The Stories We Tell

On May 18th 2018, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, a 17 year old student, entered his High School in Santa Fe Texas, where he proceeded to fatally shoot 10 people and wound 13 others. While Pagourtizis’s exact motives for the killings have not yet been agreed upon, there seems to be an influx of competing narratives concerning just who Dimitrios Pagourtizis is.

To begin with, we have the story told by his family. In a statement covered by the Los Angeles Times they stated: “We are gratified by the public comments made by other Santa Fe High School students that show Dimitri as we know him: a smart, quiet, sweet boy.” These character traits fit well with further stories offered by former teachers, expanding that he was “quiet, but he wasn’t quiet in a creepy way.” Again these narratives fit with certain accomplishments some media sources have chosen to focus on, such as the fact that Pagourtizis was on the honor roll at his high school, and that he played on the school football team. By this account, this story which is told is concerned with showing the perpetrator in a pseudo-positive light- that he appeared to be a smart, but quiet boy, who was seemingly well adjusted.

But as writer, Stassa Edwards, so powerfully points out, this isn’t the only story to be told. Edwards points towards a counter-narrative offered by Sadie Blaze, the mother of Pagourtizi’s first victim. Blaze tells a story of a boy who harassed her daughter, Shana, for the previous four months, persistently asking her to date him despite her repeatedly telling him no. Blaze has told this story to many mainstream news outlets, adding that: “he continued to get more aggressive”. The fact that Shana was targeted first has led some to believe that Pagourtizis’s attack on Santa Fe High School was an act of retaliation against the girl who turned him down. Many commentators have been drawing attention to the social media presence of Pagourtizis, linking this story of retaliation to further attacks, such as the 2014 killings carried out by Eliot Rodgers, or the Toronto attack in April of this year. These stories present the perpetrators as seeking revenge on girls and women as response to a lack of romantic interest. These narratives are gaining huge momentum at the moment, with many high profile media publications arguing that such shootings are incidents of misogyny fuelled violence. Journalists are taking note that a number of these perpetrators self-identify as ‘incels’ (short for ‘involuntary celibates’), a subsect of online male supremacy communities.

It will be extremely interesting to see which story concerning Pagourtizis will come out as the dominant narrative during his trial, especially when one bears in mind recent high profile judgments concerning other violent acts against women. For me, I see parallels between the family’s account of Pagourtizis and the stories told about convicted rapist, Brock Turner. Throughout his trial in 2016, the court heard about Turner’s accomplishments as a student athlete- at one point a projected future Olympian- at Stanford University, and the great promise his future holds. His father implored the judge for leniency, claiming that his son is “not violent” and arguing that punishment was a “steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life”, and yet again this narrative speaks nothing towards the actions that he committed. This is only solidified through the statement Turner he himself made, stating: “I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life”, in which he solely refers to his own- rather than the life of the woman he raped behind a dumpster whilst unconscious. This takes us to the competing story heard throughout the proceedings: the story in which Turner had inflicted a great deal emotional and physical distress through committing the inherently violent act of rape. This counter narrative was primarily told through his victim’s story, where she recounting the effects of his actions: “My independence, natural joy, gentleness, and steady lifestyle I had been enjoying became distorted beyond recognition.

Horrifyingly Judge Aaron Persky argued that “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him…I think he will not be a danger to others” – sentencing him to six months in county jail, though in actuality he only served three. The Guardian reported that Turner’s age and his lack of previous criminal history were the primary reasons behind Persky’s insultingly lenient sentence, signalling, as Edwards accurately describes a “once-promising” narrative taking precedence in the case. This form of prioritizing of stories isn’t knew- when CNN covered the Steubenville Rape Case in 2013, where two student football players were found guilty of raping a fellow 16 year old and photographing and documenting the incident on social media- the coverage mostly concerned how the sentencing has affected the lives of “two young men that had such promising futures”.

Competing narratives and stories within a trial are an inherent part of the legal process; testimonies are presented to judges and juries in a supposed ‘fact-finding’ mission to establish what actually happened. Yet storytelling can be seen as invaluable rhetorical technique to help persuade these key players of motive, and consequently guilt. Inevitably one story will become dominant, and in recent years it would appear that the ‘once promising’ narrative takes precedence in trials of gendered violence. I am hopeful Dimitrios Pagouritiz can signal a turning point, where a counter-narrative is just as compelling, and the stories of the victims of such acts of violence can be better heard. Acknowledging that many stories are told at trial can open up the space to question which stories win, and why.


The Handmaid’s Tale and the Aesthetics of Law.

Last month saw the return of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, a TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s haunting novel of the same name. The show reflects on life in Gilead, a dystopian society, where fertile women (‘the handmaids’) are forced into sexual and childbearing servitude as a response to a fertility crisis. Arguably the television series somewhat departs from the novel in a number of ways; for example it claims that Gilead is formerly part of the United States of America, and it provides flashbacks showing the former lives of the main characters. While some may argue that this further information, which has not been alluded to in the novel, ruins the isolating atmosphere which the novel creates, as the story is explicitly told from the main protagonist’s point of view, what it does do is offer extremely interesting context as to how the power of a totalitarian regime can take hold.


