Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It's Only a Joke if Everyone Thinks It's Funny

On April 15, a 7-year-old girl in Stevensville, Montana was walking along the sidewalk when a man in a car yelled, "I'm going to kidnap you!"  Police were called, and the girl helped a sketch artist create a picture of her assailant.  Flyers were posted around town, and on Monday an 18-year-old man turned himself in, and today he pled guilty to disorderly conduct and was given a $185 fine and a 10 day suspended jail sentence.  He says he was just joking when he shouted at the girl.

This is not a big story.  It merited three paragraphs in the Associated Press today, and nothing when it originally happened.  It lies on a continuum, somewhere between stories of kids walking along the sidewalk uneventfully and kids being kidnapped off the sidewalk.  The sentence here clearly takes into consideration the man's intent.  He did not intend to kidnap the girl, just to scare her, and the sentence reflects that.  The AP headline,

Montana Teen Fined for Trying to Scare 7-year-old
also reflects the man's intentions. 

Our legal system cares about intent.  That's why attempted murder is different than assault.  Possession with intent to distribute is different than possession.  Hate crimes carry a different punishment than other crimes because of what motivated them.  On the whole, Americans accept that what you were trying to do when you committed a crime matters.  We therefore understand that there's a big difference between threatening to kidnap someone because you think you're being funny and threatening to kidnap someone because you're actually going to try.

But should it be this way?  Imagine you're a 7-year-old girl, walking down the street, and a man yells that he's going to kidnap you.  You run, someone calls the police, they start looking for the man.  In terms of how scared you are, is there any difference at all between someone trying to be funny and yelling this at you and someone who actually was going to kidnap you yelling it?  Will you have fewer nightmares, less regression in your behavior, and fewer fears from one than the other?  Of course not.

Clearly scaring a little kid like this is not the same as actually kidnapping her.  There is and should be a continuum.  The notion that we take into account intent, however, should be recognized for what it is -- a cultural construct.  Our system has decided to punish people based on intent.  Another system might punish based on the effect of one's actions.  There are pros and cons for each, and each will have some citizens who are more comfortable with it than others.

Several times a month, on the playground or in my office, I wind up talking to a child or a group of children who have been "play-fighting."  The difference between play-fighting and actual fighting, in terms of actions, is basically zero.  These are usually younger kids, and often the playing ends with a bloody nose or someone in tears.  All of them are baffled.  "We were just playing."  Similarly, I wind up talking to older kids who have said some really vile things to each other and someone has gotten mad.  "It was just a joke."  I hope, while I still have some sway over them, they learn some simple lessons:  when someone gets hurt, they are still hurt whether you meant to hurt them or not, and something's only a joke if both the speaker and the listener think it's funny.  Obviously, this young man never got the message.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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