Colour Blindness and Optimism

There are a lot of comments going around the internet that sound like a sort of backlash against the Ferguson and I Can’t Breathe protests. It’s white folks taking umbrage, maybe feeling left out, like ‘who’s protesting the fact that my life sucks too?’

I think comments like that can be viewed as somewhere on a spectrum, the extreme bad end being racist, but it’s probably usually best viewed this way: a lot of white folks aren’t aware of their racism. It’s all part and parcel of the beliefs around social things – Original Sin, Nature over Nurture stuff, a pedestrian disdain for psychology and social science generally. It seems to me to be rooted in some sort of idea that despite the bad things happening in the world, still, somehow we need to see everything as being all right.

Everything is OK, we’re not screwed up or racist, we’re just dealing with the screwed up people in the poorest communities the best way and the only way possible. It’s the world that’s bad, not us.

This “colour blindness” is at it’s core, optimistic. Of course, optimism isn’t always a good thing.

The Irony of Deterrents, Part #3

‘Law and Order’ types – Republicans, Conservatives – and punishing parents, these folks who advocate for deterrents and punishments, they like to say how they’re fixing things, how they’re “modifying behaviour” and setting children and criminals right. Well, they’ve been at it for all of recorded history and maybe longer, and of course kids are always new, solving some doesn’t change anything for the next batch, but if their attitude did anything to lessen crime – well, there would be less crime. If there had been any progressive lessening of crime by these methods, these last eighty centuries (three hundred generations?) should have given us some sense it was working. Instead, we have pretty much all reached the conclusion that these things are as they have always been, and always will be, that crime is simply part of the human condition. This despite that our nearest cousins, the chimpanzees and bonobos, seem to live with a peace-to-crime ratio similar to ours.

You know, I offend a lot of people, I basically spend all of my online time telling everyone that they are bad parents, but there’s more. I think that, despite the offense of my message, people are put off by something else. I suspect they all know I’m not being completely honest with them; I think it must show that I’m holding something back. So here it is. No fear.

You ‘Law and Order’ types, you authoritarians, you punishers of children and criminals, know this: you’re not just failing. You’re not just not having the desired effect, oh no. You are destroying the world. You are making the world the Hell that it is for so many people. Your punishments – often intended as deterrents, you hope not to have to follow through, I’ll give you that – have the same effect, cause the same suite of damages that abuse does, to wit, psychological problems, cognitive difficulties, and crime. You are causing all the social problems you say you’re trying to fix.

That, plus you want to talk about how it’s natural and inevitable, and you refuse to do the troubleshooting, you refuse to take your negative stimuli out of the equation. You want to say it’s inherent, the crime, the greed, the violence – but you will defend to your last breath the very active, hands-on stimuli that has been shown by study after reputable study to cause exactly these things, and you will stubbornly never let up long enough to prove it one way or another.

That is the situation.

Now I’ll start talking nice again – well soon.

You didn’t create this situation. But having been told, having had it pointed out to you – the next time you mete out a punishment you will be doing just that. So cut it out. Stop destroying the world.


Here’s Part #2, might be critical to this part:


Law and Order – the Irony of Deterrents, Part 2


I’ve just re-read my first post by that name, and I couldn’t help but notice that it’s terrible. So this isn’t going to be so much ‘Part 2’ as version 2.0. Steven Pinker keeps Tweeting about how writers need to remember that they’re the ones talking, and that we should lay it all out and not hope that our readers already know everything we’re trying to say – and boy, he could have talking to me alone. So with that in mind I’ll try this again.


  1. The Damages of Punishments.


There is a terrible irony that happens when we attempt to solve society’s ills through punishment. The science is in regarding abuse, and also regarding corporal punishment: these things are causing many of our ills.

Crime, high-risk behaviour and self-harm, addiction, depression, cognitive impairment and poor grades in school, all these and more have been shown through study after reputable study to be higher frequency issues for those who are documented to have suffered abuse and/or corporal punishment in their lives.

Let’s also admit right here the truth obscured by a ubiquitous fallacy: all serious punishments are corporal punishments. We don’t volunteer for our punishments, and when we choose to take them, it’s because they are going to be forced upon us physically if we don’t. Punishments are not optional, and force is “corporal,” ultimately. This means that the list of negative outcomes above is the result of punishments, no qualifier like “corporal” is necessary, and in fact, any qualifier is detrimental to the truth. There is no type of punishment that doesn’t ever cause damage, because there is no type of punishment that isn’t intended to. That’s the whole idea, isn’t it?

We harm so that the person we are punishing changes their behaviour in order to avoid the harm. If it doesn’t harm, it’s not a punishment, by definition. In the best cases, the prospect of the harm is enough and bad behaviour is avoided before it occurs – but we’re not addressing deterrents just yet.

That list of negative outcomes above – oh, let’s repeat it: crime, high-risk behaviour and self-harm, addiction, depression, cognitive impairment and poor grades in school – not a complete list, of course, that suite of damages has been shown, statistically to be more common in people who have suffered abuse and corporal punishment, that is to say, these effects are caused by abuse and corporal punishment.

