Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Society Beyond the Punishment Reflex

Twenty five or so years ago, I had one of those big moments that starts reorganizing your life and mind in an instant.  Even though it was so long ago, I get this sense of remembering what I was wearing, how the seat felt, the quickening beat of my heart.  I was at University of Delaware at the time, around 19 or 20, majoring in philosophy.

It was a medieval philosophy class, and a discussion of Peter Abelard's writings on ethics led to a discussion about punishment.  The teacher was presenting the idea that human beings could not actually effectively punish one another.  She relied on Abelard's idea that the culpability and moral wrongness of an action was determined by the inner state of the person: what they knew, understood, were trying to accomplish by the action.  As a Christian based philosopher, he held that only God could really know that inner state, so his theory went that only God could accurately punish for wrongdoing.

The class got a bit rowdy in disagreement about the idea as my professor was teasing it out.  I remember the response building in the room that we needed to hold people accountable for their acts.  People needed to be punished if they caused harm in the world.  There was a growing sense that we needed to punish people to train them to do the right thing, to create order from the chaos.  Watching the scene, I found myself profoundly disagreeing with the class, with the energy building around the necessity of punishment.  That day a question which started reshaping the way I looked at the world came into my awareness:

"What would the world look like if humans didn't punish each other?"

I let my mind explore this world without punishment, mentally investigate whether this world would be safe, whether people would know right from wrong.  I contemplated the reflex behind punishment - retribution, righteousness, enforcement.  And the more I've investigated, the more strongly I've concluded that this world without the punishment reflex would be safe and moral compasses would be set by far more accurate measures than they are set by now.

The punishment free world would certainly be much safer for the people who have felt the great wrath and unfairness of our systemically racist punishment system.  After moving from my undergrad studies in philosophy to pursuing a law degree, my first legal internship landed me in public criminal defense.  Early in the summer, I found myself standing at the bookings desk of a local prison with my my boss for that summer.  The prison was loud and chaotic; it smelled of sweat, felt of fear.  I looked around and took in the scene where almost every shackled man waiting to be booked was a black man.  Almost every guard or police officer with a gun on his hip or stick on his belt was a white man.  I made eye contact with my mentor, a look of confused horror probably easily observable on my face.

She said, "makes you think of a slave ship, doesn't it?"

I learned more about our history that made me understand the deeply appropriate and important analogy she was making, a history briefly summarized in this short film on Slavery to Mass Incarceration.  The punishment reflex has been directed by both conscious discrimination and unconscious bias in our criminal justice system, and it has birthed and built a system intolerably drenched in unfairness and tyranny.

But even for those people who haven't been beat down by our justice system and our obsession with punishment dynamics, I still believe they would be profoundly safer in this world beyond punishment.  I sense that communities would be less defined by divisions and more defined by connections, and I feel strongly that connections are what create real, lasting and growing dynamics of safety.

Punishment is a power that I've come to believe we humans are just not worthy or capable of wielding.  As we try to, we just become the cruel-heartedness that we were trying to extract from others.  Exercising the punishment reflex creates so many examples of behavior we don't want others to emulate.  It's that whole faulty premise of parenting: "do as I say, not as I do."

Those who take on the role of punisher often start adopting an ends justify the means sort of mentality where it's alright to do certain things when the person had it coming.  That is the mentality that allows us to justify torture and inhumane treatment of terrorists.  It's part of what horrified the world in the video of George Floyd's murder.

The dynamic of protector becoming perpetrator is the inevitable destination of these punishment dynamics.  As the cycle of perpetration and punishment turns, the two become more and more indistinguishable.  Depending on who you ask, you'll get very different answers about which was the wrongdoing and which was the justified punishment.  Those differing definitions and perceptions create culture wars, in which two sides define each other as evil, and don't actually see each other at all.

We're out here relying on punishment as a way to feel powerful against that evil, against what we fear, against something that feels dangerous or wrong, but even with our pervasive Cancel Culture and harsh punishment institutions, things are not changing in the direction that we hope for them to change.  We're just creating all these opposing forces going after each other, escalating in response to one another, and not resolving a thing.

We take the retribution impulses into our own hands through trying to shame train our peers, and it quickly turns ugly.  In the tale of Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper's meeting in Central Park, we saw how community participation led to character assassinations of her throughout social media, phone calls to her employer to have her fired, even death threats against her.  The response was so extreme that Christian Cooper himself asked people to stop.  Rather than seeing the extreme actors in this situation as an aberration from the good our punishment reflex can create, I think it's time for us to recognize that this is just where the punishment reflex leads.

