The Brock Turner sexual assault conviction mocks lingering faith in the U.S. criminal justice system, which consistently demonstrates bias in favor of privileged white Americans and consistently fails to bring justice (by pretty much any standard) to victims of sexual violence crimes. The Lord of the Rings illuminates the concept of emergent systems and helps us to explore problems with the focus on individual behavior in the American criminal justice system. The essay argues that a systems-level focus on prevention may more immediately and more effectively reduce incidents of sexual violence on college campuses than an agent-level focus on individual behavior.
I. The Nature of Emergent Systems
Bilbo Baggins Disturbs the Universe
In LOTR, all events follow from the moment when Bilbo, speaking at his birthday party, fingers his ring and disappears forever from the Shire. This the story’s key moment of disjunction, when things slip, bending reality, so that nothing in Middle Earth can again be the same. Absent this disturbance of the universe, lines of causation would likely have remained straight and clean (following the logic of Tolkien’s made universe). With causation from the known sum of hobbit experiences (doltish bliss). Or from vectors operating entirely outside of this known sum of experiences (Black Riders, Dark Lord, mayhem, destruction, death).
Bilbo set in motion what we today might call an emergent storytelling system, in which a small contingent act scrambles an existing set of patterned relationships, leading to the emergence of something causally and logically unconnected to the reality established by these relationships. In LOTR, what emerges is the Fellowship, bringing together Frodo, Aragorn, Boromir (and Gollum) within a new set of relationships intermixing alliance and antagonism, sorting itself out according to a new set of rules that favor the ascent of the race of men and the fading away of everything else. Emergence might be the perfect storytelling formula.
Emergence is the process whereby complex entities, patterns, and behaviors arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties. Often, one can characterize emergent systems by the presence of a transitional (and often poorly understood) stage or moment in which the qualitative emerges and separates itself from the quantitative. Two profound examples of emergent systems include life as an emergent property of chemical interactions and consciousness as an emergent property of the human brain. The concept of emergent systems plays an important (and often controversial) role in nearly all realms of inquiry and discourse.
Emergent Structures and Systems in Nature and Society
Chaos theory and fractal processes and patterns partly (but incompletely) capture the creation of emergent structures and the behaviors of emergent systems. Properties of emergent structures and systems include self-similarity, spontaneous order, infinite scaling, and iterative and stochastic evolution. These properties generally characterize the emergence of quality from quantity, and organization from aggregation. Examples of emergent structures in nature include ripple patterns in sand dunes, snowflakes, water crystals, and rock formations such as Giant’s Causeway and Symphony of the Stones. Examples of emergent systems include weather patterns, traffic patterns, insect swarms, fish schools, financial markets, crowdsourcing, and the Internet itself.
The Paradox of Agent-System Relations
Emergence describes relationships between simple actors or entities called agents and complex systems, structures, or behaviors they collectively (but unwittingly) create. The distinctive behaviors or properties of emergent systems are not specifically the behaviors or properties of agents themselves. In the absence of any centralized command and control (there is no leader!), one cannot easily predict or deduce these behaviors and properties from agent behavior. Shapes and behaviors of insect swarms or bird flocks or fish schools exemplify the properties of emergent systems. Agent-based systems often must achieve a combined threshold of diversity, organization, and connectivity before emergent behavior appears.
II. Emergent Systems and the Brock Turner Rape Conviction
The Agent World Really Doesn’t Matter
In routine cognitive processing, we direct 90 percent of our attention to the agent world, with a focus on actions and behaviors of individuals. Highly specific and condensed personal narratives that dominate social media intensify this focus on individual behavior, to the exclusion of more complex or sophisticated storytelling that lack a personal storyline. But 90 percent of what actually matters in our lives is in the systems world! We swim in oceans of specific relationships and interactions. Causation is the product of those relationships and interactions, and only to a limited degree reducible to autonomous actions of individual agents.
The Case of Brock Turner
The moral limitations of this emphasis on personal efficacy are a hard thing for us to grasp! Our dimness on this matter has major consequences. Consider the Brock Turner maelstrom. The inexplicably light prison sentence for convicted Stanford University swimmer/rapist douchebag Brock Turner (along with his idiot father’s attempts to exonerate him), triggered waves of outrage, mostly online, with many references to white privilege, black lives matter, rape victims, and trans bathroom discrimination. The rape itself, compounded by the jail term, reinforces perceptions of inequity and injustice. These perceptions are valid. Brock Turner should have received a longer jail term.
