Why do we try to redeem criminals by looking at their upbringing?

Among all the Disney live action films of the past few years, I think the stupidest, premise-wise, has got to be Cruella. This was back when Disney executives were determined to give redeeming backstories to all of their villains, and decided the puppy-skinning maniac of 101 Dalmatians was their next redemption target.

So, as Wikipedia informs me, their idea for redemption was to give Cruella a backstory in which she was an ordinary, fashion-obsessed girl until a cruel baroness unleashed her Dalmatian hounds on her poor mother, driving her mother off a cliff and Cruella into a life of crime. One thing leads to the next and, before you know it, Cruella combined her love of fashion, hatred of Dalmatians, and criminal inclinations into a single overriding passion of making fur coats out of Dalmatian puppies. 

Even for a tongue-in-cheek movie, as I imagine Cruella is, this is ridiculous. Cruella de Vil can’t be redeemed through a tragic backstory. The whole point of her character is that she’s a black-and-white (pun intended) depiction of a cruel, vain woman who’s willing to hurt innocents for her own selfish needs. She’s just evil, and the heroes of the movie are correct to thwart her at every turn. I mean, her name is literally “cruel devil”. You can’t get much more evil than that.

Amazon.com: Disney's Cruella DVD [2021] : Movies & TV
The “Cruella de Vil” pun is made a lot more obvious in the live action. Also, I hate this style of poster. Do I need to see every single person in the film on the poster?

And yet, these executives persist. But why? What makes it so appealing in this day and age to try to redeem even the unredeemable?

Well, I don’t think it’s ever exactly articulated in this movie, or any movie, but I think some clue lies in the idea of “redemption”. We use this word again and again (I mean, I’ve used it like 4 times already), but we don’t think about what it really means for us as a society. It’s at the core of our Western Judeo-Christian roots: first, as Jews, when we are redeemed from captivity in Egypt, and second, more influentially, as Christians, when we are saved from original sin by Christ’s sacrifice.

In both, there’s a sense of being freed from bondage. The genius of Christianity’s version is that it identifies sin as a metaphysical bondage that it’s possible to be freed from. Unlike other morality systems, Christianity never identifies sins or sinners as irredeemable (there’s that word again). It insists on the idea that anyone can sin and anyone can be “washed” of their sins, “freed of the chains” of their iniquity, and go to heaven.

In Christianity (and especially Catholicism), the way to be freed is through the rites, rituals, and beliefs of Christianity. But, the Western world in 2023 is mostly post-Christian. Christianity has soaked into our culture and values, but we, as a people, quite literally no longer go to church. So we get the Christian values without the Christian beliefs. We still need to believe sinners can be redeemed, but not through their beliefs. Instead, we allow them to be redeemed through their origin, glorifying a lowly origin and demeaning a high one, which ironically recaptures another Christian value.

So, that’s why we feel compelled to justify sinners’ actions, Disney executives included. But should we do it? Well, when we get all the way to one end of the spectrum of sinners, it seems obviously wrong. Cruella, regardless of her tragic backstory, should not skin puppies. And when we get to the other end of the spectrum, it seems obviously ok. Most people would agree that a child who is beaten at home and then gets in fights at school should not be thrown into jail.

It’s the middle of the spectrum that gets people. I read a great and very sad magazine article once about parents who accidentally kill their children by leaving them in hot cars. The magazine article talked about how juries could see the exact same action as either a tragic mistake by a well-meaning parent or deadly neglect by an unfit parent, depending on how sympathetic the defendant was. The parent’s backstory could either redeem them or condemn them.

I have struggled with this question in my life. A few years ago I was walking through the park with my then-girlfriend. There was some crazy guy having a mental breakdown in the middle of the park, ranting and raving at everyone who walked by. At one point, an Asian guy walked by, and the crazy guy called him a racial slur.

The Asian guy immediately took out his phone and started filming the crazy guy, daring him to repeat what he said. The two of them then started shouting at each other until eventually the Asian guy walked away.

“That Asian guy shouldn’t have filmed him,” I said to my then-girlfriend. “There’s no need to put someone’s breakdown on film.”

“The crazy guy shouldn’t have said the racial slur. If he hadn’t, then the Asian guy wouldn’t have felt the need to film him,” she replied.

“But you can’t hold a crazy guy responsible for what he says,” I replied.

My then-girlfriend, who’s black, looked at me and said, “You know, it’s funny. They’re crazy, but they’re never so crazy as to neglect to call me the n-word.”

And she had a point. Anyone standing in the middle of the park shouting at passersby is some kind of crazy, but the guy was apparently sane enough to pick out a nerdy-looking Asian guy and call him a racial slur, rather than calling out a gangster or even, if he was really crazy, a pigeon.

I had been excusing his behavior completely as if he had no control over it, but he must have, because there was a logic to it. People, even when they’re crazy, respond to incentives. They do things that make them feel good and that they don’t predict will make them feel bad.

It makes me feel like we should take out the question of fairness at all. Let everyone feel as sympathetic as they need to for whatever person they need to feel bad for. But, structure the incentives so that people don’t feel tempted to do the wrong thing, regardless of what they’re going through. The incentive should always be such that a potential criminal thinks that doing a bad thing would be worse for them than not doing it, regardless of what that bad thing is.

This would be a crueler system to criminals than the one we have now. It would require us to basically ignore exculpatory circumstances. But, it’d perhaps be a nicer system for ordinary people, some of whom, undoubtedly, have tragic backstories, too. They chose not to do bad things. Shouldn’t we make sure that criminals have the incentives to make the same choice?