Punishment dynamics do not right the moral compass that they are often intending to right.  These dynamics actually mess with our ability to discern right from wrong because there is a distortion of ability to feel connected.  It disrupts the natural internal and intuitive process which draws on feelings of love, connection and sensitivity which makes us want to be and do good.

If you're not convinced, investigate these questions by observing your own world, your own life.  Investigate the times when you were judged and the accuracy of those judgments.  Analyze the times when you or others you know intimately were punished, emotionally or otherwise, and ask yourself whether the punishment really led to learned lessons and changed behavior.  Investigate whether punishment, as you've observed it, has created connection or disconnection.

Explore it with training children, pets, your own mind.  See if the harsh judgments and punishments create change.  And look at those instances when wonderful changes for the better did occur, and look for their source.  Notice whether it was some enforcer or imposition that caused the change, or perhaps, whether life and its natural consequences delivered lessons and wisdom beyond what any one of us can muster.

My own investigation of these questions has led to my earnest belief that there is no place for the punishment reflex in the better world we're trying to create.  There are other ways to create safety from and for people who have proven themselves to be unsafe to others or themselves, which I'll explore in future posts, and there is such thing as accountability without punishment.

I sense these times we're living in are crying out for us to make space for others to say things we may not want to hear, to do things that express their pain, to make mistakes AND through it all, we need to remain connected.  The punishment reflex is in direct conflict with the energies of collaboration, healing and embracing diverse perspectives that we most need in this time of transformation.  Setting this reflex aside in our personal lives and then as a society feels like one of the most essential steps that we need to take to change course from a species set out to destroy itself into one that can peacefully co-exist and thrive.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Mine To Do

As I've been watching the eruptions in the US and noticing similar and even more dramatic upheavals happening all around the world, I keep coming to the question: "what is mine to do?"  It's a question that's been nagging me for years, and I'm seeing the question swirling around in other people more than I have before, as we're all trying to find our response to what is being presented.

I heard that phrase recently in this talk by Daniel Schmachtenberger.  I discovered him six or so months ago, and I quickly became a fan of his work.  I truly don't think I've ever listened to another human being that seems such a profound mix of intelligent, knowledgeable and wise.  It gives me hope that he is on the planet with us at this time.

After going into some detail on the downward spiral we're seeing in the US and around the world, he is asked around 19:15, "how do we respond?"  From that point to around 29:05, the conversation very much intrigues me and is what I want to explore here.


He says that finding what is ours to do will be different for each person, depending on varied interests and skills.  He touches on being strategic in our responses, and notes how unfortunately the people who are deeply committed to the well-being of the planet and humanity haven't been so effective at a global level because of the lack of using strategy.

The part that got my wheels turning is when he talks about the "opportunity space" of the breakdowns that are and will continue occurring.   He invites thinking about what a better version of those breaking down systems would be.  He points out that when a system breaks down it is much easier to replace it with something altogether different.

That felt like an invitation to me; it touched on a pipe dream I've been holding close for many years now.  It has seemed silly to share because it certainly isn't the kind-of fantasy I think anyone else would sit and daydream about on a gorgeous day.

But maybe that's an even greater indication that this dreaming is mine to do.

Who knows, but here goes: basically, I think about starting a facility that would replace prisons.  I imagine what it would look like, smell like, feel like.  I think about what is necessary for safety and what about our current system is excessive and oppressive.  I dream about how these facilities could be places of healing and restoration.

When I see systemic racism, my mind goes right to my own experiences with criminal justice and prisons detailed more here and here.  Mass incarceration feels like my personal heartbreak.  Although I care about many more tragedies and issues I see when I look out in the world, for some reason, this is the one that hurts the most.  It feels like such a violation of our humanity, such an offense to my love of freedom, so intolerable on so many levels.  The roots of mass incarceration in slavery just make this issue feel even more important to address right now, as our karmic debt is screaming out to be repaid.

So the signs seem to be pointing at this as my starting point, the thread that may be mine to pull in all this unraveling that needs to be done.

In my next post, I'll hit the essential foundation that needs to be laid for me to explore this topic: my absolute and complete disagreement with the idea of retribution and my firm belief that it is not only ineffective but actually creates much of the harm it is aimed at fixing.  Until then...

Saturday, June 6, 2020

So Beautiful...

