A Response to the 2017 Wassong Lecture: “Trigger Crimes & Social Progress: The Tragedy-Outrage-Reform Dynamic in America”

By Callie Prince (History ’17)

Paul H. Robinson, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School

Paul H. Robinson, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School

This past week I attended the 2017 Wassong Lecture in European and American Art, Culture, and History, a lecture organized every year by the interdisciplinary studies department. I was excited to hear the lecture from Paul H. Robinson who is a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. His long list of accomplishments would extend beyond the length of this post, as he has been prolific and diversified in his work. The topic of his lecture was “Trigger Crimes & Social Progress: The Tragedy-Outrage-Reform Dynamic in America”. A brief synopsis written by Robinson describing the work behind his lecture, posed the main question as, “Why do some tragedies produce broad outrage while others, often of a very similar nature, do not? Why do some outrages produce reform while others, often with greater claims to outrageousness, do not?”

I was excited by the topic of his lecture, as it seems rooted in a very interesting part of the history of social progress, this idea of “Trigger Crimes” as events that spur social change. Professor Robinson described four different crimes and used them to explain his “tragedy-outrage-reform” research as describing how these crimes were linked to major social change in the form of policy changes of new innovations. From a long list he provided, the main examples he used in his talk were: the 1911 Triangle factory fire which is connected to Building Safety Codes, the 1964 Genovese Rape Witness Scandal which is connected to creating 911 as a universal number, the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill and the Cuyahoga River Fire which are connected to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the 1980 Lightner Crash which is connected to criminalizing drunk driving.

After Professor Robinson explained how his examples demonstrated his theory about the “Tragedy-Outrage-Reform Dynamic”, I was left with numerous questions about how these crimes fit into the larger history of these changes. Throughout his speech and even in the question and answer portion, he presented the idea that even with the work of organizations and groups dedicated to making change, sensational crimes are necessary to spur legal change. Furthermore, in his work Professor Robinson also attempted to answer the question of why some crimes and not others; what specifically about those incidents were distinctive enough to cause large changes.
Reflecting on the law professor’s work, I was left thinking about the groups that were involved in creating some of these instances of social change. In some of the situations the professor mentioned, there were also large social organizations involved in creating these changes. Even one of the questions brought up after the talk was about his opinion on the role of social justice groups in place or created after the crimes and their involvement in the work that created context around the crime. This immediately made me think of large public interest groups that have existed and are credited with creating change in society.

One of the professor’s larger points in answering the question about social groups was that sometimes things groups are not enough to gather involvement or care from society at large. That in some circumstances a crime or tragic event is needed to spur the “outrage” portion of his theory. Applying this theory to present day, I am left wondering what, if any legal changes possible, would be the answer to some of the larger public interest problems in American society today. Thinking of race and gender issues, I wonder if there are laws beyond what we have now that could help to solve the violence. It seems as if these issues might not be able to be solved in the same way that these past events were.
Both a student and a teacher raised in the question and answer portion the tragedy of the school shooting in Newtown, CT. It seems impossible that something as horrific as Newtown wouldn’t result in positive legal change. The student’s comments brought to my attention the issue of what if the answer is not as clear. In the situation of Newtown, the country seemed to be divided over what was the best way to help resolve the issue from ever happening again. Some people believe in stricter gun laws, while other believe more guns should be present, but both under the guise of preventing something like a shooting at an elementary school from ever happening again. These different schools of thought seem to also be connected to larger social thinking divides in the U.S.

Ultimately I enjoyed the lecture from Professor Robinson. He was presenting theories for answering a question about the way our society has worked in the past to create new legal innovations. My largest take away, however, was more curiosity about how social justice organizations factor into the creation of these laws either before or after the crimes. Because Professor Robinson only included one example from the twenty-first century, I wonder how our society has changed and if social media has affected the way we view these crimes. Furthermore, how the nature of our social problems today affects the types of responses possible.

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