It’s been said that one of the most powerful functions of art is it’s ability to shine light on the most challenging questions of humanity. Constantly we struggle with our purpose, with the nature of love and hate, and with our ideas of right and wrong. Wrestling with these enigmas often produces art that helps to navigate murky grey areas. In the case of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the idea of art as a moral reference point may have been taken too far.
In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that execution of mentally disabled criminals was unconstitutional, but left vague the exact extent of mental disability the ruling covered. In 2004, Texas judge at the Criminal Court of Appeals Cathy Cochran released a paper in which she presents the “Lennie standard.” This standard, based on the example set by the character Lennie from Of Mice and Men, puts forth a list of 7 factors to be considered in evaluating the mental disability of a defendant. The list includes the defendant’s ability to lie effectively and hide evidence. Cochran wrote the following about her decision to base this standard off of a fictional character.
Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt.
She goes on to call out the lack of a concrete separation between those who are mentally disabled and those who are disabled beyond the point of moral culpability, suggesting the lennie standard serve as the reference point by which defendants are to be compared. The late Thomas Steinbeck, son of the author, had his own thoughts about the lennie standard, as appears here:
Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability. I find the whole premise insulting, outrageous, ridiculous and profoundly tragic.
While Of Mice and Men can safely be called a literary masterpiece, one that really hits the nail on the head as fair as the murkiness of culpability goes, it is by no means prescriptive. Art deals in subtleties and abstractions. Using these as real world rubrics is vastly irresponsible.
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When it comes to life and death decisions, medical practitioners should be able to provide the necessary insight as to the mental condition of a defendant on a case by case basis. I can’t help but feel that generalizations are the enemy of justice, especially generalizations based on someone’s take on a fictional novel.
Of Mice and Men has done a great deal of good for society. The Supreme Court’s decision to safeguard against the unjust punishment of the ill is a testament to the positive influence of the cultural conversation it inspired. We do, however, need to stop be more careful in our synthesis of these conversations. Shortcuts and generalizations do nothing to advance justice.
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