I've been in a weird state this week.  Distracted, emotional, mentally overloaded.  But also moved, inspired, and even hopeful about what may grow from the eruption of this past week since George Floyd's death rocked the United States.

To keep my mind sane and my body from imploding, I've been doing a lot of walking.  Sometimes so erratically paced I don't even bring my dog to avoid dragging him behind me when I just have to move.  Sometimes with sunglasses so passerbys don't see my random fits of tears.  Sometimes a slog of fighting the bugs, the sweat, the climb.

And on these walks and even around my home, the butterflies seem to be EVERYWHERE.  Perfect swallowtails dancing around in glee celebrating their short time to shine.  I wrote about butterflies in this post a while back, and they are overwhelming my consciousness again while I watch the events that are unfolding in my country.

Knowing the butterfly life cycle as I do, whenever they start fluttering into my life and mind, I assess what part of the cycle is showing itself.  With three months of pandemic lockdown behind us and cultural upheaval in front, it doesn't even take an ex-butterfly garden tour guide like me to tell you what phase were in here: it's the chrysalis 100%.

As I detail in my old post, the interesting thing about the chrysalis is that what actually happens in that magical little pouch dangling underneath a leaf isn't what one might think.  It's not a maturation process, where the caterpillar sprouts legs and wings and then breaks out in the final masterpiece that it was meant to be all along.  Rather, inside that chrysalis is a breakdown of all the caterpillar was, and then from the goo, a creature with not one thing in common with that caterpillar is built ground up.

That's the messy process of transformation, my friends, and we are in the middle of it.

We cannot avoid the piercing sound of the alarms drawing our attention to systemic racism and its suffocating and life crushing effects.  Sometimes when it seems the hate and political division are growing bigger than the bridges we've started building over the divides, I feel overwhelmed with a sense of worry that we may be in the foretold end times.

As much as I hope for the butterfly to emerge from the chrysalis, for a beautiful, peaceful, united human race to emerge from this time of turmoil, there are so many signs that maybe we won't come together and figure all this shit out.  In the face of all the divisions keeping us from effectively working together, we have other big problems too: environmental degradation, failing education systems, dysfunctional healthcare, increasingly destructive weapons in the hands of increasingly divisive leaders... Maybe we won't be able to do the hard work ahead of building an entirely new way of being out of these building blocks of what has come before.

But maybe we will.  Maybe this is an ending, one that has and will continue to have a lot of grief as part of it, but there is actually a light at the end of the tunnel.  A breakthrough of a new and beautiful way that we can only imagine from where we sit.

Only time can really tell, and even though I have to wrestle with my doubts here and there, I'm forever and always on the side of hope.  No matter if it seems naive or annoyingly earnest, I'll continue to cultivate all the hope, faith and vision I possibly can about the potential of us as a country and as a global human race to find our way through these times of transformation.

And this gem of a song (the first one in the video below) has really been helping me to keep all that rich and wonderful faith in tact.  Thank you much, Ben Harper.



And thanks to you there reading this.  I appreciate you putting a little of your time and attention here, and I hope this post or this beautiful song helps you in keeping the faith that all this change is leading somewhere beautiful.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Needed Checks and Balances on Police Power

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the systemic racism of the US criminal justice system and the Black Lives Matter movement are getting much needed attention.  In addition, I hope our response to this tragedy leads to a deep dive into power and what leads to abuses of power.  I hope we get to the bottom of the question of why a police officer like the one who killed George Floyd continues to be on the force, carry a gun, interact with the public after 18 complaints were filed against him.

The people who I think are most crucial to this conversation are the ones that are busy dealing with the nationwide reaction to this killing: the law enforcement agents that abhor this kind of violence and are the focus of a lot of hatred right now when they weren't even involved in this situation.  They are trying to keep order and peace as protests unfold with varying degrees of violence and destruction, but when things settle, I think they are the people that we most need in a conversation that would lead to our best response to the ongoing issue of police brutality.

