He Does the Police in Different Voices: James B. White on the Rhetoric of Criminal Law

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Arts and Humanities | Philosophy | Rhetoric | Rhetoric and Composition


“I want to look at a particularly important target of White's polemics, the instrumental and monological language and practice of deterrence in the criminal law – deterrence of police officers by the exclusionary rule and deterrence of criminals by sanctions – and see if I can convert it into literary, self-reflective, ethical language[…]in distinguishing the poetic from the scientific as he does, White cannot distinguish two ways of avoiding being instrumental, one which could be called ethical or rhetorical, and the other which I have to name narcissistic, that is, acts and languages whose autonomous value comes from their uselessness, the aristocratic values of the gentleman who does not have to work for a living. The primary object of his attention is the distinction of the poetic from the instrumental, but he also needs to distinguish the poetic, as language and action with its own value, from poetic in an aesthetic sense, deriving its value from its uselessness. I see this is a real moral danger – the danger of desiring a certain set of deterrent consequences from retributive punishment without being willing or able to do more than hope for them. That is the reason that bringing the language of deterrence into the conversation is a practical task.”