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Brevities on deviance, stigma, compensation

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A society or community is made up of individuals. They are called a society rather than a crowd because they are glued to each other with norms, customs and values. These things make a society cohere to be intact in the same manner as cement binds the bricks of a wall. A crack in the cement is a threat to the durability of the wall.

Similarly, if a member of the community ignores its customs, values of society will fall apart. Behaviour that violates the norms of a particular society is what is called Deviance, one of the main topics in the discipline of sociology.

Deviance can take a variety of forms. Some are simple, others complicated, some detrimental, others innocuous. A woman who enters a church service wearing a mini-skirt or a man who attends the service raving because he is drunk contravenes norms. Their acts amount to deviance but not of such a serious nature that someone would hand them to the police these days, although this used to be the case during the first 30 years of our independence when mini-skirts were banned. That time, women would definitely be invited to the police station.

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What is deviant varies with time and space. Recently, a woman who took part in a demonstration carried a placard in which the written words were viewed as being obscene. She, therefore, attracted the attention of the police. This reminded me of a demonstration by nurses in England decades ago in which some of the demonstrators wrote words, which I dare not reproduce here, on placards.

The most obnoxious form of deviance is crime, the breaking of the country’s laws. Those who make a living by breaking into the houses of the rich are arrested, taken to court and, often, they are punished. In the current Malawian society, cases of crimes, both violent and while collar, have increased by alarming proportions.

Fifty years ago, we rarely heard of criminals killing policemen. Nowadays, they do this too often. When I visited Beijing, China, in the year 2009, I was surprised to see policemen patrolling streets bearing no arms. Conformity with the law there must be very high.

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The most worrying form of crime is the one known as white collar, perpetrated by men and women holding high offices in both the public and private sectors. Formerly, we depended on heads of departments to supervise junior officers and minimize cases of theft by servants. Cashgate has made us wonder as to who is to be trusted. A policeman perhaps, but not if we read of policemen operating illegal roadblocks and collecting bribes.

How do we combat deviance? Small deviants are subjected to mere ridicule. A woman who goes to church wearing a pair of trousers or mini-skirt would be told to leave the service.

Some deviants become heroes of their society or community if they go to jail for deliberately breaking unjust laws. This is what happened in the 1959 State of Emergency in Malawi. The story of Nelson Mandela is a typical case of heroic deviance of social and political injustice. To be jailed while combating corruption in high places does not stigmatise a person.

There is a distinction between deviance and stigma. The term stigma refers to an act that is deeply discredited. If someone is known to be a cannibal, a witch or wizard, he or she is despised, ostracised and, if jailed, invokes no sympathy from the public.

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The question of compensation arises from time to time. Though they are a drain on the coffers of the State, some compensations are justified in pursuit of justice while others are not.

As soon as multiparty dispensation was stored, many people sought and received compensation from the United Democratic Front government. Some of these people had been detained for many years without trial. Members of the Malawi Young Pioneer (MYP) whose job was suddenly terminated, from what we hear now, received no severance pay and now they are demanding it. At the beginning of the new political dispensation, MYPs were viewed as instruments of oppression, although most of them had been engaged in peaceful and productive activities all over the country. It is not fair to handle petitions from these people in the same manner as petitions from those who belonged to the security branch of the MYP.

Of course, members of the security branch can plead that they were acting on orders of the superiors and that, therefore, it is their superior that should be condemned. Unfortunately for them, since the end of World War II, superior orders no longer absolve subordinates that committed a crime. Accused members of the Nazi party used the superior orders argument, but the court set up by the victorious allies dismissed such plea.

Some of the people who went into exile have demanded that it is they who should be given priority in the giving of compensation. Will there be enough money to compensate all those who went into exile, considering that some of those who were in exile held good jobs such as those of head teachers of secondary schools or university lecturers. If the State is to compensate such people, it will have little money left to meet the current needs of people— a population of 17 million.

In disbursing compensations, the government must beware of rent-seekers, people who earn money not by rendering an extra service but by lobbying and obtaining privileges.

As regards compensation where defamation is concerned, the Chief Justice should prescribe formulas to be used by magistrates . Some magistrates might enter into collusion with the plaintiff to be given a percentage of the award. Does this sound exaggerated? A certain proprietor of a shop put a placard on the till: “In God we trust, everybody else pays cash.”

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