I'd like to ask these officers:
  • In general, are these bad cops noticeable right away when they get on the force?  Is it a particular personality type that is attracted to the power of law enforcement that we need to be on the lookout for?
  • Are there instances when there is an officer of integrity and fairness that starts to make a turn after a certain amount of time on the force?  What events might trigger that change?  What amount of time?
  • Does the stress or number of hours lead to the types of callous and aggressive decision-making we're seeing?  What are the optimum conditions to facilitate cool headed decision making?
  • What kind-of training do you think is lacking and needed to help officers keep both themselves and the citizens they interact with during an encounter safe?  What kind-of training around race have you received and has it made a difference?
  • Why aren't bad cops fired, demoted, charged?  We hear so often when these incidents happen that the officer had a reputation for a long time, so what are the factors that keep these officers out on the street?
One reason why we can't get rid of abusive police officers is because of what is known as the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.  Minnesota is one of the states that has such a law, and it is "intended to protect American law enforcement personnel from investigation and prosecution arising from conduct during official performance of their duties, and provides them with privileges based on due process additional to those normally provided to other citizens." (from the Wikipedia site linked above)  I have more research to do on this, but it certainly seems like one of the pathways needing further scrutiny in our response.

Another blockade to holding these officers accountable is the doctrine of qualified immunity, explored in this article: George Floyd's Death Must Be a Catalyst for Accountability  Per this article, to get around the qualified immunity doctrine and sue a police officer for an act of violence like occurred against Floyd, his family would need to find a precedent case with the same or similar facts in the relevant jurisdiction, which is nearly impossible to do.  Again, need more research, but seems like another avenue for important investigation here.

Also, I'm a long time fan of Bryan Stevenson and the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, and when I was reading a recent blog post on the EJI website, I learned that back in May of 2015, Bryan Stevenson was on a task force assembled by President Obama which put together this report: The President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  My understanding is that the recommendations aren't currently moving forward.  Again, I need to do more research here, but this does seem like a useful starting point for many key questions of the moment.

Law enforcement officers need power to keep communities safe.  We need them to have weapons, to be trained to protect themselves, the public and each other; we need them to feel able to rush into dangerous situations and keep the peace.  And yet, power is so susceptible to abuse.  I first learned about the 1971 Stanford prison guard study in college, and although I see by looking it up now that it's conclusions are suspect, I still feel in my own gut that there is a truth to its conclusion about the corrupting influence of having power over people.  When a police officer or prison guard has power over people, this dynamic can create a sense of identity in the holder of power.  It can lead that person to dehumanize those he or she has power over, and it can lead to the crossing of ethical boundaries with those people, even without the one in power realizing what they are doing.

We need to look deeply at these dynamics and the roadblocks to removal of corrupt officers.  We'd also do well to study and learn from officers who have had long successful careers wielding this power with great integrity.

With so much attention and energy around these issues, there is great potential in this moment, and I hope we channel at least some of that potential into working on creating a more appropriate balance between meeting law enforcement objectives and adding checks to decrease the occurrence of these intolerable abuses of power.  If we work together here, maybe one day these heartbreaking incidents will truly be a thing of the past.   

Friday, May 29, 2020

A Narrative of Redemption

A few years ago now, I recorded a little video explaining my sense of the need for A New Narrative.

Since that time, I've been really keeping my eye on that story of good and evil, on all the places it shows up, all the scenes it animates, all the excitement and passion it stirs.  And this week feels like a poignant climax of that investigation.

Earlier in the week, I saw an angry post from one of my friends on Facebook about the white woman, Amy Cooper, who called the police on a black man, Christian Cooper, in Central Park.  As I watched the viral video and learned what occurred, I decided to post an article on my Facebook page, share my own thoughts about the harshness of what was happening to the woman, and invite the friend who'd written that angry post to engage. 

The conversation on my post went in a few different directions, felt a bit heated and divided at times, and ultimately I landed here with a final comment:

I know these are sensitive issues, and among everyone who has commented on this thread, I feel the common goal of a more unified and just society where these horrible acts of racially motivated violence end. I very much appreciate that in each of you, even if my comments didn't make that clear.  My intention in posting this was really about the means to get to that more unified and just society. Personally, I strongly dislike the way we use social media to attack and try to cancel or destroy people. The energy behind all that judgement and anger feels like the very same energy we're trying to eliminate. The fact that this woman has received death threats shows just how overblown this kind-of energy can get when we feed it. To me, that energy is the real monster we need to work with, and it's in all of us. And Christian Cooper is a lovely example of not feeding that energy here, being the one in the news today asking people to stop with those attacks and admitting he can't know what's in her mind and heart. We can only know ourselves, and I truly believe the greatest change we can bring to the world is by how we change ourselves.

By the time I closed out my post with that comment, the reaction to the George Floyd killing by a Minnesota police officer was ramping up.  A strange energy started to permeate social media, and I could feel a sense that people likely were or would be judging my post as a defense of a racist.

