When Crimes Trigger Social Progress

University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Delivers the 20th Annual Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture

​Hartford, Connecticut, May 11, 2017 ‒ Sometimes, a terrible event ends up changing the world for the better. In fact, many social and safety advances have been brought about by disaster, according to Paul H. Robinson, Colin S. Diver Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. 

​Paul Robinson delivers the 20th annual Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in McCook Auditorium at Trinity College. Photo by Defining Studios. Click here for more photos.
Robinson, who delivered the 20th annual Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American art, culture, and history at McCook Auditorium on April 24, said that events ranging from the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping to the 2001 Enron scandal have triggered a broad range of social advances ‒ from the federalization of criminal law to stepped-up regulation of companies’ financial reporting duties.

In 1911, a fire ripped through a Manhattan garment factory, killing 146 female workers trapped behind locked doors in a building devoid of safety features. Some, with their clothes on fire and no other way out, jumped from the upper floors to their death. The tragedy, splashed across the pages of the press, led to the passage of building codes and other laws to protect worker safety.

In 1969, 200,000 gallons of crude oil gushed up from a blown-out oil well off the California coast, killing thousands of birds, dolphins, and other sea creatures. Five months later, in Ohio, a spark from a train set a debris-filled river on fire, seriously damaging two bridges. These events led to the launch of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of federal laws protecting air and water quality.

“These are cases that were horrific in themselves but ended up having an immensely beneficial effect on society,” Robinson said.

Two dozen such world-changing incidents are examined in Trigger Crimes & Social Progress: The Tragedy-Outrage-Reform Dynamic in America, a book Robinson co-wrote with wife, Sarah M. Robinson, which is scheduled to be published next year.

Not all crimes and disasters ignite the kind of public outrage that results in reform. So why do some tragedies galvanize the country into action while others do not? Robinson said it boils down to a mix of dramatic media images, influential victims, devoted advocates, and luck ‒ a perfect storm of the right circumstances.

“We like to think of ourselves as a country of deliberate democracy where we identify the most serious problems and plan what to do to solve them through rational discourse,” he said. In reality, “social progress is the result of something more chaotic and unpredictable.”

At the same time, Robinson noted, “the big problems do get solved. We do make progress, no matter how messy it may seem close up.”

The Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture Fund, which supports an annual lecture on the themes of European and American art, culture, and history, was established in 1996 in loving memory of Mrs. Wassong by friends, family, and her husband, Joseph F. Wassong, Jr., Trinity Class of ’59. The annual lecture features members of Trinity’s faculty and guest scholars in alternating years. The lecturers are from various academic disciplines, and their topics range from antiquity to the present day. This year’s event marks the 20th Wassong Memorial Lecture.

Written by Carol Latter