It Matters If You Think Crime Is a Monster or a Disease

Photo: Photo: GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images

Don’t underestimate metaphors. They’re so ingrained in the way that we speak, they’re easy to overlook, from “you ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog” to “the Lord is my shepherd.” But as the linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue in Metaphors We Live By, metaphors have a way of framing our understanding of a given subject — and, along the way, they also create blind spots for understanding. One example Lakoff and Johnson offer up is the “argument is war” metaphor, as in: “Your claims are indefensible,” “He attacked every weak point in my argument,” and “His criticisms were right on target.” While the metaphor has a certain badassedness to it, it can create problems for you: like say, for instance, if you get into an argument with your partner and you focus on destroying their meager lines of logical defenses rather than empathizing with their experience of life, which is what you should probably do if you want to have the relationship grow. The “couple as opponents” frame needs to be switched out for “couple as team.”

Given all the hearts broken and lives lost due to tensions between police and communities, it’s important to look at what operating metaphors the culture is using for addressing crime. A fascinating 2011 study lead by Paul H. Thibodeau, a cognitive psychologist now at Oberlin College, found that when crime is described as a “beast” rather than as a “disease,” people are more likely to recommend enforcement — like building more jails or calling the National Guard — than social reforms, like bettering education or health care. When asked to signal what influenced their decisions, the majority of the 1,482 participating students said it was the numbers; as Ed Yong reported at Discover, just 3 percent said it was the metaphor. So while the participants didn’t realize it, the metaphors were priming the way they reasoned about a problem.

This is why many experts argue that it’s so important, at a national level, that gun violence be talked about as a public health issue, framing it as a disease. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, for example, maintains that gun violence is a public health issue, which is part of why the NRA tried to block his confirmation. And University of Illinois-Chicago epidemiologist Gary Slutkin founded a program called Cure Violence, which seeks to stop the spread of shootings in the way you try to stop the spread of infectious disease. “For violence, we’re trying to interrupt the next event, the next transmission, the next violent activity,” Slutkin told the New York Times. “And the violent activity predicts the next violent activity like H.I.V. predicts the next H.I.V. and TB predicts the next TB.” The program has reportedly decreased violence in Baltimore, New York, and Chicago neighborhoods by a reported 40 to 70 percent. As he told the nonprofit media start-up the Trace, the important thing is to see violence as a health issue rather than one of morality. Before modern medicine, in our collective ignorance, we’d ascribe people suffering from disease to their ethical failings. “People with leprosy, plague, typhus, cholera, tuberculosis, and other maladies were frequently considered morally ‘bad,’ suffering stigma at a minimum, and in many cases worse treatment, including being put in dungeons, burnt at the stake, or thrown down wells,” he wrote in a 2015 manuscript.

Gun violence, Slutkin has argued, should be treated like other maladies: People get it through transmission — the vast majority of shootings happen within surprisingly tiny networks. Sociologists found that from 2006 to 2012 in Chicago, “70 percent of all nonfatal gunshot victims during the observation period can be located in co-offending networks comprised of less than 6 percent of the city’s population.” The logic, then, is that if you can defuse these cycles of violence, then you can dramatically reduce the number of shootings. Not by treating criminals as beasts, but as people infected by the disease of violence.

In Richmond, California, a public-private partnership called the Office of Neighborhood Safety has been targeting the 50 men most likely to kill or die from gunfire and giving them mentorship and a stipend in exchange for pledging to not be involved in gun violence —leading to a 70 percent decrease in the murder rate from 2007 to 2014. As Tim Murphy noted in his profile of the program for Mother Jones, the murder reduction is representative of changing the operating metaphor. If crime is “an infectious disease,” as a University of California, Berkeley, criminologist reasoned, then jail is a way of “quarantining” criminals as a way of addressing “epidemics” of violence. But if you “inoculate” the people who carry the disease of violence, then maybe you could safeguard a neighborhood, or an entire city. To do that requires treating it as a disease, not a monster.