“You beat a man with a whip, and he likes the whip.” I always love an opportunity to quote Charlie Manson. Or Vince Bugliosi anyway. I suppose we could still ask Charlie if he said it, but could we believe his answer? Bugliosi is still alive too, but sources aren’t important to me. I’m all about content. If a swine like Manson says something clever, I appreciate it. Moving on.
Separating the times when punishment has been a cause from the times when it has been an effect is no simple thing, along the lines of the chicken and the egg, except not so easy. We punish a person when they’re bad, but the well-intended abuse that is punishment can all too often have the effect all abuse has, the same effect the kind with bad intentions has. It makes people bad. To some degree or other, of course. Many recipients of punishment and/or abuse may never act it out. But it happens, and when it does, which came first, chicken or egg? When a person is bad, is the badness originating from their deep, original self, or is it a reaction to abuse, either well or badly intended?
Another analogy, supplied by another clever criminal: “If you’re really sick, you might take a lot of medications, but the reverse is also true: if you take a lot of medications, you will be really sick.” It’s a paraphrase from Kevin Trudeau. He’s a huckster and a shyster, but that is no lie. He backs it up with this: “All drugs are toxic. Don’t believe me? Take forty of anything.” Please don’t test the truth of that one. (I can’t remember if Kevin offered that warning.) But the analogy is apt: if you’re bad, you will receive a lot of punishing, but the reverse is also true: if you take a lot of punishments, you may be really bad. This is why it’s so hard to separate the effects from the causes: a punished person becomes bad, in effect proving the punisher’s case. The more we punish a person, the more they appear to “need” it, or “deserve” it.
This function can work on an individual level – Manson self-reports a childhood of very few happy moments – but it works at a social level as well. If a group or a subgroup of people are disproportionately punished, the effect of that abuse, well or badly intended, will make them bad, again, sadly appearing to “prove” the punishing subgroup’s case, reinforcing the appearance of the need to punish forever. Perhaps this is the correct context in which to see the recent events in Missouri, and the racist conflicts in America generally. It is a racial problem certainly, but I think the older problem, the pre-existing condition for this travesty lies in the abusive nature of punishing. Certainly there are a lot of ruined white lives as well, overly punished and abused white criminals that we should also wonder what came first, the chicken of their adult criminality or the egg of their childhood abuse and punishment.
Of course, we need to seriously question what came first with the disproportionately punished and incarcerated members of America’s black population, the chicken of their disenfranchised frustration, rage and desperation, or the egg of their marginal status in society. Of course this situation also informs the other current events tragedies of the moment, the dysfunctional relationship between the Israelis and their Palestinian citizens, and between the Canadian state and Canada’s aboriginals. Punishment and crime exist in a feedback loop, and of course, as always the real solution is love, not pain.
And just to be really, really clear: the egg came first.