During the second episode of season 2, we see a flashback to a handmaid’s former life. We see Emily (known now as Oflgen in Gilead) attempt to flee to Canada with her wife, and their young son. Both her wife and son have Canadian passports, but Emily, an America, is told that she’ll now need a Canadian visa, despite the couple’s married status. When questioning this, Emily presents her marriage certificate, but she is told it’s not valid: “The document is no longer recognized, you are not married…it’s forbidden…forbidden by the law.” Emily responds by asking what law, to which the airport security agent replies “The law.”


When hearing this blunt response, I couldn’t help but think of Peter Goodrich’s pertinent article: “Specula Law: Image, Aesthetic and Common Law.” Within his article, Goodrich explores the ways in which the law attaches itself to individuals. He argues that the law’s use of images, as embedded within the text is key. These images are sealed within ‘the memory of law’, passed down through custom and tradition: “My point is that in the development of tradition, the text circulates as an image and the point of its effect is largely resident in that aesthetic quality rather than in its supposed rational content, for few ever read the law, none ever read all of it.” Essentially Goodrich is making the case that through law’s use of image as embedded in its very text, certain aesthetic qualities and feelings are left imprinted on law’s subjects. The law attaches itself to the subject’s soul, thus invoking general feelings and reaction to the very concept at law.


Within the example to hand, the security agent referred to ‘The law’- no specific legislation, or provision- he just alluded to certain pre-existing feelings society may have about what law represents. In my opinion, by uttering ‘The law’ in this way, he has conjured images of a powerful source of authority that cannot or must not be questioned. He conjured images relating to the violent side of law, as an institution which lays down rules which must be followed, even if this impedes on personal liberty. These pre-existing images of the law, which are wrapped up in its tradition can be seen as one source of law’s power and authority. These sentiments are felt throughout law’s subjects, and get carried forward through the rituals of the legal institution.


This wonderful example in popular culture only highlights the important work that studies into the aesthetic dimension of law does; it enables us to truly reflect on not only how we imagine the law, but also how the law imagines itself.


“Sentient Code”

Last month saw the return of ‘Black Mirror’, a British science fiction television series, created by Charlie Brooker. The much-anticipated fourth series continued its theme of how current technological advancements may progress in near distant realities, and the possible implications they may have on civil societies.


One re-occurring advancement, which is seen throughout the anthology series, is the creation of ‘human cookies’: a digital copy of human consciousness. Brooker first introduced this concept in the 2014 Christmas special, ‘White Christmas’, where it was revealed that technology had developed a blank chip called a ‘cookie’ that could be implanted with the purpose of absorbing and copying human consciousness. Once removed, the cookie could then be transferred into a hub, to be used as the software for a ‘smart home’. The idea follows that the chip would absorb the person’s preferences: for example, their preferred temperature in their home or the time they would like to wake up, and effectively work as a personal assistant to their original host. This digital copy is represented as a sentient consciousness, capable of independent thought, and in this case terror over its existence.


This idea is seen again in two episodes of the fourth season: where digital copies, or ‘sentient code’ is used as a player in a video game, a way to extend the ‘life’ of a comatose patient, and to create an authentic hologram of a convicted killer for a tourist attraction. By the season finale it is revealed that the UN had made it illegal to not only delete or erase a copy, but to also transfer human consciousness into limited formats. The copies need to be able to express at least five emotions for it to be considered humane, suggesting that digital copies have been afforded different levels of legal protection.


While the technical possibilities of the creation of sentient code, and their corresponding legal protections are far from reach, their representation within the series certainly raises ethical questions concerning the present day creation and treatment of emerging Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies. If one is to create a mirror image of humanity, encompassing key traits, which distinguish humans from other beings, should they warrant similar protections within a human rights framework? There are a few things to ponder here.
If one were to realistically consider the human rights framework being extended to AI, this would mean viewing this technology as something more than pure machinery. When considering ‘Posthuman Rights’, writer Woody Evans asks: “if a thing exists, does it have the right to continue to exist, and would such right hinge on it’s being more than a thing”. Perhaps evidence for such a view can be found within the application of such technology in the fields of healthcare, law enforcement and public service administration; such fields of profession which arguably require authentic human emotions, such as empathy. If humanity programs AI and equips the technology with a set of mirrored traits to enable integration with humanity in this way, does this make the machinery more than a thing?


But embracing AI as a subject within a human rights framework is only one way of looking at the situation. For example Secretary General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, spoke at the AI for Good Global Summit held in Geneva, where he considered the human rights impact the emergence of AI could have on the global community. He supports “a future where AI is a technology where human rights is a core design and use principle” and to make his case, he put forward two alternate ways in which their integration could affect humanity.

In one scenario, the use of AI and mass automation could be used to work towards reducing the inequality we see around the world today. He argues that Governments and Companies could support automation that takes workers out of “dangerous and degrading jobs” and implement both educational and economic policies to create “opportunities for dignified and fulfilling jobs”.


But he warns that it is the responsibility of both Governments and Companies to integrate ethical considerations into their policies, and warns that if we continue down our current path we could see ourselves in a society where worker’s rights continue to be precarious, but hundreds of millions of jobs could be lost to automation. Furthermore he warns, “AI systems may become the gatekeepers deciding who can access healthcare and who cannot, who qualifies for a job or a mortgage and who does not”. While this may seem like an excellent premise for season 5 of black mirror, its suggests that not only are humanity considerations imperative in the creation of AI policies and codes of practice going forward, but also that such realities as those seen in science fiction may not be so far out of reach.