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Framework for Punishment Narratives: Personalised Punishment and Backlash

In Chap. 6 we also identified the two main studies that sought to explain how the cultural stories told about punishment might be different in the Southern states. Zimring (2003) argues that in the Southern states, commitment to harsh punishment (particularly the death penalty) is depicted as an expression of community indignation rather than a performance of state power. Within the South, punishment is portrayed as personalised through the use of victimhood stories, and this personalised punishment narrative resonates with the vigilante value system which Zimring believes underpins Southern culture. The personalised punishment narrative is therefore not analytically separate from the cultural life narratives already discussed; a story that depicts punishment as personalised will be one that employs one or more of the fear, vengeance and closure narratives.

In addition though, we also found Garland (2010) arguing that harsh punishment has become part of the culture wars between Northern and Southern states. The South tells stories in which Southern traditions and values (including the right to retain harsh punishment) are portrayed as under attack from Northern political elites. Rather than a story told about punishment, the backlash narrative is more accurately one of ideological difference: it is what we may call a ‘second-order’ punishment narrative. Unlike Zimring’s (2003) Southern stories of punishment-as- personalised, Garland’s (2010) Southern stories of backlash use entirely different elements to construct the internal plot. These Southern backlash stories serve to associate punishment with wider issues of Northern v. Southern ideological difference. Moreover, while the significant moment within the punishment story is usually a crime, in the case of a backlash narrative it is the Supreme Court decision of Furman v. Georgia (1972). Within these Southern stories of backlash the moratorium is the significant event within the plot, backlash is the reaction—which is central to the narrative—and while resolution has yet to be found (the culture war continues) this Southern story nonetheless still has a (potential) conclusion. Resolution will be possible only when Northern liberal elites allow the Southern states to punish as they see fit.

In short, the backlash narrative is a second-order punishment story; while punishment is not actually a key internal element of the narrative it nevertheless presents itself as part of the plot trajectory. Southern concerns about issues such as abortion, gay rights, welfare and the retention of harsh punishment, all become part of the conflict which manifests as central to the story. In terms of plot trajectory then, the initial event within a backlash story is not a crime. It will instead be a Northern assault on Southern ways of life which has a political dimension. Resolution within the backlash narrative comes only if the South can defend its values and practices (such as execution) from the perceived threat of Northern (liberal) political elites. The backlash narrative is thus somewhat volatile. While resolution might occur in one sense (the South still has the death penalty) the culture wars rage on. Very simply then, a backlash narrative can be identified using the framework presented below.

Backlash Narratives

  • Initial action: Northern political elites condemn Southern ways of life or Southern traditions. This will likely happen within the political arena.
  • Key features: Northern and Southern states of the US are portrayed as ideologically opposed. This opposition need not relate specifically to punishment, but can instead be a feature of stories told about any Southern policy decisions which differ from the Northern approach.
  • Narrative conclusion: Resolution comes from the successful defence of Southern values and traditions.
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