Can a crime make our world better? Crimes are the worst of humanity’s wrongs but, oddly, they sometimes do more than anything else to improve our lives. It is often the outrageousness itself that does the work. Ordinary crimes are accepted as the background noise of everyday existence but some crimes make people stop and take notice – because they are so outrageous or so heart-wrenching.
This brief essay explores the dynamic of tragedy, outrage, and reform, illustrating how certain kinds of crimes can trigger real social progress. Several dozen such “trigger crimes” are identified but four in particular are used as case studies to investigate the most interesting questions: Why do some tragedies produce broad outrage while others, often of a very similar nature, do not? Why do some outrages produce reform while others, often with greater claims to outrageousness, do not?
The tragedy-outrage-reform dynamic is sometimes society responding to a new problem, sometimes society finding in new solution to an old problem, and sometimes the product of changing societal norms. As it happens, these three different contexts have some explanatory power in understanding why and when the dynamic operates as it does.
Also examined is the period following the tragedy-outrage-reform dynamic, which often reveals a serious gap between legislative reform and real-world change. On the other hand, it is also common that reforms, especially those generated by the tragedy-outrage-reform dynamic, go too far and require further revision to undo the excesses.
Social problems, public opinion, legislation, changing social norms, legal reform, workplace safety, criminal law, environmental regulation, Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, Kitty Genovese murder, Santa Barbara oil spill, Cuyahoga River fire, drunk driving
Crimes That Changed Our World: Tragedy, Outrage, and Reform
Robinson, Paul H. and Robinson, Sarah M., "Conclusion: Trigger Crimes & Social Progress" (2017). All Faculty Scholarship. 1738.
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