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 thinking the extreme actors in this situation were 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 - extremism.
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. The victims of punishment can easily become martyrs, victims of the punishment itself. The punishment dynamics also cause a distortion in connection. Punishment disrupts the natural internal and intuitive moral process, which draws on feelings of love, connection and sensitivity and 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.