The late Joseph Campbell was a leading scholar in the areas of mythology and comparative religion. He wrote and spoke extensively about the role of myth in shaping society.
In particular, he observed that myths have four primary functions, one of which he termed its “sociological function.” The sociological function of myth is to pass down laws and norms — the moral and ethical codes for people of that culture to follow, and which help define that culture and its prevailing social structure.
Campbell also argues that these codes are not static; they can change in response to the influences of many things, technology chief among them. To this point he contends that a culture’s mythology must keep pace with its technology in order to remain relevant.
Such is the place that Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel now finds himself. He is obliged to defend an old myth in the face of evidence that it’s wholly flawed and outmoded.
According to an Arkansas News Bureau report, on Wednesday during a speech at the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association summer convention at Fort Smith, McDaniel declared Arkansas’ system for carrying out executions broken and called for a serious public discussion about the practice.
McDaniel said he still supports the death penalty as a policy but that the method of execution is “completely broken.” McDaniel went on to say, “What I want is for us to discontinue treating the lethal injection as the legal fallacy that it is. Frankly, I don’t think we are telling jurors the truth when we lead them to believe that they are sentencing someone to death when we really don’t have a viable system with which to execute someone.”
McDaniel said he believes most Arkansans support lethal injection but would consider other methods of execution, such as the electric chair, gas chamber or firing squad, to be “too barbaric for a civilized society.”
This last detail — “too barbaric for a civilized society” — really gets to the crux of the matter. Unlike generations past, we’ve lost the stomach for public executions. We don’t want our children to see someone strapped to a pole and whipped to death. We have rolled back the guillotine, unknotted the noose, dropped our jagged stones and dismissed the firing squad.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault echoes Campbell’s sentiment by explaining that modern industrial society would not benefit from such gory displays. The bloodlust of the angry mob doesn’t have the same regulative function as it would have in an agrarian or feudal society. Accordingly, we adjusted our mythology of punishment to a model based on incarceration — although that too, now seems lacking in efficacy.
Whither then should the condemned go? The most evil and unredeemable among us must be punished. They must be permanently removed from society. They must be made to feel the weight of justice.
In eras past, the answer was simple — death. Today, however, only among those whose sympathies are vested in an Old Testament vengeful ethos does frontier justice still seem appropriate.
This then gets us back to McDaniel’s metaphorical Scylla and Charybdis. The attorney general’s comments seem to imply he knows that the government of a civilized society shouldn’t be in the business of killing prisoners — even truly evil prisoners. McDaniel is also a political realist. He knows he must at least pay lip service to local passions.
Of all the untenable positions a politician might inhabit, that is among the least desirable. He knows our technology and our mythology are strongly out of synch. He just doesn’t know how to fix it.