Lost Causes – Picking Punishment Apart

What a long, weird trip it’s been.

I’m not sure I’m going to be able to express this properly, the strangeness around my effort to change the world, but I’ll try.

I’d like to find some common ground and some connection for myself as a Person with a Cause and somehow talk about that independently from the perceived merit or not of the cause itself . . .  of course that will mean talking about my crusade, laying it all out, but I’m not trying to sell it in this one. I have a hundred and fifty to two hundred posts online and one really bad book collecting dust under my desk where that’s what I’m trying to do. Today, it’s not about me and My Cause, but rather about my cause and what it has meant to Me.

You should know, I don’t really like challenges. My self-image has a low white cell count and I really don’t need to get into any fights I’m likely to lose. In the real world, I’m a bit of a spaz and a moron to tell you the truth; my latest theory or excuse for it is in a recent post, that I am for some reason permanently stressed out, living life flooded with cortisol, which is an emergency mode of functioning that is intended to preserve life and has for much of our time as animals on this Earth. It’s a good adaptation, but it’s not supposed to be chronic. We are supposed to have some measure of peace between existential threats; breeding, raising kids, requires some calm, some respite from the battle for survival. Like I say, that’s my present rationalization for my poor connection with the world, my stupidity. Of course, like all things, if I had uncovered the correct reason for the problem, the problem should be solved. That not so much being the reality, I’ll keep the case open – but for now suffice it to say that I am not really a person on the rise, building success upon success and ready to take on  big, public challenges.

I really didn’t need this shit, is what I’m saying. This cause, for whatever reason, chose me. It has been suggested that all I am is a contrarian, that I have selected my viewpoint for the express purpose of picking fights with everyone and so that I can feel original, but I assure you that I worry about that, that I am not unaware of that danger, and try to stay vigilant about it. That is the sort of thing that can never be settled or proved, however, so if you’ll allow me, I’ll take a different tack: is that charge not a version of the fallacy of authority? An unknown or disreputable source is not proof of the failure of an idea. Honestly, I do have personal good feelings about what I believe, I even derive an occasional ego kick from writing and feeling original. All true, but besides not being damning to my theories, it should be obvious if we look at it: Having the epiphany experience and carrying around a fixated idea that no-one else appreciates – it’s not all fun and compliments.

It can be something of a burden, truth to tell. Does anyone remember Sean Connery in ‘Medicine Man?’ – “How do you think you would feel if you found the cure for cancer and then lost it?” I’m sure every crackpot like me knows the feeling – how do you think it would feel if you found what seems to be the answer for everything and no-one wanted to hear it?

  1. I think we’ve all seen enough of that side of yours truly for the moment! Ahem. Moving on.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, my best friend and the girlfriends we had all agreed – I hate everything. I was always making observations about everything in life and the people I saw and I wasn’t impressed. For example, although I’m not sure this one occurred to me that young, I would try the wrong one of a double door to a store or something, find it locked and bark something like:

“I hate that! The place is open but one door is looked, just to make half of us feel like fools! Are you open or aren’t you?”

I did that stuff pretty constantly, and I still do, I can’t stop. So I’ve decided that complaining is a good thing, positive, and if you’re not complaining then you’ve simply given up. It’s the complainers of the world that are pointing out the problems, hoping for change. But I get that it would drive folks nuts. Rick, Diane, Darlene, Maureen, Gavin, Jim – I’m sorry. Like I say, I can’t stop – but I’m sorry. I ruined every round of golf for decades for my latest best friend with my anger and my frustration that is all part of the same attitude, and Phil, I’m sorry. I know there is no way to make up for it, all those years.

Having said all that, there is still a place for the social critic, even if he’s simply a private, individual curmudgeon and it’s not so much a job as just a catastrophic combination of personal traits. The door example – I can imagine reasons: a quicker lock up in case of some sort of trouble, or just that it’s sometimes a low-level employee in charge of opening and maybe he’s not sensitive to the slight, negative message of one locked door that a conscientious owner might be – it’s real, right? Somebody at some point made a decision that impacted me in a very slightly negative way – and maybe on my worst day it could be the straw that broke the camel’s back, the difference between a good day and a bad one, or me seeing the universe and mankind as basically good or not. If you’ve got two doors and you’re open, opening both doors would be more thoughtful, is all I’m saying. If there is a better reason for you not to, fine, but it doesn’t change my experience.

So I’m grumpy, always looking for something wrong in the world, hypersensitive to the tiniest of offenses.

There are other ways to look at it, of course, but I’m going to go with this right now: it is this talent of mine, which was always present and developed and nurtured over time which has made me the perfect victim of this cause. It’s a nasty irony that while I am so open to the appreciation of this problem, that I’m not much of a vehicle for solving it. (Man, this is just dripping with Christianity and self-abuse, it sounds like Joan of Arc or something, ‘your humble and unworthy servant!’ I’m actually an atheist, a cultural Christian – and this is the power of culture. If it disqualifies anything I say in support of my cause, I hope any critic will commit to demonstrating exactly how and working through it with me. Everyone has baggage!)

OK, so much for the preamble. Sometimes, all I have is preamble; I think that when I die, someone should take everything I wrote, bundle it all up and make it the introduction to the book I wanted to write. My secret dream is that before that happens that I might ever get to the fucking point. But oh, well.

My long-game cause is the end of the practice of punishment in nearly all of its forms. A mid-range goal would be to end the punishment of children in all its forms. The nearest goal would be that we just start to think about it at all.

Seriously.

