The Futility Of Punishment
As I watch my nation become consumed with the pandemic, riots, fear, and greed, I see a recurrent and persistent theme: punishment and revenge. In politics, each side of an issue wishes to punish the other side for failing to comply and get with the program. In society, “the deplorables” are punished for failure to comply. Tit-for-tat reigns supreme in political discourse.
In my personal life, I face an occasional punishment from my wife for the crime of failing to instill a persistent sense of fear of me, in my kids. And maybe my wife, too. She’s from Vietnam and they have a bit of an authoritarian culture there. I would rather engage in gentle interrogation of my kids to assist them in solving the problems that give rise to challenging behavior than to punish them for not knowing better.
In every forum, every venue, I see how punishment fails to address the problems that give rise to the rage that inspires a desire for one party to punish another: a lack of capacity and/or skills.
So it is no wonder that as the pandemic wears on, tempers are easy to flare up. Domestic violence is on the rise. There is a subtle talk of war. There is clear internecine political warfare in progress now, in this country. In what is one of the most innovative countries in the world, there is a real fear that the United States will collapse. If there is a failure on a massive scale in America, no amount of punishment will fix it.
More than a hundred thousand people have died as a result of the pandemic. No amount of punishment is going to fix that. Trump spent six weeks noodling his bellybutton while contemplating the best intelligence the world had to offer on the coronavirus before the pandemic took hold of America and flung it against the ground side to side like the Incredible Hulk. No amount of punishment is going to fix that.
Congress can hardly wrap its head around the political implications of the pandemic. They too had knowledge of the coronavirus during the impeachment hearings back in January and February. They too did nothing with the same intelligence that Trump had. We know they had it because some of them engaged in major stock trades before taking any meaningful action. No amount of punishment can fix that kind of incompetence because punishment doesn’t teach any skills.
When I watch the news long enough to see a story about a local murder, I am reminded that people resort to murder due to incompetence. Murderers clearly lack the capacity to accept other people as they are or they wouldn’t engage in murder. A person who allows him or herself to get to the point where they’re willing to murder someone else is demonstrating gross incompetence in terms of self-discipline, the anticipation of consequences, and consideration of alternatives. No amount of punishment is going to fix that.
In social media, I see people punishing each other nearly every day. One person states an opinion, and a group of people descends on that person with all manner of verbal abuse as punishment for failing to adhere to the crowd’s opinion. I see all manner of invective, insults, and ostracism directed at an individual simply for stating an unpopular opinion. The offender is summarily blocked by the snowflakes, usually before the victim can get his reply into the thread. No amount of punishment can help those people known affectionately as “trolls”.
Notice that I speak of incompetence here. The reason for my choice of words is the following principle known as Hanlon’s Razor:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
Most people who hurt other people have no idea what they’re doing until it’s too late. Some people break up with someone because they didn’t get what they wanted from their lover. Others indulge in affairs thinking that somehow, that they will feel better with someone else, or that they’re exacting revenge on a partner who won’t indulge in their fantasies. Some people quit their job thinking that they’re punishing their employer. A smaller fraction of people commits crimes thinking that they deserve the bounty from their crimes at the expense of others. This country has engaged in war thinking that other countries deserve our wrath. The foregoing are excellent examples of incompetence.
With kids we punish them, spank them, deprive them of their possessions, privileges, and affection, thinking that we’re punishing them. With our spouses, we withhold our affection, fail to communicate our plans or true desires, or we abandon them altogether in the quest for something better, thinking that we’re punishing them, too. All of this too is evidence of ignorance and incompetence.
No matter the circumstances I’ve never, ever, seen punishment actually serve a practical, positive purpose. I do see value in restraint, but that’s different than punishment. We restrain people for our safety. We restrain kids to prevent them from hurting themselves or others. We put people in jail to prevent them from hurting others. We handcuff violent people to prevent them from hurting others. We rehabilitate criminals because we’re human. We turn our prisons into a literal hell because we have reduced the prisoner into an object that is something less than human.
