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.