Monday, 26 December 2016

We are not fine if we do not define

Brave New World (The Star)
21 December 2016


I WAS an appalling student in university. I never came close to scoring a first for any of my exams ... except once.

It was in my second year and the paper was Crime. Before the exams, somehow I got the name of the external examiner for Crime. I am not clever, but I had my moments of cunning. So I searched high and low to find articles written by this particular professor. He wrote a lot about theft and I studied those articles very closely.
Come exam time I made sure to answer the question on theft and I made doubly sure to put in lots of quotes by the “brilliant professor so and so”.
As an unintended side effect of my attempts to be cunning I actually read more than I would normally have and I did pretty well in my Crime exam. In fact my paper was a borderline first. That’s like an A. I never got an A for anything in university.
Aha! This is where my scheming was to pay off. Borderline cases are sent to the external examiner and surely he would not be immune to the thick layers of praise I had spread around in my paper. All that talk about his intellect and acumen was surely worth the two extra marks to push my paper up from a 2.1. to a first.
You know what? The damned fool pushed me down.
Is there a moral to this story? I have no idea; I suppose there must be. But I didn’t tell this story so that it can be some sort of ethical Christmas tale.
The reason I raised it is because of all that reading I did (albeit with rather less-than-pure motives), I remember the definition of theft better than anything else from my undergraduate years. From memory, I think theft is “the appropriation of property with the intention to permanently deprive the rightful owner of said property”.
Definitions are important in law. We need to be clear as to what a crime is in order to avoid injustice. If there is no clarity and the law is overly vague, then a person may be found guilty of committing an offence that they had no idea was an offence.
Let me give you a couple of examples. The Penal Code has offences of crimes that threaten parliamentary democracy.
Yet there is no definition of what “parliamentary democracy” is. This means the police have been charging people for an offence that no one knows exactly what it is.
This has led to a situation where things that are actually part and parcel of a parliamentary democracy (at least in my view) have been deemed a threat by the cops.
Such state of affairs also exists in public universities up and down the country. In the students’ disciplinary rules of all public universities, you will probably find the offence of “tarnishing the image of the university” or something similar to that.
What exactly does “tarnishing the image of the university” mean? Well, it would appear to me that it means whatever the university and its disciplinary board want it to mean.
Therefore protesting against corruption has been deemed a “tarnishing” act. How can exercising one’s right to expression, on an issue of national importance, be seen as “tarnishing”?
I don’t know. It is a mystery to me. And in any law or rules, mysteries are not a good thing.
There has to be clarity and certainty as far as possible. This is to ensure that there can be no such thing as an overly broad discretion in the hands of those enforcing these laws and rules. Because when such a broad discretion exists, so does despotism.
And despots come in all shapes and sizes; some carry guns and some wear mortar boards.

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