Chris Uggen's Blog: self-experimentation on the incapacitative effect of dethumbing

Saturday, November 05, 2005

self-experimentation on the incapacitative effect of dethumbing

las vegas mayor oscar goodman proposed "thumbing" graffiti taggers in a tv interview rebroadcast yesterday. i'm familiar with all manner of corporal punishment, but "thumbing" is new to me. more precisely, he's talking about de-thumbing -- cutting off a miscreant's thumb.

"I'm saying maybe you put them on TV and cut off a thumb ... That may be the right thing to do." Goodman also suggested whippings and canings for wayward youth. "I also believe in a little bit of corporal punishment going back to the days of yore, where examples have to be shown ... I'm dead serious," said Goodman. "Some of these punks don't learn. You have got to teach them a lesson." "They would get a trial first," he [very responsibly] added.

ah, the days of yore! contemporary advocates of corporal punishment, such as death penalty proponents, generally justify them on the following grounds: (1) retribution (imposing suffering to get even with the criminal); (2) deterrence (such that the costs of crime are perceived to outweigh the benefits); and, (3) incapacitation (physically preventing the offense from recurring). inspired by seth roberts' research on self-experimentation, i got curious about #3, the incapacitative effects of de-thumbing. well, not that curious -- i wasn't going to cut off my own thumbs or collect serious data as professor roberts would. instead, before coming to the office today, i stopped in the garage and played with spray paint.

how much tagging could a tagger tag if a tagger had no thumbs? i worked in kitchens and with tradespersons such as sheet-metal workers who had lost digits, so i knew that one could retain some degree of dexterity. true, without thumbs it was initially difficult to spray the full-size krylon cans favored by taggers. but i did just fine with the l'il 6-ounce can. more impressively, i needed no thumbs at all for the tiny automotive touch-up sprayer. i soon learned to spray without using my index finger or other digits that might also attract sanctions. emboldened, i went back to the big cans and soon perfected a two-hands/no thumbs approach (ha! do your worst, goodman -- i don't even need fingers to tag!). given my impressive tagging skills sans thumbs and my well-documented coordination deficits and my regular guy-sized hands, i can only conclude that dethumbing would have little incapacitative effect among serious graffiti artists. so, mayor goodman must justify de-thumbing as either a general deterrent or as vegas-style retributive infotainment (the mind reels with possibilities).

seth roberts doesn't say much about the side-effects of his self-experiments, but i observed a big one: i began to contemplate criminal activity. it could have been the fumes or my newfound dexterity with spray cans, but i felt a distinct urge to throw down some graffiti in my hometown of shoreview. it would certainly be clever, i thought for a brief moment, to change the "h" on each "Shoreview, Population 26,991" sign to an "n." a bit of green paint, or even removable green tape, would do the trick and only the most discerning drivers would notice. of course, i quickly got some air and came to my senses. what would my kids think if i were arrested for graffiti? my colleagues? oh my, can you imagine what my sociology of deviance students would say? or how much fun certain graduate students would have at my expense? who could i call to bail me out?

nope! i would not take the risk, even if i estimated the probability of being caught at less than .001. plus, "snoreview" didn't really seem so clever outside the garage. maybe i'll suggest it as a name for the lad's next band. i doubt shoreview's fine mayor would want to cut off my thumbs on channel 14 cable access (would you, sandy?). no worries, though. i'm easily deterred by the existing informal sanctions and the moral costs of making a mess for someone else to clean up.


At 7:05 AM, Blogger Mike W. said...

I wake up disappointed; I had written a long comment about how this seems to be motivated more by a desire for a general deterrent effect on Goodman's part, than it is on any concept of "crime savings" due to incapacitation.

Next time, I vow to press the "publish" button.

So, that's the short version of what I said; basically, Goodman's comment that taggers "need to be taught a lesson" indicates his punishment preference, which doesn't matter when talking incapacitation.

Also, I don't know much about public support other than that it becomes very contingent the more details are known about particular crimes. Is there a groundswell of support for capital punishment for taggers? If not, what could Goodman's political notion be?

Lastly, this policy recommendation has the peculiar notion of setting itself up to provide harsher punishments to first-time offenders than recidivists. That's rather odd, to me anyway.

At 10:01 AM, Anonymous chris said...

you're right on deterrence, mike, though i can see a retributive motivation in the video too. the mayor is clearly angry about the costs of renewal and cleanup and wants to impose some pain in payment. with regard to deterrence (specific or general), one generally looks for punishment proportional to the crime -- just harsh enough to dissuade, right? despite his claims of being "dead serious," he must realize that the days of yore are long gone...

At 10:51 AM, Anonymous sarah said...

I have to admit that given recent events in my own life, I can identify with the mayor's ire. Those days of yore sure look appealing when you're pissed off...

At 5:30 PM, Blogger michelle inderbitzin said...

so chris, did you just happen to have the tagger-favored krylon in multiple sizes sitting around in your garage? that seems a little suspicious, don't you think? a souvenir from delinquent days, perhaps?

and, out of curiosity, what did you paint while conducting this experiment? did you tag your garage walls? paint some beautiful murals? did you take full advantage of this informal research project and unleash your artistic side? how did your final product turn out? maybe you could post a picture....

At 6:01 PM, Anonymous chris said...

hey doc jones! sadly, i paint better pictures with words than with actual paint. that said, i may be one of the top artists in my particular medium (cardboard and rust-colored car primer).


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