It is a wonder then, that we have even managed to function as a society for as long as we have, for the temptation to punish is a pandemic. It is common for people to assume that an honest mistake was intentionally directed at them. I should know, I used to think that way. I’d be driving along the boulevard behind another car, the light turns yellow, the car in front of me taps the breaks and skates through the intersection while I slam the brakes to avoid going through a red light. I’d think that the driver up front did that on purpose. And then I’d consider all manner of punishment because I took an innocent act of another person, and made it personal against me.
Near misses in traffic, administrative errors, poor customer service, missed opportunities for advancement, and on and on and on. We can take anything that happens to us personally as if they were directed against us, while the other person is blithely unaware of our disposition. Then we believe that we have a right to punish someone who is completely ignorant of the offense we perceived.
So many hours, so much suffering.
But it is possible to avoid that suffering. It is possible that we are not qualified to judge others, to rise into a rage against others, or to mete out punishment. Most of us are not really qualified to administer punishment of any kind because we lack the capacity to see the other person as human and fallible when we’re in anger. And for some reason, anger and logic cannot exist in the same mind at the same time. Worse, anger prevents us from contemplating even the most easily observed consequences of our actions.
The consequences of our actions in anger can easily cost us a night of sleep, or even a night in jail. We may lose a lifetime of sleep for one act of revenge carried out in anger because we lacked the cognition required to know the long term consequences of our actions while consumed in anger.
I view people through this lens of capacities and skills now. I had to change my perspective because thinking about punishment and revenge was tiring. I tried in vain to come up with clean execution with no guilt, and no blowback. Through introspection, I discovered that my obsessions were all about making other people change. My anger was evidence of an inability on my part to accept everything as it is. I discovered that my resentments were evidence of a complete surrender of my personal power to another person.
So I became careful not to act on the feelings. I learned to let the feelings pass and then think about how I wanted to respond. I learned to notice how I felt after the strongest feelings passed, and to act only when I could see and think clearly about what I wanted and how to get it. I learned how to do a sort of cost-benefit analysis before taking any action. I learned that the cost of any action taken in anger was far greater than the anticipated benefits. On net, I’ve never seen actions taken in anger provide any tangible benefit. I often had something like “buyer’s remorse” after committing an act in anger.
After numerous failed attempts to derive some sort of benefit from an action taken in anger, I gave up on trying. Regret is tiring. Anger is tiring. Escalation is tiring. Fear of retaliation leads to paranoia and both of them are tiring. Once the cycle starts, it never stops until forgiveness begins to shine in the rearview mirror.
Many hours of analysis in the pursuit of revenge turned out to be wasted effort. This is because I’ve found that there is no way to hurt someone else without hurting myself. The Buddhists and the scientists have figured this concept out long before I was born. The Buddhists had an intuition that we are all connected. The particle physicists observed quantum entanglement and inferred that everything is connected. They even figured out that just observing an experiment can influence the outcome of the experiment.
So for me, every interaction with an irritating person is an experiment to see how I can learn to quell the disturbance within me and to let the feelings pass. I have been practicing this habit for more than a decade now, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I can see the feelings coming, feel them hit me like a 6-foot wave at the beach, and watch the wave roll over me like I was sand. During that time, I’m making a conscious decision to take no action until the feeling has passed. And then, once I am composed, I can pick and choose the actions I want to take in my response.
I have learned to see the mistakes of others as acts of ignorance, not personal attempts to irritate me. I have learned to see every mistake in humanity as an act made of ignorance. I have learned to set aside mind-reading and the pretense of knowing the motives of other people. I have learned to assume ignorance before malice.
I have made so many mistakes in my responses to other people throughout my life, that I have developed the discipline to let the feelings pass. I have learned to wait and observe. I have learned to assume a posture of repose, so as to reflect on how I feel and what I’m thinking. I have learned to forgive and forget so that I may see more clearly, the bounty of gifts from humanity that surround me in my life. I have learned to be still so that I may better appreciate what is before me, not as a transgression made to irritate me, but a device made to teach me something about myself. I have learned the skill of forgiveness.