It’s punishment that I’m focussing on, and it brings its own problems. Anywhere we see a list of topics or subjects, school curricula, websites, the big board on ‘Jeopardy,’ even, anywhere that categories are delineated, there is one word, one concept, one real-world thing that is never there, and that one thing is punishment, or the practice of punishing. My epiphany, my Grand Unification Theory of Life, punishment – is not even a subject, not a topic, period.

Somebody, please, I beg you – does that sound strange?

I’ll brainstorm a little myself before I continue here. What else, what else that is so common in life, is not a topic? We have all manner of science built around the air, and water, and all of humanity has some level of expertise with food and our bodily functions, all of these ubiquitous, taken-for-granted things have deserved study and nomenclature, all of these things have many people dedicating their lives to them, and they are vast fields of knowledge, ever expanding . . .

As is the study of punishment, it too can be a door to a huge area of study, but, so far, that is apparent only to me and a few others. I suspect it is in the particular nature of this particular thing, punishment, that it by necessity and design escapes our eye, our human inquisitiveness. Like a living parasite, punishment can somehow make sure that we don’t look directly at it: it’s controlling us that way. Oops – talking for the cause, not about it. Redirecting . . .

As a cause, at this point in history, the eradication of punishment is utterly hopeless – not even an available topic for discussion, as I’ve been told. This cause has made a pariah of me; I spend my time telling pretty much all parents that they’re Bad Parents, and it doesn’t matter that I’m speaking to all of humanity, or that I often include waivers to that effect when I write, ‘nothing personal,’ ‘not you, it’s the system,’ I say, doesn’t matter. Parenting is personal, period. There may be more people in the world that would side with me on it, but so far I suppose I could count more of my fingers than I could those people. It’s not even a subject. The index for the Book of Life has references to punishment on nearly every page, but it’s not in the Glossary section and there is no Further Reading on it – that is, there wasn’t until a few folks like me came along. Sadly, because punishing hasn’t really been optional anyway, and few folks ever really think about it in a critical way, there doesn’t seem to be established arguments about it yet. There are no Keyneses and Hayeks for us to line up behind.

Unless there’s a smarter and better situated person to do it, I would be willing to play the part of the ‘Keynes of Punishment,’ making the arguments and taking the flack, but who will be my Hayek?

The rare few of us who have looked at punishing behaviour for decades and tried to analyze it have no trouble finding opponents to dismiss and ridicule us, but I haven’t yet found anyone who suffers my equal but opposite obsession with the subject, anyone who has built a logical structure in defense of punishment – I’m sorry, but I mean a logical structure that deserves to be called one, one with more than a few dozen words, a serious breakdown of what logic may support it. Again, I’m sorry, and I’m not asking for that from busy parents, either. Surely there is some authority, some institution that will speak for Standards and Practices? – kidding of course. Punishment is not a subject, not a field, and there aren’t any experts to consult. Just in case you’ve been thinking it – psychologists and educators, are they not our experts?

First, for the educator, punishment is simply a tool in their kit, in the past often the most used one. From what I can see, however, the school systems appear to be ahead of the curve in terms of at least corporal punishing, plus they’re not the parents and they’re not prison guards or police, so really, they’re not doing most of the damage. Not at work, anyway.

For the psychologists and all the other iterations of head doctor, it seems all stimuli and effects are just data, bits of a puzzle (other than Alice Miller and her followers, I suppose) and frankly, punishing and over-punishing is giving those fields job security. The main thing is, though, these issues are personal. Psych people and educators, they are like all of us, first and foremost, persons. All the personal, psychological things that exist around child-rearing and punishment are there for the educator and the psychologist as well; blind spots are blind spots, it doesn’t necessarily matter that many psychologists, psychiatrists etc., have spectacularly good vision, we are all born and bred in the system. The parasite does not allow itself to be seen.

A question, for any psych folks out there – was punishment a subject in your educations, a topic? Did the concept get the time a single event we punish and traumatize for gets, like toilet training, or that tired old saw about catching your parents doing it?

Really, really what I’m asking for is for the universe to spontaneously create the zealot who will see his mission to create a philosophical basis for punishing in the world, for my nemesis to appear, the Unbreakable one to defend the world as it is, to my Mr. Glass (a movie, “Unbreakable,” M. Night Shyamalan, I think). Either that, or people have to confess to me that there is no rationale for punishing beyond the senseless sound bites we all know, and start to think about it. As always, the best time was ten years ago, but now is good too.

Actually, never mind all that crap about the universe making me a strawman to flog, let’s just go with that last bit.

I need to realize that there is no such equal and opposite argument, even less so than there is for global warming. Feel free to correct me, but really, this is something we should be applying that impressive human brain to, we should step one pace back from ‘do we like punishment?’ which most folks could answer, to ‘what is punishment, exactly?’, start from there. I’m not saying most people couldn’t answer that one, I’m only suggesting that no-one has ever asked them that before, and perhaps it will get us thinking. I do think that many folks have things in their definition that really aren’t punishing at all, so the definition can use a little refresher in our minds anyway.

I am deeply sorry, Dear reader-if-there-is-one, I cannot seem to keep this thing on track, it’s become more of a ramble, I’m afraid, a catch-all. Honestly, I’m trying to build myself a strategy going forward, how I’ll write, maybe try to change my tone to something recognizable as writing in this century, as well as how I’ll blog and promote and even how I’ll talk to people. Not sure yet, but I think this will help: sorry to use you for a sounding board like this (it’s what a lot of blogging is, I guess), I hope my circular rambling was at least mildly entertaining. I promise more substance and less navel-gazing next time.

Jeff