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Southern Stories About Punishment as Personalised

Zimring (2003) suggests that the stories being told about punishment in the South do indeed differ from those found in the North. Although he proposes that his argument can be used to explain higher prison populations in the South, much of his work speaks to the larger number of executions (and increased levels of support for the death penalty) in the Southern states. More specifically though, Zimring claims that fear, closure and vengeance narratives will resonate strongly in the South because Southerners are more likely to see ‘punishment as personal’.

Firstly, Zimring (2003) observes that the death penalty has experienced a ‘symbolic transformation’ in recent years. He suggests that Southern political discourse in particular, portrays execution as a community expression of moral indignation rather than an articulation of government power. In recent years, Southern politicians in favour of the death penalty and shaming policies have attempted to narrate punishment using the discourse of ‘community control’. Punitive sanctions are thus depicted in terms of their ability to protect victims (and potential victims) from ‘predators’ who threaten the community. Using the death penalty as an example, Zimring argues that the stories the South tells about execution and the ‘ceremony and symbolism’ associated with it often emphasise the ‘personal interest of individuals’ (2003, p. 109). Punitive sanctions are ‘symbolically transformed’ through the cultural production of meaning. Rather than being understood as expressions of state power, harsh punishments are supported due to their symbolic association with community sentiment.

Victimhood stories are also used in highly specific ways to transform the meanings associated with punishments such as the death penalty. The threat offenders pose and the fear their existence provokes, the anger of a community which can manifest as vengeful sentiment, and the language of closure associated with victims’ rights all become entwined in complex political narratives about penal policies, narratives which ultimately reposition those polices within the context of a localised (and personalised) reaction to serious crime. Yet unlike other cultural life scholars, Zimring (2003) goes on to situate this understanding of (personalised) punishment within the histories—and contemporary culture—of the South. Zimring’s (2003) thesis rests on the argument that the triad of narratives (closure, fear, vengeance) used to speak about harsh punishment in the present serve to associate modern punishment with the time-honoured relationship the Southern states have with vigilantism and what he terms ‘vigilante values’; a value system characterised by distrust in the state’s ability to provide protection.

Moreover, rather than an argument which relates only to the death penalty, Zimring (2003) suggests that the vigilante value thesis can be used to explain a number of Southern policies. He cites examples such as shaming penal practices, concealed weapons laws, high rates of ‘selfdefence killings’ and low levels of taxation, all of which he believes represent a commitment to a ‘vigilante value system’ that embraces restricted government involvement in everyday life and a preference for a laissez- faire approach to all aspects of citizenship. Zimring concludes that the ‘personalisation’ of punishment, exemplified by the emotions which surround the death penalty, has (re)configured the meanings of punishment within states that hold vigilante values. By allowing the victim more prominence in both the trial and cultural stories told about punishment, that punishment becomes narrated as a community expression of moral indignation rather than a brutal display of governmental power. In short, he argues that the vigilante tradition apparent in Southern states’ history continues to impact upon the conceptualisation and construction of harsh punishment in the South’s present.

Zimring (2003) is writing in support of other cultural life of punishment scholars here. He has identified that Southern punishment stories use narratives of closure, vengeance and fear in order to make punishment appear personalised. As such, these Southern punishment stories are very similar to the American punishment stories outlined in the previous chapter. The key difference with Zimring’s thesis though, is that he provides an analytical explanation as to why these stories of punishment-as-personalised will resonate differently and more strongly in the Southern states as the distinctly Southern vigilante value system becomes the cultural context. However, Garland (2010) has also considered how the stories told about punishment differ in the Northern and the Southern states, and he comes to a slightly different conclusion. Garland argues that a change in cultural dynamic has meant that the death penalty, along with a whole host of other social issues, has become swept up in a much bigger narrative of Southern backlash.

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