The thick and thin of Courtney Herron's death

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In polemical times a colourful world is reduced to black and white. People and situations are awarded black or white hats by narrow criteria and esteemed or excoriated accordingly. When reflecting on this tendency we do well to attend to the difference between thin and thick description.

Melburnians gather for a vigil following the murder of Courtney Herron (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images) Thin description represents people and events by reference to a single action, characteristic or attitude. A person who kills someone, for example, is seen simply as a murderer, without reference to their background or the circumstances of what they have done. Thin description leads to quick, certain and unchangeable judgments.

Thick description tries to capture all the varied aspects of human behaviour, relationships, background and motivation of a person, and to set them and their actions within that complex framework. It will always be open to more complex judgments, based on a broader knowledge of relevant relationships and contexts.

Thin description, which looks only at one aspect of a situation, will often be appropriate, and indeed demanded. In emergency surgery, for example, a good doctor will not delay on the wealth, marital status and state of mind of patients but will consider only the relevant anatomical and medical aspects.

Reflection on human behaviour always moves properly from thin to thick description. Nevertheless thin description often rules. It is the province of the tabloids and other media equivalents. People are described simply in terms of their execrable or praiseworthy actions. People are described as Rapists, Murderers, Gang members, Heroines, Saints or Hypocrites, and their actions defined simply by those names. Subtleties of motivation, of conflicted loyalties, of background, of context are not taken into account.

In partisan writing, too, people and opinions are judged simply by whether they promote the right cause. Protagonists and victims in situations are then reduced to stock characters in the chosen drama.

Thick description is the province of reflective media. It looks beyond immediate events and single strands of meaning to reflect on the ethical, social, political and economic complexities and their significance for society. It is about opening questions, reflecting, and finally making broad and nuanced judgments. It focuses on the persons and the relationships involved, looking beyond the single issues with which they are identified.

 

"These are all aspects of the events but are too thin to do justice to the human reality involved in them."

 

Examples of the need for thick, and the propensity for thin description are many. The trials of Israel Folau, for example, are often described thinly in the competing terms of the right to expression of religious views, the right not to be harmed on the grounds of sexual identity or preference, and the right of sporting clubs not to be impeded in their money making. These are all aspects of the events but are too thin to do justice to the human reality involved in them.

A more recent example is the various descriptions of the tragic and horrible killing of Courtney Herron. The police offered the first description, appropriately thin in terms of police enquiry. Courtney had died violently. When an arrest was made, a slightly thicker description was given. She had been murdered.

Police Deputy Commissioner Luke Cornelius then focused on the tragedy of Courtney's death, and set it within broader contexts. It was not about the wisdom of women walking in parks at night, but reflected broader patterns of violence against women. Subsequently a thicker description became available when it was revealed that both Courtney and the man arrested for her killing had suffered from mental illness, which had reached crisis point when they had separately lost employment. In this crisis they found no support, and became homeless and despairing.

No doubt this description will be thickened further as more information about relationships and events offers a fuller understanding of her death. But the thick description now focuses properly on both Courtney and the person accused of killing her as persons, each with their own human dignity and story, and not as symbols of any one group or cause.

The thin descriptions of the killing in terms of gender and security certainly point to larger questions that demand reflection and judgment. When deciding when to walk alone at night it is appropriate to weigh considerations of risk based on place, time, age, gender and race. It is also right to deplore the need to consider these things, and perhaps admirable to disregard them. Similarly, it is right to recognise the vast preponderance of women and children among the victims of domestic violence, and the need to address the factors contributing to male violence against women.

Courtney, however, should not be treated as a cipher in arguments made about these issues, but be seen as a person, both acting and acted on in the thick network of her personal and social relationships. Ultimately her death matters because she is a person of unique value who commands respect, not for the circumstances of her death, but for who she is. Seeking a thick description of her life and death is a gesture of respect.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Melburnians gather for a vigil following the murder of Courtney Herron (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Israel Folau, Courtney Herron

 

 

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Existing comments

Thick descriptions are sometimes challenging to the common understanding and far from definitive. One of my colleagues of 25 years duration once told me that I was the most leftist socialistic communist extreme right-wing conservative he had ever come across. It would have been much clearer if he had simply said "You're a dope" - the thin description!
john frawley | 11 June 2019


Courtney Herron would be still alive if she wasn't a homeless person at the time of her death. I think a great way to honour her would be for everyone to engage in political advocacy at all levels of government for much more affordable housing. There is no real excuse in a rich country like Australia for people to be homeless. Over to you!
Grant Allen | 12 June 2019


I've just spent a month away from news stories. That doesn't mean I didn't care about what was happening to other people via media. Just that I was concentrating on other things. The thin story in journalism sells papers because it concentrates a story to a sensational headline. Peoples' stories deserve so much more. And I think the discerning reader looks for this 'so much more'. Perhaps reading between the lines!
Pam | 12 June 2019


Your article was a much needed corrective to the tripe trotted out by the Victorian Premier and the Police Commissioner. Both Courtney and her murderer had mental health issues, probably made far worse by their drug problems and were homeless. Those three problems need to be tackled seriously. Oh for a Victorian Premier who called things for what they were and did something about them!
Edward Fido | 12 June 2019


Thank you for this article Andrew. Unlike most other comparable nations, Australia has no charter of human rights, no codified bill of rights for its people. Consequently, the prospect of the right to the provision of adequate housing for every citizen, comes to be seen as some utopian dream in a nation wracked by steadily accelerating economic and social inequities, and in a culture where housing for all is viewed less as a common good to be achieved, and more as a wealth-acquiring commodity fostered by the speculative property market. We Australians it seems, just don’t do ‘ social housing’ , except grudgingly, and in a minimalist mode, lest it harm the speculative and fetishised property market, particularly so, in our largest cities, where homeless Australians grow in numbers. The close interweaving of the relationships between domestic violence, mental illness, drug addiction, unemployment and homelessness have been extensively researched in Australia and elsewhere. However, in the ‘thin descriptions’ that characterise so much of media discourse in Australia, an individual’s personal vulnerabilities so often shaped by a combination of the above factors, tend to characterised as hermetically sealed off from Australia’s social vulnerabilities that nurture each of us, but also cause serious harm to some of us, and in turn, cause some harm to all of us.
Michael Faulkner | 13 June 2019


Thank you Fr Hamilton for highlighting the humanity of every person - handicapped, involved, murdered, ill.... Of course, we should always look for the 'thick description' but I can't help recalling Hannah Arendt sitting in a courtroom in Jerusalem looking at Eichmann and writing of "the banality of evil". Would knowledge of the 'thick description' help to understand the Eichmanns of the world, or Hitler, or Pol Pot or so many others?
John Nicholson | 13 June 2019


I thoroughly agree with you, Michael Faulkner. Whilst I don't want to be pessimistic, I think our society is badly frayed at the edges. If we don't take the signs seriously we are likely to go down the American road. It's hard enough on the mean streets here, but there, it would be sheer hell.
Edward Fido | 13 June 2019


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