Plain Vanilla Battery

Posted by WiredSisters on August 21st, 2014 filed in History, Law, Moral Philosophy, Peace Testimony

Back in my first year of law school, I learned that “battery” meant “any unconsented touching” other than ordinary “jostling” in a crowd, and “necessary correction” of a minor child by a parent.. It can range from a surgeon cutting off your left leg when it was the right one that needed amputation, to a punch thrown in a barroom brawl. My fellow students and I spent the next few weeks parsing out the implications in a ritual similar to “medical student’s disease,” which afflicts the more sensitive with every symptom of every disease they happen to be studying at the time. “You grabbed my book—that’s battery!” “Only if you’re holding it at the time, nyah nyah.” Is it battery to pull out a chair you are about to sit down in, causing you to hit the floor instead? Tune into to Torts One next week and you’ll find out. (It’s definitely a tort, but not necessarily battery.)

Unfortunately, a law student party game was all the strict definition of battery was, or is, good for. Yes, the sovereign state of Illinois, and every other jurisdiction in the world, so far as I know, has some statute like “(a) A person commits battery if he or she knowingly without legal justification by any means (1) causes bodily harm to an individual or (2) makes physical contact of an insulting or provoking nature with an individual.” Here, we call it “simple battery.”

As opposed to “aggravated battery” (or, among the cognoscenti, “agg. batt”) which goes on for eleven pages, and takes in all the imaginable combinations and permutations of special circumstances of time, place, manner, victim, and perpetrator which turn “simple battery,” a Class A misdemeanor, into various kinds of felony. People do get prosecuted, fairly often, for one or another species of “agg. batt.” But that usually happens where somebody gets seriously hurt. Some years ago, Mr. Wired, who was then both a senior citizen and a person with a disability, was set upon by a couple of young punks, and we spent months jumping through hoops to get them prosecuted, even though both senior citizens and people with disabilities are specifically protected under one of the agg. batt. statutes. Mr. Wired, fortunately, was not seriously injured. The good fortune was mostly that of the police, who therefore did not feel obliged to do anything about the crime. (In all fairness, that may have been related to the fact that the father of one of the perps was himself a retired police officer. Oh, and white.)

In addition to all the aggravating circumstances, Illinois, probably like most other states and First-World jurisdictions, has a whole catalog of special-purpose battery offenses, such as child abuse, elder abuse, domestic battery, and hate-crime battery. These can be and often are applied even where the victim can still walk away unmarked and unassisted. Every five or ten years, we discover a new category of victim and pass a new statute to protect him, her, them, or it. I am waiting eagerly to hear that the Supreme Court, having recently discovered that a corporation has a right to free exercise of religion, decides that it can also be the victim of one or another kind of battery. It’s only a matter of time.

I don’t mean to be sound flippant about this (not mostly, anyway.) I worked with the people who wrote and pioneered the enforcement of the Illinois Domestic Violence Act. I also spent a considerable amount of time in Juvenile Court implementing the laws against child abuse and neglect. Worthwhile endeavors, which need all the help they can get. But the particular statutes in question ought never to have had to be written. We should have been able to get the same bang for the buck from the battery statutes. Whoever you’re beating up on, it’s still battery. So why do we feel obliged to compose a new statute for every newly-discovered class of victims?

Because, whatever the law books, or even that most hallowed law book of them all, the Bible, may say, we all believe, deep down in our hearts, that it’s mostly okay to hit most people under most circumstances. Indeed, the statutes themselves make allowances for “reasonable direction of a minor child by a parent or person in loco parentis.” Child abuse is defined to include “excessive corporal punishment.” It’s okay for adults to hit children (in Illinois, only with the open hand, no fists, no belts, no extension cords.) It’s okay for children to hit other children, mostly. We are now starting to be sensitized to “bullying,” and in some places, to pass laws forbidding it. (In Illinois, the law mentions bullying only in the context of schools. Some other states take it more seriously.) But we presume that males in particular have a right to engage in “fisticuffs” with each other, and that “boys (and even men) will be boys,” i.e. non-lethally aggressive and violent. That right is sanctified by virtually universal non-enforcement of the laws against “simple battery.” The exceptions to that rule deserve, and get, their own special statutes, reflecting a bias against hitting somebody smaller, or in some other significant way weaker, than oneself.. A lot of parents try to raise their kids with the belief that it’s wrong to hit anybody, ever. That belief rarely survives third grade. Maybe it works in Scandinavia, but it rarely works here, even in the classiest neighborhoods.

Let’s talk about Scandinavia for a moment. A millennium ago, its inhabitants were some of the nastiest thugs you would ever not want to meet in a dark alley, the Vikings. Now they ban spanking of children, and their violent crime rates hover in the single digits. What happened in between? This deserves a longer look by some serious historians. I would venture to guess that some of what happened was a lot of emigration to the New World in the 19th century. ( That may have got rid of some of the heirs of the Vikings. Although in fact, many of them moved to Minnesota, where people are still a lot nicer than in the rest of the USA. Maybe their migration raised the average Niceness Quotient in both places? This is statistically possible, and obviously deserves further research.) Most Scandinavians apparently really believe it’s wrong to hit people, period. Fortunately for them, their weather discourages invasion from anyplace warmer, which is most of the rest of the world. How our current bout of climate change will affect this reality remains to be seen.

Even our most civic-minded law-and-order advocates probably wouldn’t want us to become like the Scandinavians. Many of them view our brethren from the frozen North as fundamentally un-American, a bunch of socialist sissies. There is not a fjord in our future. Interestingly enough, even the fundamentalist adherents of the religion founded by the guy who said “do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:39) tend to prefer the Marquess of Queensbury to Mahatma Gandhi. The Scandinavians, on the other hand, rarely go to church. Maybe they don’t need the Sermon on the Mount?

It may be that the people who write our laws (and certainly the ones who have actually read the Sermon on the Mount) are a different bunch from the ones who enforce them. Or it may be that the same bunch of people hold both opinions with equal fervor. Didn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald say that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”? (That’s assuming we do still have the ability to function.) The Jewish philosopher Maimonides says that the soul knows its own frailties and seeks its own remedies. Which may account for the fact that most pacifists I know have very nasty tempers, most of the anarchists of my acquaintance are really bossy, and the Quakers, whose primary liturgical expression is silence, are some of the talkiest people on the planet. And, most important, it accounts for the fact that the inhabitants of our Bible belt have more problems with liquor, sex, and violence than the rest of the country, and also pass more laws about them.

At any rate, we need to recognize that, whatever our law books and our Bibles say, we Americans believe in violence as a solution to many social problems. We are not yet up to making serious changes in that belief. We are not even up to being conscious of it. This needs further effort.



One Response to “Plain Vanilla Battery”

  1. Sappho Says:

    So, the guy who grabbed my breasts after I’d told him no three times and pushed him away did commit an actual legal offense? I remember, at the time, thinking that he’d done something unforgivable, but not something that would be against any law, since there was no penetration.

    One thing about violence is that it does work, and sometimes accomplishes genuinely good and useful things (I’m sure Dad was glad of the Allied troops arriving in Greece to kick the Nazis out), but we seem predisposed to *way* overestimate how frequently that is the case.