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Punishment Is Probably Not An Appropriate Response To Incompetence

A brief review of our culture suggests that many of us think punishment is the dope for results.

For the first time in a long time, yesterday I saw profanity at work. A coworker had used profanity as a sort of punishment for someone else. I didn’t hear it, I saw it in a chat, I saw one person use it and it was just one tiny smidge, but it was enough for me to notice.

I’m very polite at work, and for good reason, so I was surprised to see any hint of profanity yesterday. The obvious reason I practice courtesy is that I just want to be able to sleep at night. My prime directive is to err on the side of peace. And as luck would have it, I work in a company where there is very little drama.

Here’s another reason for me to be polite, to eschew the profane as punishment: I have empathy for others. I’m rather circumspect with my language because I know that not everyone wants to hear that kind of language. If I’m in the company of a few blue-collar workers, I might let an f-bomb slip, but in mixed company, I err on the side of caution. I take note of the people around me. And at work, I have a strong focus on good manners because I’ve made good manners a habit.

A not so obvious reason for good manners at work is that they may be listening. I put this reason last because what others think of me is the last of my concerns. I think before I speak, before I type, and before I hit Enter. I also know that there may be automated processes scanning my text, supervisors checking my interactions with others, including my peers, and I don’t need that kind of trouble at work.

More importantly, I don’t want to let a swear word slip in a conversation with customers. I’m not even deragatory towards customers because they pay the people who pay me. The fact that my customers are not as competent as I am, that is my job security. They come to me for help because they paid for it. So I don’t mind if customers use that kind of language, for that’s on them.

Now that I’m a dad, and a husband, I hardly ever use curse words in a week much less a day. I avoid curse words not to be “good”, but so that my conscience is clean. Besides, I want to make a good impression on the customer, and I want to keep the peace around me, wherever I am. And I definitely avoid using curse words as an insult, a form of punishment.

So it is in the context of punishment that I usually see them curse words being used. Yesterday, I saw one person say that another team was “effed up” and it dawned on me what was happening. He didn’t like the way the other team was routing work to us and dropped an <expletive deleted>. He substituted two characters in the middle, but with just 4 characters the meaning of the string was obvious.

Yet there was something else that I noticed. It was so subtle, too. I hadn’t really put this together until yesterday. When people use epithets, insults, and innuendo to insult someone else, the intent is behavior modification, even if they have no power to modify the behavior of other people. The idea is that if we punish other people for their behavior that they will change their behavior, and that idea seems deeply embedded in our culture.

As someone who was once a teenage boy, I can tell you that behavior modification didn’t work for me. My dad tried for several years to ground me, take things away from me, and rescind privileges like TV, phone and even my humble little transistor radio, just to get me to work on improving my grades. This is from a man who told me that people who go to college never amount to anything. Monkey see monkey do. I’m a very well trained monkey, so I didn’t go to college until much later in life.

I can recall one night, after weeks of being grounded for not doing my homework, my dad came to me, drunk, crying, and in tears. He said that he was tired of trying to get me to improve my grades (Ds and Fs) in school. He said he just wanted Cs. But he also said that in so many words that he was done trying to punish me to get me to do what he wanted. And that was that.

And so I felt some relief and just started to do better. I got mostly Bs and some As. I wasn’t trying to be perfect, but at least I didn’t have to worry about mistakes. I didn’t have to be worried about being grounded again. I honestly didn’t know what I was doing when I was a kid, and that was the point that my dad seemed to have missed. I lacked the skills to do better, to attain the goals he had set for me.

So when I survey the interactions that pass my eyes on social media, at work, on the road, and in my family, I see that culturally, we’ve been made to believe that people who are not competent should be punished. Worse, I see that many people have this idea in their head that if they just apply enough pressure, fear, pain, or isolation, that they can get the other person to change.

I have an example to show you just what a colossal failure that line of thinking is: The Florida Dozier School For Boys. For more than a century, parents would send their misbehaving boys to Dozier expecting the school to teach their boys lessons in good behavior. The Dozier School was the epitome of everything that is wrong with behavior modification. The evidence? A graveyard in the back of the school filled with bodies of kids who died from punishment gone too far. You can read more about that here and here.

The details of what happened at that school aren’t as interesting as the mindset of the people who worked there. The mindset among the teachers was that if you punish someone enough, you will change their behavior eventually. But judging by the crosses in those pictures in the articles I’ve read about them, they underestimated the power of the human spirit numerous times.

I can think of times when I wanted to punish others but resisted. That driver who cut me off on the way to work. What a jerk. Calling him a jerk is a sort of punishment, a sort of relief valve. But knowing what I know now, I relax and remind myself that he is probably unaware of how I might feel and doesn’t care. I remind myself that he lacked the capacity to do better, that he seemed to be in a hurry and that I wasn’t in a hurry since I had given myself plenty of time to get to work.

When someone does something that offends me, I check in with myself. Did I get hurt? Not really. Can I still get my needs met? Yes. I grieve if I need to grieve, but I’ve come to a place in life where most of the time, I don’t take anything personally anymore. I’m not so easily offended. Not my circus, not my monkeys.

As I write this article, I have this song playing in my head, “You Need To Calm Down”, by Taylor Swift. I found it by accident on YouTube and watched the music video for the first time just the other day. I can identify with her sentiments. I can agree with her observations. I see the people protesting gay people, different people, people who are not like me. They’re doing no harm to the people who protest them or to me. They just want to live in peace.

In my life, there is no one to punish, upbraid or admonish. There is no one really doing direct harm to me. I don’t sweat the small stuff and I don’t keep score. If I have a mind to punish, I think it through. Will I get what I wanted? Not really. People will be mad at me. They will work to avoid the punishment rather than do what I asked them to do. And sleep will be much harder to find.

So I blunt every temptation to punish someone else with kindness or forgiveness or both. I let them have a bad day if they want to. I let them flagellate, excoriate, complain, whine, whatever. And when they’re done, when they’re out of breath, I let them know that I’m still here for them. I offer assistance and check to see if they want it. I offer a hug. I let them choose what to do. I don’t have to change them. I only need to be me and let you see me. That’s intimacy.

And when we know each other, we have empathy, for intimacy can only come with empathy. When we see the eyes of the other, how they suffer, we will know that punishment is not an appropriate response to incompetence.

Write on.

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