Agent Storytelling Themes
The classic agent perspective consolidates awareness and interpretation of the Brock Turner incident around narrative details of his sexual assault upon an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. This agent perspective supports and reinforces larger storylines that conform to widely shared concerns about racial and gender-based privilege and inequity. This perspective also insulates us from judgments we make upon others, the struggle itself a morality tale of good and evil, of innocence defiled. But does this perspective serve justice, in the sense of making it less likely that such incidents will happen in the future? I’m sure the answer is no.
Consider a systems-level narrative that captures essential elements of the same event, including: details of student alcohol consumption that evening; quantities of alcohol (and other substances) consumed; levels and extent of inebriation; student interactions (particularly patterns of interactions between males and female students once drinking commences). This narrative also incorporates awareness of context, including: party rituals on college campuses; control male fraternities exercise over party venues and alcohol distribution; variable impacts of alcohol on different people; student proclivity to pretty exclusively drink to waste themselves; student sexual inexperience and sexual anxieties; impacts of alcohol on inhibitions, judgment, reflexes, and emotions.
Alcohol and Sexual Violence on Campus
Unlike agency-level narratives, systems-level narratives emerge from patterned interactions and relationships between individual agents that may bear little connection to the embedded, embodied properties or character of the agents themselves. For this reason, a systems-level framework for telling the story of Brock Turner rape yields a different perspective on the incident, with focus on the role of alcohol in creating an environment that makes rape and sexual assault far more likely to occur. For questions concerning the meaning of justice in this case, along with our ultimate (and proximate) goals concerning sexual violence, the systems-level narrative provides fundamentally different answers.
Not incidentally, system-level approaches also shed light on difficulties with using the concept of the morally autonomous individual agent as the unit for our calculations about justice, fairness, crime, and punishment. In reality, the Stanford fraternity party was not an aggregation of morally autonomous, distinct individuals, each exclusively accountable for their actions. The individual bodies arriving at the party contained fragmented, variable selves, with unique predispositions, perhaps, but all capable of behaving very differently when drunk than when sober. All under the influence, as well, of a collective hive energy, fueled by alcohol, but itself, mind-altering and difficult to manage.
Randomness and Risk
More honestly addressing problems of sexual assault on college campuses must start with the assumption that almost all us (particularly adolescents and young adults) are capable, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, of losing ourselves, crossing boundaries, and committing acts which, either because of their excess or because of random accidents of chance, lead to heinous outcomes. If you accept this assumption – that we’re dealing not with fully formed, autonomous adults, but with elevated levels of randomness and risk – then you attack the campus alcohol problem, which is not dependent on the dubious facticity of the morally autonomous individual agent.
Bad Acts and Bad People
Students who attend a fraternity party with honorable intentions might, in an alcoholic haze, do bad things (or do normal things that turn out badly) with consequences they will forever regret. A few will also exhibit more predatory and opportunistic instincts for mayhem. This would be the distinction between you did a bad thing and you are a bad person, a stark, qualitative difference. Brock Turner believes he is a good person who did a bad thing. We respond that he is a bad person whose actions disclose, not a dimension of his personality and character, but its damnable essence.
Prevention or Punishment
But who would have known about Brock Turner’s predatory instincts ahead of time? That his agency might have been so darkly crystalline and fully formed, so calculated to penetrate and exploit the Dionysian confusion fraternity parties aspire to manufacture? While this knowledge should influence his prison term, we must consider that justice might be more the fruit of prevention than of punishment. Limiting (or eliminating) alcohol consumption at fraternity parties would instantly reduce the number of sexual assaults on women. But that is not happening, because we assume we can attack the problem at the level of the individual agent.
III. Concluding Thoughts
What is the Goal?
Incoherent agency in no way implies we don’t (fairly and consistently) prosecute and sentence criminal behavior of individuals. But exclusive (or even primary) focus on Brock Turner’s prison term as a Rorschach for racial or gender inequality will actually limit our ability to address real problems of racial and gender inequality and injustice! Brock Turner can sit in a prison cell for six months or six years. Either way, problems of sexual violence on college campuses (and other concerns with inequality and injustice) will remain ongoing until schools, and society, assess and target system-level causes and meanings of these problems.
Return to Bilbo
And so we return to Bilbo Baggins, to emergent storytelling, and to the outsized significance of small contingent acts, after which nothing can be the same. The agency perspective tracks the straight and clean lines of causation – education for honorable souls seeking the light, punishment for deviants who would possess the darkness. But Bilbo himself fragments when he dissolves materially into the ring of power. At that moment, where does his light end and his darkness begin? Emergence helps us to consider causation as a more complex matter irreducible to individual agents, but addressable in relation to randomness and risk.