in both the militarization of and the violence employed by police.[14] It is violent toward non-human animals, toward the environment, and ultimately to the entire human species.[15] It is violent in a conflation of ‘citizens’ with ‘property-holders’, such that those who have more property are deemed more worthy of protection, and that those who have nothing at all may be attacked with impunity, which is one reason why structural violence, that is, “denying people important rights, such as economic well-being; social, political, and sexual equality; a sense of personal fulfillment and self-worth,”[16] must be treated as violence just as surely as the physical sort. When, as in the following passage, we see a claim like “police protect the citizens,”[17] we must ask which citizens, and it is clear that by the standard in effect, only some are even acknowledged to be citizens:

To this officer, the idea that the public would get a look at the police in the midst of an operation without their complicity in that representation was unacceptable. The tragic flaw of the APD, and of any law enforcement agency that scorns transparency, is that it refuses to entertain the idea that its actions could be anything but honorable: The police protect the citizens, and there’s no reason to question their methods. That’s why the officer in the video didn’t want a camera at the scene of a traffic stop, and why Jack Jones doesn’t think the public has any business knowing what gets taught at a police academy. It’s almost a given that when Commissioner Eden watched the video of his officers shooting Boyd, he didn’t give their decision a second thought. The police shot Boyd, so they must have had a reason to do so. There is no room in this philosophy for the idea that they could have made a mistake, that they could have found a better way to apprehend a mentally unstable man, one that didn’t involve convincing him to surrender before springing a surprise attack on him.[18]

Actually, it’s hard to see how this attack, or, closer to where I live, the Oscar Grant shooting, or in far too many cases to list, these attacks can all each be written off as ‘a mistake’. Rather, this society is, in addition to all the ways I have listed above, systematically violent in the way that it treats such incidents as just the work of a “few bad apples,” avoiding an examination of a larger context, and thus paving the way for further violence.[19]

I understand today (April 15) is the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. In response to that horrific incident, I noted a non-public posting on Facebook:

I got caught up in the news again about Boston. I saw a photo of SWAT members holding Dzhokar Tsarnaev down some time after his capture. The image of his shirt pulled up to his chest exposing his soft, hairless, 19 year old’s belly is an image that caused a flurry of emotions/ideas to well up in me. He looked so soft, so weak, so tender, and so young surrounded by all these men dressed in tactical gear and carrying cold black weapons. This child, acted out a path of madness. It is cosmologically starling that this is the face of evil acts in our time. What is this story we are all living in?[20]

I concluded,

Nobody will be brought back to life by what happens now. No one will get their legs back. No one who has been injured will be uninjured. A lot of human beings were hurt—some killed—and no amount of official retribution will reverse the harm. It sounds trite to say: Yes, certainly it would have been better if the bombing had not happened. But are we seriously looking into the causes of this event? Are we seriously looking at preventing something like this from ever happening again? Or are we really just accepting it as one more episode in an unending stream of violence in a violent society?[21]

In the case of Aviv, I am again wondering how dehumanizing a perpetrator helps to reform him, how any of what is happening is solving the problem, how it is advancing our humanity, how it does anything at all to prevent the horrible from happening again, let alone how it ensures our survival.

  1. [1]Jonathan Turley, “Ohio Judge Sentences “Bully” To Wear Demeaning Sign In Public,” April 15, 2014,
  2. [2]Kim Palmer, “Ohio man sentenced to wear ‘BULLY’ sign is jeered, taunted,” Reuters, April 14, 2014,
  3. [3]Jonathan Turley, “Ohio Judge Sentences “Bully” To Wear Demeaning Sign In Public,” April 15, 2014,
  4. [4]see photos in Jonathan Turley, “Ohio Judge Sentences “Bully” To Wear Demeaning Sign In Public,” April 15, 2014,
  5. [5]David Benfell, “Open season,” Not Housebroken, July 16, 2013,
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Rich judging poor, whites judging Blacks, and men judging women: How so-called ‘justice’ is blind to privilege,” Not Housebroken, March 26, 2014,
  7. [7]Kim Palmer, “Ohio man sentenced to wear ‘BULLY’ sign is jeered, taunted,” Reuters, April 14, 2014,
  8. [8]Jonathan Turley, “Ohio Judge Sentences “Bully” To Wear Demeaning Sign In Public,” April 15, 2014,
  9. [9]John R. Belcher, Donald Fandetti, and Danny Cole, “Is Christian Religious Conservatism Compatible with the Liberal Social Welfare State?” Social Work 49, no. 2 (2004): 269-276; Kristina Cooke, David Rohde, and Ryan McNeill, “The Undeserving Poor,” Atlantic, December 20, 2012,; Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Undeservingness,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 85-94; Carol L. Glasser, “Tied Oppressions: An Analysis of How Sexist Imagery Reinforces Speciesist Sentiment,” Brock Review 12, no. 1 (2011): 51-68; Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley, “Traditional versus Social Values as Antecedents of Racial Stereotyping and Policy Conservatism,” Political Behavior 14, no. 4 (December, 1992): 395-421; Michael B. Katz, “How America abandoned its ‘undeserving’ poor,” Salon, December 21, 2013,; Edward McClelland, “You call this a middle class? ‘I’m trying not to lose my house’,” Salon, March 1, 2014,; Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004); Joan Walsh, “Paul Ryan: Randian poseur,” Salon, August 12, 2012,; Joan Walsh, “GOP is losing on unemployment insurance — and running scared,” Salon, January 7, 2014,;
  10. [10]see photos in Jonathan Turley, “Ohio Judge Sentences “Bully” To Wear Demeaning Sign In Public,” April 15, 2014,
  11. [11]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works’,” March 15, 2012,; David Benfell, “A Colonized Academy and a Colonized People,” November 22, 2013,
  12. [12]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works’,” March 15, 2012,
  13. [13]Max Weber, “What is Politics?” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 114-116.
  14. [14]David Benfell, “Change For The Improbable: Change For Human and Non-Human Survival,” September 27, 2013,; David Benfell, “We are the enemy,” Not Housebroken, March 23, 2014,; David Benfell, “Torture and manhood,” Not Housebroken, April 7, 2014,; Kyle Paoletta, “Listen up, police officers: Real life isn’t like ‘Breaking Bad’,” Salon, April 13, 2014,; Fernanda Santos, “Justice Dept. Accuses Albuquerque Police of Excessive Force,” New York Times, April 10, 2014,
  15. [15]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013,; David Benfell, “Change For The Improbable: Change For Human and Non-Human Survival,” December 17, 2013,
  16. [16]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002), 7.
  17. [17]Kyle Paoletta, “Listen up, police officers: Real life isn’t like ‘Breaking Bad’,” Salon, April 13, 2014,
  18. [18]Kyle Paoletta, “Listen up, police officers: Real life isn’t like ‘Breaking Bad’,” Salon, April 13, 2014,
  19. [19]Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2008).
  20. [20]quoted in David Benfell, “Tragedy–and recognizing tragedy as tragedy,” April 21, 2013,
  21. [21]David Benfell, “Tragedy–and recognizing tragedy as tragedy,” April 21, 2013,

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