I kept hearing messages: if you aren't angry, making calls for justice, feeling this way, doing that thing, then it's because you don't care, you're a closeted Amy Cooper, you're a racist white cop in disguise.  The "unfriend me if...." posts start flying.

And as I learned of the escalating looting, violence and destruction in Minnesota, I felt such a sense that these two were linked.  That there was this monster of energy, growing and engulfing people in its flames: an impassioned story of good and evil gone wild.

By the time I finally got out for a walk to work out all the energy building up in me, I felt like an emotionally filled balloon about to burst.  When the trail opened up to a spot where I could just be alone and look out at the river, the tears started falling.  As I was standing there, I remembered crying in that same spot years ago when I was reeling off the news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.  It was very much the same feeling: confusion and grief about why such horrible things happen in our world, why they keep happening.

And as I continued on into the woods, I held my sadness and my hope.  I let the sense that I have no idea what to do, how to help, what is needed continue to wash over me.  Not a hopelessness or frustration, but rather just holding a space in myself.

When I hit this point in the trees that felt far away: no people ahead or behind, no rustling leaves warning of anyone on the way, I felt myself break down in a much stronger fit of tears.  "What is needed here?" I felt myself ask with my whole being, and like it was coming from the wise trees:

Recognize that this pain is all of your pain, that the trauma and torment of slavery lives in all whose ancestors were involved, no matter the role.  Perpetrators of harm are haunted on the inside by the pain the have caused.  Victims are shaped by the harm that's been done to them.  Even if one's ancestors weren't directly involved, still, as members of this human family, the pain is all of your pain.  You all yearn for the pain to be heard, seen, felt, healed.  The human race is one interconnected whole, your pain and healing are inextricably connected.

As I finished my walk, I started getting this sense of a "redemptive narrative."  It's a phrase that struck me a few weeks ago, but it wasn't coming into any form until I was walking that last stretch back to my car.

I sensed a story that could be told of the history of the United States that includes the story of the white people who came from Europe, killing and tricking the Indigenous people they encountered here, enslaving people they kidnapped from their African homes to do the hard work of establishing a home on this soil.  A narrative that is honest and real and forthcoming about how the mixing of cultures here began.

And then the story steps back and shows that this painful history was setting the scene for something to come.  The mixing of cultures in such a dramatic and tumultuous history created a great richness of lessons and opportunities for love, strength, courage and wisdom.  It provided the material for creating infinite scenarios to push humans to continually evolve, melt boundaries, see themselves in others who at first appeared so different.

And in this story, our collective pain isn't wrong, isn't a mistake, isn't something we need to rid ourselves of or forget.  It need not be blamed on anyone or burden anyone; rather, it is our shared birthright, our common teacher, the alchemist that has made us all wiser, kinder and more powerful than the people who came before.

Hmmm, look forward to sitting with this one, and seeing where it leads...

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Postcards from Hell

Lately this Wood Brothers’ song has been my go-to: Postcards from Hell

I really like the sound, but it’s these lyrics that keep drawing me in:
“When you ask him, how he sings his blues so well, he’ll say: I gotta soul that I won’t sell…and I don’t read postcards from hell.”
To me, this feels like a prescription for staying sane and real, and it seems like good advice for days especially like these that we're in. But what exactly is a "postcard from hell"?
My first thought was listening to people struggling in their own hard time, sharing the hell they’re going through. But immediately I knew: those aren’t postcards from hell at all. That’s some of the greatest soul food I know; it’s the chance to love, be compassionate, caring. Those postcards come from a place of vulnerability and connection that feels healing and restorative.
So then, looking around in this environment we’re in, I thought: what about these news reports coming from hospitals drowning during this crisis? What about the sobering stats and information aimed at keeping us at home, aimed at making us fear for ourselves and our loved ones so that we don’t continue to spread the virus? What about the judgments of those who refuse to stop and stay put amidst the warnings from our government and our medical establishments?
As I tossed around possibilities, I settled on the conclusion that the answer might be different for each of us.
Postcards from hell seem to be the stuff that we ingest that triggers our own personal hell. It’s the stuff that makes us afraid, makes us barricade, makes us hoard. It’s the stuff that brings us to that place that is small and isolated within ourselves, and it keeps us from being able the think clearly, intuit accurately, and evaluate the present moment as it actually is.
And so, besides washing my hands and being mindful of what I put into and on my body, my personal hygiene during these strange times will also include being especially careful to avoid reading my version of those postcards from hell.