The Black Mirror of Retribution

If you must watch anything on TV, the BBC series Black Mirror is the show. It’s a science fiction anthology series in a similar vein to The Twilight Zone that raises questions about the implications of new technologies and whether or not new social changes are moving in a desirable direction.

The show is not for the faint at heart, as many episodes can be disturbing in both their themes and subject matter. One stand-out episode for yours truly was “White Bear,” involving a woman named Victoria who wakes up with no recollection of who she is and finds herself being hunted down by psychopaths in masks. She seeks help from bystanders, but they do nothing but silently film her with their cell phones.

Victoria later finds two other people who engage with her like normal human beings. They reveal that there was a weird television transmission called the “White Bear” that turned the vast majority of the population into voyeurs who stand idly around and film everything they see. It turns out they and Victoria were not affected by this broadcast. Neither were the psychopaths hunting them down, taking advantage of the fact that they can now get away with violent crimes without consequence.

Victoria and her new companions make for the White Bear transmitter to destroy it. When they arrive, they wind up facing down some psychopaths who followed them there. Victoria manages to wrestle a shotgun away from one psychopath only to discover that the gun is fake. The walls around her open up to reveal a stage, television cameras, and an applauding audience. Victoria’s apparent companions and enemies strap her to a chair where a TV show host explains to her who she really is and why this has happened to her.

The host reveals that Victoria had been tried and convicted for the murder of a little girl, Jemimah Sykes, whom she and her boyfriend had kidnapped. Victoria’s boyfriend killed Jemimah by lighting her on fire while Victoria filmed it. Everything Victoria went through up to this point was in retribution for her crime. Her memory was erased so that she was just as confused and helpless as the little girl she watched her boyfriend murder. All of the bystanders she encountered are meant to parallel her own complacence when she filmed Jemimah’s death. The name “White Bear” is a reference to Jemimah’s teddy bear. Everything that Victoria goes through in the course of her punishment is meant to mirror everything she and her boyfriend put Jemimah through.

But the punishment doesn’t end there. Victoria is wheeled away into a trailer made of plexiglass where the audience can yell obscenities at her and pelt her with fruit. They take her to the house where the episode began, strap her to a chair, and erase her memory of the day’s events so that they can administer the same punishment on her the next day.

This episode of Black Mirror, as you might guess, is not meant to be interpreted as an argument for retributive justice but as a critique of it. The audience of bystanders filming Victoria’s torment and pelting her with rotten fruit and insults is meant to illuminate the hypocrisy of the “eye for an eye” intuition.

But being the illiberal shitlord that I am, I couldn’t help but wonder to what extent this punishment depicted in “White Bear” was truly unjust. As I watched it I had no trouble believing that something about the punishment was wrong, but I doubt most viewers (or the episode’s writers for that matter) would agree with me for the same reasons.

In the book Just and Painful, Graeme Newman makes a case for why corporal punishment of criminals is morally permissible using a retributive model of punishment as justification. Chapter 4 of his book lays out 3 criteria for why a punishment would be considered barbaric and not civilized: mutilation, excess, and violence. These are the criteria we shall use in our moral assessment of Victoria’s punishment.

We can quickly eliminate mutilation as one of the problems with Victoria’s punishment, as nothing that happens to her as she’s punished violates her bodily integrity in any significant way. Indeed, for her to suffer physical injury would defeat the purpose of her punishment since not only does it not fit her crime, but it would also break the illusion of her believing that she is being hunted. Likewise, we can eliminate violence in our moral assessment since all of the violence is staged. The imposing psychopaths seemingly threatening to kill Victoria only serve to instill fear in her and they never actually inflict pain on her.

One can, however, make the case that Victoria’s punishment is excessive. Newman lays out the model for what he calls the punishment by “analogy to the body” which in his view inevitably became punishment for the sake of deterrence. One example of this punishment by analogy was a punishment for traitors in which the traitor’s heart was cut out and held in front of him with the words “Here is your heart.” These punishments were performed in front of an audience as well so that they would serve an educative function to the masses. Victoria’s punishment almost fits this model perfectly: her punishment is analogous to what she and her boyfriend did to Jemimah, and at the end she is placed in front of an audience in which the host declares: “Here is a child murderer.”

However, there are differences between Victoria’s punishment and the educative function of the punishments by analogy. First and foremost, the show host plays up the entertainment value that the audience is deriving from watching Victoria’s punishment. He riles up the crowd and encourages them to treat her with contempt. As such, Victoria’s punishment appears to serve a cathartic release instead of an educative function.

Furthermore, the fact that Victoria’s memory is erased at the end of the day so that she can suffer the punishment again reveals that her punishment is meant to entertain the audience more so than it is for her own retribution. A criminal who is punished multiple times for the same offense, but never remembers the previous times she was punished has only been punished once as far as her personal psychology is concerned. Presumably when she’s finally released, Victoria isn’t going to have any recollection of all of the previous times she was punished except the final day of her punishment. The only reason they continue to erase Victoria’s memory is so that they can entertain new audiences who come to watch her receive her comeuppance.

The fact that Victoria’s punishment exists primarily for entertainment reveals a utilitarian component to her punishment that makes it unjust. What good does it do for her to endure extended torment for the entertainment of thousands of people? A common critique of utilitarianism is that it suggests that it’s morally permissible to treat an individual as a mere means. Tormenting a criminal to entertain the masses seems like a textbook definition of using someone as a mere means.

At first glance, many viewers would be inclined to say that Victoria’s punishment is a case of retributive justice gone too far. But it’s specifically utilitarianism, rather than retributivism that pushes this punishment too far. While it’s true that retributive justice conforms to the intuitions that the ideal punishment should fit the crime and serve an educative purpose, the retributive intuition also tells us that excessive punishment is not just at all. Once a punishment goes beyond what a criminal deserves, it is no longer just.

As such I cannot find much at fault with Victoria’s punishment other than the fact it is a retributive punishment elevated to a spectacle. We do not punish criminals because of some kind of utility to be gained from doing so. We punish criminals because there is a logic inherent to retribution. The logic of retribution dictates that a criminal deserves punishment for their offense against society. They deserve nothing more and nothing less.

It’s important to understand the logic of retribution when watching this episode of Black Mirror. It may be obvious to us that something about Victoria’s punishment is wrong, but it may not be obvious why it is wrong. It isn’t wrong because she suffers. A child murderer deserves to suffer. The problem is that her suffering extends beyond the scope of retribution and into the realm of entertainment. Remember this as you watch the episode.

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4 Responses to The Black Mirror of Retribution

  1. Pingback: The Black Mirror of Retribution | Neoreactive

  2. Pingback: The Black Mirror of Retribution | Reaction Times

  3. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2016/02/07) – The Reactivity Place

  4. Excellent article and worthy recommendation. “White Bear” and “15 Million Merits” were my favorite episodes. “I have a dream? The peak of our dreams is a new hat for our doppel, a hat that doesn’t exist. It’s not even there, we buy shit that’s not even there. Show us something real and free and beautiful, you couldn’t. It’d break us, we’re too numb for it, our minds would choke. There’s only so much wonder we can bear, that’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever you dole it out in meager portions, and only then til it’s augmented and packaged and pumped through ten thousand pre-assigned filters, til it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights, while we ride day-in, day-out — going where?”

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