Friday, March 09, 2012

Disease or decision?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, shoplifting

One of the strongest and most damaging social trends of the past fifty years has been the tendency to make everyone into some kind of victim. In fact, making the perpetrators of crimes into victims has progressed to the point that the only ones having no rights are the actual victims of the crimes!

Sometimes a book comes along, and when I finish it I am at a total loss; what do I think of it? Have I learned something useful? That's how I feel about The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting by Rachel Shteir. It is a well-written and engaging book, but I find myself wondering what conclusions were reached, or indeed, if any could be reached. The author treats of her subject in four areas: its history, its dimensions (variants), its pathology (or not), and its possible remedies, though the appropriately numbered Chapter 13 is titled "The Disease is Incurable".

I reckon that every one of us has either shoplifted or has a close friend or relative who has done so. It is likely that most of us know someone who steals regularly, though we don't always know it. Firstly, it is one of the most under-reported crimes. When the store guards do make a catch, they seldom do more than recover the merchandise and emptily threaten the perpetrator. Strangely, the stores seem to have a sense of shame about it, and don't want thefts publicized. Shouldn't the shame all go to the shoplifter? But perhaps the store doesn't want it known just how easy they were to steal from.

Secondly, it is pretty easy to get away with. Only a small fraction of shoplifting incidents are detected, even by stores with plenty of guards and secret shoppers and CCTV cameras and "tattle tag" detectors. So far, no technology known can recover a signal through a foil-lined bag, and an experienced thief can fool watchers with sleight-of-hand maneuvers learned by every illusionist. In the shoplifting arms race, the advantage has always been with the lifter.

Now, the modern social victimization trend has come along and, even though kleptomania was first discussed a century ago, it is on the verge of being put into the diagnostic manual (DSM V or perhaps VI). There are 12-step programs for "shoplifting addicts", and various other self-help programs all based on either a disease model ("You were born this way") or a victimization model ("You steal because your father didn't spend enough time with you" or "You get a thrill from stealing, that is supposed to come from being praised by your friends"). I suppose, now that portable MRI machines are being developed, someone will be able to measure the mental state of a willing shoplifter as an incident progresses, and determine definitively if it resembles getting high on heroin, or skydiving, or whatever. I'll make a prediction. No doubt, some kind of thrill is involved, but I believe the perpetrator never loses decision-making capacity. Time will tell.

While researching and writing the book, the author encountered a number of colorful characters. Shoplifters who claim to make a living from it; some who "keep their hand in" because of the pleasure of getting away with it; advocates who claim "the man" is stealing from society anyway, so shoplifting is a way of evening up accounts. She also met store guards (AKA Loss Prevention agents or LP's) with lots of training (rare), some with at least a little, and a number who'd learned strictly on the job. She met retailers who were willing to prosecute (also rare), and all along the spectrum to those who seem to feel more shame than the shoplifter.

Is it really true that, without shoplifting, the price of almost everything would be 10% lower? That is one figure bandied about. Does the average store really suffer 10% (or more?) "shrinkage"? I was once told by a traffic officer that, if a law is ignored by 15% or more of the population, it isn't worth trying to enforce. That is why Highway 95 between Philadelphia and Baltimore, and the New Jersey Turnpike, both have regular traffic flow of about fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit. So many people are speeding that the police don't take notice until they perceive someone going at least twenty mph over.

Shoplifting is similar. It is so prevalent that most stores and most police organizations grudgingly content themselves with "keeping it down to a dull roar", so to speak. They only go after a small number of more flagrant cases, some combination of theft-addicted celebrities and high-volume professionals.

I suspect it will take more resources than we are willing to spend to make much of a dent in shoplifting. Will storekeepers a century hence have a brain scanner in the store, so as to detect "dangerous thoughts" before a person even tries to steal? There'll surely be some method or technology for getting past even that. The thieves among us are a combination of the truly bad, the more prosaic "mostly good" folks who sometimes do bad things, maybe some who are genuine victims of a mental disorder, and some unknown proportion of rule-keepers who can't imagine shoplifting.

Ms Shteir leaves such questions open.

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