The United States government has expressed official regret (and sometimes paid reparations) regarding some inhumane policies and actions imposed in the past. Prominent examples are the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, slavery and the many lynchings of African Americans, and the stealing of Native American land. In retrospect most people regard these actions — taken in the heat of war or the toxic fever of racism, and often endorsed at the time by the courts — as terribly wrong.
Can we predict what current policies and attitudes will someday make us feel the same kind of remorse? Seattle University Law Professor Steven Bender thinks so, and that is the premise and theme of his new book Mea Culpa: Lessons on Law and Regret From Human History (NYU Press). "Mea culpa" is Latin for “through my fault,” an acknowledgment of having done wrong.
Bender first attempts to determine whether there is a common causal thread to those awful historical events. He tries a few possibilities and lands on a calculus of dehumanization, a theory that people did the things we regret because we viewed the victims as less than human. Bender’s calculus is similar to other recent work, for example discussions on poverty and race regarding who is within and who without “the circle of human concern.” (See, for example, john a. powell's Northwest Area Foundation paper, “Poverty and Race Through A Belongingness Lens.”)
Bender applies this theory to groups of people who he believes experience dehumanization at the hands of people in the United States today. In his estimation, there will be a lot of regret to go around, as the list is depressingly long: immigrants and farm workers especially Latino/as; people who are poor or homeless; people who are LGBTQ; people convicted of serious crimes particularly those on death row; Muslims; African Americans; women; and people in other countries subjected to our wars, detention and torture.
Bender devotes a chapter to each of these groups, providing heavily annotated evidence that the group is dehumanized. In every chapter, he shows explicit statements and cultural constructs, from long ago to today, that overtly or subtly suggest that the targets are less than full human beings. And in most he shows that governmental and often legal system acquiescence in, and sometimes fully support, these attempts to strip people of their humanity.
But there is hope: Bender doesn’t just catalog the many wrongs. He also includes in each chapter ideas for how a group can be treated more humanely, along with some practical discussion about how to make those changes happen. He also notes the serious progress many of the groups have made, for example the amazing recent success of the LGBTQ rights movement. (And since he wrote the book, new hopeful movements Bender would applaud have arisen, such as grassroots-led changes in the minimum wage and the new civil rights movement fueled by “Black Lives Matter.”) Best of all, Bender’s concluding chapter makes many suggestions for how people can move society toward a more compassionate stance through one’s own actions, media work, political engagement and in other ways.
Bender deserves credit for applying his dehumanization calculus with intellectual rigor and integrity. Though he can’t yet bring himself to categorically oppose the death penalty on a personal level, he nevertheless shows that it does qualify for future regret according to the dehumanization scale. He expresses a hope that he will someday accept in his heart what his calculus tells him intellectually: The death penalty is inherently inhumane and wrong.
I question Bender’s stated belief that someday all the dehumanization he lists will be officially regretted, though perhaps only over a long time. The death penalty is likely to go away for complex reasons (not least because innocent people have been executed), but official regret seems unlikely. Nor in my view will we ever officially express regret about stigmatizing people who are poor, especially poor people of color.
But this doesn't diminish the book’s value as a scholarly but readable listing of what is surely regrettable and should be fixed — as for me the fix is more important than the regret anyway. Bender provides a service to those who haven’t been introduced to these important questions going to the core of our humanity, and adds some new ways to think about it all for those already engaged. He’s gone a long way toward providing an answer to the question: How can people treat each other this way? And he tries to move us toward doing something about it.
At the very end of Mea Culpa, Bender calls on us to take the opportunity “to determine what it means to be human and humane in this diverse country.” Why shouldn't we?
Disclosure: The writer's employer, Columbia Legal Services, performs legal work for members of many of the groups discussed in this review.