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Imagine That -- We're Trying To Execute a Nobel Peace/Literature Prize Nominee!

Many stories about Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the co-founder of the Crips gang who was convicted of having "shot and killed four people during two robberies in Los Angeles" note that he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature (for writing children's books warning children against becoming gang members). Here's an AP story: "He has received several Nobel Prize nominations . . . ." An L.A. Times story: "He later was nominated repeatedly for the Nobel Prize . . . ." An NPR story from Nov. 21, 2005: "For his anti-gang work, Williams has received multiple nominations for the Nobel Prize." An L.A. Times story about the daughter of one of his victims:

Then four years ago, she said, she learned that Williams was alive and had been nominated for a Nobel Prize, and "it literally hit me like a ton of bricks."

"It literally almost destroyed my life because of my own anger," she said. "I was just flabbergasted. How could the man who co-founded the Crips be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. What in the world?"

I have an answer to that question: Any social science, history, philosophy, law, and theology professor, judge, or legislator in any country (plus a few others) can nominate anyone for a Nobel Peace Prize (past nominees, just in 1901-1951, included Hitler, Stalin, and Molotov). Any literature or linguistics professor can nominate anyone for a Nobel Prize in Literature. Naturally, many nominees have real merit; but that someone has been nominated by one of likely hundreds of thousands of potential nominees is little evidence of such merit. And this is especially so when that someone is a source of controversy, when it may seem that nominating him may prevent his being executed -- something that may understandably sway the judgment of nominators who are deeply opposed to the death penalty, and who might see the need to save a life and to make an anti-death-penalty statement as more important than the need to make an impartial evaluation of the person's net contribution to peace or the quality of his literary works.

And in any event, wouldn't it have been helpful -- both to listeners and to the victim's daughter -- if the stories that mentioned Williams' nominations had stressed how unselective the nomination process really is?

(Incidentally, whether a person's sincere contrition, and post-crime good deeds, should lead to clemency is a difficult question; I don't mean to opine on it here. My point is simply that a convicted murderer's having been nominated for the Nobel Prize sheds little light on that question.)

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Ethics of Nobel Prize Nominations:

My post on the Nobel Peace/Literature Prize nominations of convicted but supposedly reformed multiple murderer Tookie Williams prompted some discussion: What about finding some professor who could nominate some ordinary Joe as a way to make a statement about how little the nomination means? This would be eminently possible, but would it be ethical?

The argument why it would be unethical: One's power to nominate comes with an obligation to actually vouch for the high qualities of the person being nominated. This is especially so as to academics, who (in my view, though not in everyone's) are supposed to be committed to candor in their scholarly work.

So if some professors want to nominate someone out-of-the-mainstream who they think really merits the prize, they are entirely free to do so, even if they know that most professors would bitterly disagree with the nomination (and even if the purpose is to annoy other professors, or to illustrate how easy it is to nominate someone). But I think that nominating someone when you don't sincerely believe that this someone merits the prize isn't quite right.

The argument why it would be ethical: There a parody exception or system testing exception to this obligation of sincerity, much as there is in some other contexts. For instance, we should generally be honest with our students, but that doesn't forbid us from saying something in class that's literally false but nonetheless clearly a parody or a joke — or for that matter, saying something that may be misleading but is aimed at getting the students to correct you (of course, if you promptly acknowledge this in the event that students fail to correct you).

Likewise, I think the classic Alan Sokal Social Text parody was permissible: Though a professor normally vouches for the accuracy of the material that he submits to a journal, the professor isn't acting unethically if the material is so clearly a hoax that any thoughtful reviewer would recognize it as such (and thus that the publication of the hoax is powerful evidence of how the review system is broken, at least at this particular journal). True, the argument would go, the insincere nomination isn't a real attempt to test the selection process — few people think that the nominee will actually get the prize. Nonetheless, it is a legitimate device for publizing the nature of the nomination process.

What's the right answer here? My temptation is to counsel against any facially dishonest conduct, especially by scholars, in a serious context (light-hearted gags aimed at entertainment, and unlikely to deceive anyone on an important matter, are a different story), at least unless the falsehood is an attempt to demonstrate some real failing in a review process. I don't think the open Nobel Prize nomination system is indeed a failing; the failing comes in some media outlets' misleadingly suggesting that the nominations are meaningfully screened, and I think the dishonesty to the Nobel committee would thus be unjustified. But perhaps I'm mistaken; I just mostly wanted to air what strike me as the strongest arguments on both sides.

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Nobel Peace Prize Nominees:

The Nobel Committee has an interesting database of all the nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize from 1901 to 1951. Nominations are kept secret for 50 years. Nominees who, like unrepentant multiple murderer Stanley Williams, do not appear to have deserved the nomination include:

Mussolini (1935, by a French law professor, and by the law faculty at a German university);
Stalin (1948, by a Czech professor)(also, 1945 by a former Norweign foreign minister, although the minister only wrote that Stalin was qualified for the prize, and did not formally nominate him);
Kaiser Wilhelm II (1911, by the President of UC Berkeley; 1917, by a German professor and by a Turkish law faculty);
Hitler (1939, by a member of the Swedish parliament, although the nomination was withdrawn before the Committee considered it);
Alfred Ploetz (the founder of racial hygiene in Germany; 1936 by a Norwegian parliamentarian, for warning that war would harm biological reproduction);
Neville Chamberlin (somewhat plausibly in 1926 for his role in the Locarno Pact; less so in 1939, with 9 nominations for his role in the Munich Agreement).

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Good To Occasionally See That One's Articles Really Are Relevant:

The L.A. Times ran my op-ed about how little a Nobel Peace Prize nomination means -- the piece was based on a blog post of mine that the Times people read and asked me to adapt -- and what should I see in the piece immediately above it on the page?

[Tookie Williams] has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times.

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Nobel Prizes:

A litigator friend of mine asks me to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Come now -- shouldn't litigators prefer the Nobel Dynamite Prize? Leave the Peace Prize stuff for that fuzzy mediation crowd . . . .

8 Comments