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Now I get why evangelistic criminology should be avoided...

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There is a big discussion going on in Brazil regarding a legislative bill that criminalises homophobia. A friend asked me what was my opinion about the criminalisation of homophobia in the light of the ‘minimalist’ conception of criminal law I am committed to. With my friend’s permission, I ended up publishing both his question and my answer in a Brazilian blog on Critical Criminology (http://www.asabrancacriminologia.blogspot.com/2011/12/opiniao.html). To my surprise, I think I have surprised (or actually disappointed) some of my colleagues in Brazil for admitting that I am in favour of the criminalisation of homophobia in our country. How can I claim to be a ‘critical criminologist’, how can I be studying in one of the world’s top universities, how can I be aware of the awful situation of Brazil’s criminal justice system, and still argue for the criminalisation of any behaviour whatsoever? They did not actually throw all these words at me, but I could read between the lines in their reactions.

I started my argument for the criminalisation of homophobia in Brazil by trying to draw the boundaries between a ‘minimalist’ conception of criminal law and some sorts of ‘hard core’ abolitionist claims, making clear that I do not agree with the latter. That is, I first tried to make clear in which camp I was: I am committed to the minimalist conception of criminal law because I believe that the punitive intervention by the state should be kept only for the most serious cases. I do not agree with abolitionist movements that call for the abolition of the entire criminal justice system, nor do I agree with those who demand the abolition of prison. In my opinion, criminal law should not be abolished, but simply restricted to what we currently call ‘the most serious crimes’. I explained that racism was considered a crime in Brazil because, at the end of the day, it embodies dangerous processes of ‘othering’ and that history has proved that such processes can produce horrendous outcomes. Thereafter, I argued that, like racism, homophobia presents the same ‘othering’ risks, and that if I could not agree with the decriminalisation of racism, for the same reasons (and for the sake of coherence), I also could not agree with the non-criminalisation of homophobia. I did not go further and discuss the terms of the legislative bill that is under consideration by the Brazilian Congress, but limited my arguments to what I was asked about: the relationship between a ‘minimalist’ concept of criminal law and the criminalisation of homophobia.

What I want to comment upon here, however, is not the discussion about the criminalisation of homophobia in Brazil itself, but the reactions that I got from my colleagues to my position. There are legitimate reasons for not being in favour of the criminalisation of homophobia in a country like Brazil, I have no doubt. However, what intrigued me was that, whilst reading some of the reactions, I felt I was being accused of not being a critical criminologist, or of not acknowledging the awful consequences of imprisonment, or of not remembering how the criminal justice system can be so harmful (or disappointing) to victims. I felt accused of not understanding that discrimination has to be dealt with in schools in the first place, and of being naïve in suggesting that the criminal justice system could possibly change people’s attitudes (towards homophobia). And all these accusations reminded me of a recent text by Pat Carlen against ‘evangelism’ in academic criminology…

Carlen (2011: 100-102) argues that evangelistic criminology should be avoided because it places ‘greater emphasis on what criminologists should be as moral people, rather than what they should do as practising academic criminologists’; also because ‘too frequently [evangelist criminology] does not go beyond an oppositional to a creative stance’ and so forth. And I think I have finally understood what she means…

When I said that I was in favour of the criminalisation of homophobia in Brazil – by the way, this is still my opinion – I was not suggesting that all ‘homophobics’ should be sent to prison. I was not even suggesting that Brazil’s criminal justice system could, on its own, change people’s discriminative attitudes against homosexuals. I was certainly not ignoring the Brazilian criminal justice system’s inability to address re-offending and to enforce victims’ rights. I was also not speaking on behalf of ‘critical criminologists’… I do not even know if I want to be labelled as such. But I was not pleased to be accused of not being critical.

To be deemed critical, am I supposed to be against the criminalisation of any behaviour whatsoever because of the ‘failures’ of criminal justice systems? Do I have to suggest changes to schools ‘rather than’ (instead of ‘in addition to’) changes to the criminal justice system? Do I have to be against criminal justice processes because they often exclude victims or do not address their needs? Do I have to be against prison in any case? Do I have to advocate against punishment? If the only ‘right’ answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, than I have just found out that I am not – and do not want to be – 'critical'.

I thought being critical meant not taking beliefs – any beliefs – for granted. Not even the belief that criminal justice processes should always be avoided because they are ineffective. I know that criminal justice systems (in Brazil and elsewhere) do not currently do their job. But I thought critical criminologists were allowed to go beyond mere criticisms to study (and actually consider) responses to crime that are not necessarily at the margins of the criminal justice system. Coming back to our particular example, I do not believe that the problem of homophobia in Brazil will be effectively addressed with imprisonment. But Brazil’s criminal justice system might be able to help change people’s discriminatory attitudes, and even help repair the harms caused to victims of homophobia, through, for example, restorative practices. I am not saying I have a solution. I am just saying that I do not understand why advocating the criminalisation of a given behaviour automatically prevents a ‘status’ of critical criminologist.

According to my ‘critical’ colleagues, the criminalisation of homophobia should not happen because the Brazilian criminal justice system will not be able to change people’s discriminatory attitudes against homosexuals. They say that Brazil’s public authorities should, instead of criminalising homophobic behaviours, spend money campaigning against such behaviours. And, seemingly, this is how proper critical criminologists should think. OK… If that is the case, I am not critical then, but, at least, I think I have finally got Carlen’s message right: the evangelical tendencies of critical criminology, indeed, ‘are inappropriate to the scientific principle of open and on going enquiry’ (Carlen, 2011: 96). If there are fixed rules on how to qualify as a critical criminologist, I wonder if we are even still talking about criminology... 

Fernanda Fonseca Rosenblatt is CrimeTalk's Correspomdemt and Commissioning Editor for Brazil. A professor in Brazil, she is currently doing a doctorate at the Oxford University Centre of Criminology. More on Fernanda here on CrimeTalk.


CARLEN, P. 2011. Against Evangelism in Academic Criminology: For Criminology as a Scientific Art. In: BOSWORTH, M. & HOYLE, C. (eds.) What is Criminology? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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