Let’s stop there for a moment, and ask, what else causes these things? Certainly medical conditions like Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and any number of brain mis-developments or diseases add their effects. I won’t argue, it may be impossible to separate FAS from other factors in an abusive and punishing population, but surely we see these outcomes in many people who are known to have no serious medical causative factors or syndromes associated with parents’ substance abuse. Of course there are serious traumas, war and natural disasters, heinous crimes, no denying that, but these aren’t likely to be an explanation for most of the people suffering these negative outcomes either. Genetic predisposition perhaps, perhaps Original Sin or its evolutionist cousin, our animal natures?

As to genetics, I expect the science is coming, the statistics may show something in the coming years; I’ll wait for the studies. As for Original Sin, I won’t hold my breath. Those statistics aren’t coming, ever.

What I’m getting at here, though I won’t presume to put a percentage on it, or even to say it’s the majority (even if I suspect it is), is that abuse and punishment are a major cause of the long list of personal damages that so many of us suffer from and that the more punished and abused of us tend to suffer from more, in proportion. Statistically.

And now to deterrents.


  1. Deterrents – the Calculated Risk.


Simply defined, a deterrent is the designation of a punishment intended to turn us from crime or misbehaviour; a punishment administered after the misdeed is intended to teach a lesson the hard way, while one that stops the behaviour before it starts is referred to as a deterrent. The threat or promise of a punishment, we hope, will avert the bad behaviour before it happens.

For a deterrent to be effective, at least one of several things must happen. A deterrent forces the subject to make a cost benefit analysis, so first, the cost must be more than we want to pay, that is the cost – the punishment – must outweigh the benefit of the crime in order to deter it. Second, the cost must be certain enough to force the analysis – meaning the punishment doesn’t matter if we don’t think we’re going to get caught, if we think we’ll never have to pay. If it were only the first condition that mattered, things would be simple – we would only have to insure costly punishments and deterrents would work. That’s not the case though; there is almost always some variable chance of never having to pay, and so deterrents are a gamble.

Depending on our perception of our chances of being caught, the strength of a deterrent is increased when the cost is increased, that is, when the punishment offered gets more severe. For the second condition, as the certainty of being caught increases, so too does the power of the deterrent. So this is the question for a person contemplating a crime, or a child considering being “bad:” what is the penalty, and will I be caught? If the penalty is painful, and the odds of getting away with it are low, and the person is not otherwise compelled to ignore the risk (a third condition, that external circumstances do not make the likelihood or severity of the penalty irrelevant), the deterrent will work. Again, this is the analysis from the criminal’s, or the naughty child’s point of view.

But we, caregivers, we, society, we have an analysis to make too, regarding costs and benefits.


  1. The Bets We Make – Un-calculated Risk.


When all goes well, when the conditions are right and the deterrent works, then that’s great. All well and good, or close enough, anyway. Let’s just say that if deterrents worked all the time, I wouldn’t be complaining. Of course they don’t, so the complaining will continue. If they did, we wouldn’t all have been spanked and grounded as children and the prison industry wouldn’t be such a growth sector.

It’s when the deterrent fails that’s the problem.

When either the punishment offered isn’t scary enough, certain enough, or when there is something scarier that will happen if we don’t commit the crime and the deterrent doesn’t work, then we have another choice: punish or let it pass. Of course, any parent or anybody else will be quick to tell us we can’t just let it pass. That would be the end of deterrents instantly. So when the deterrent fails, we punish. For what happens when we punish, I’ll refer you back to Section 1: higher incidences of crime, high-risk behaviour and self-harm, addiction, depression, cognitive impairment and poor grades in school, etc.

So this is the gamble, the bet we make. We designate a punishment, hoping for the deterrent effect, and all too often wind up punishing instead, causing the aforementioned damages to our criminals, and to our kids. When we lose this bet, we instantly transition from being the good folks who would make the world a better place by stopping bad behaviour to becoming the cause of so many of the world’s ills instead. Of course this is a multigenerational gamble. “Our kids” means us. This is the gamble, but make no mistake, no-one wins the game. This is one that we lose often enough that the wins are nearly meaningless, because the damages that come with losing aren’t balanced out by the mere absence of trauma that is the prize for winning.

Defined as a joke with the power to make us cry, this is irony: a logical joke, but a sad, sad reality. This is the deeply ironic fallacy of deterrents.

If we believe in our deterrents, but see crime remains, or increases, we may think the deterrents need to be stepped up, the penalties intended as deterrents worsened . . . and this only increases the damage, and doubles the horrible irony of our public policy. This is what is offered by our Law-and-Order politicians, more damage, and therefore, among other social symptoms, more crime. (I’m looking at you, Stephen Harper.) This situation is of course more heartbreaking when we do that with our parental discipline, when we increase the stakes on our children, in this game that we can only lose to a greater or lesser degree, this game where there is no winning.

I know deterring crime, deterring bad behaviour, it sounds positive. If it worked every time, if the bad behaviour was averted one hundred percent of the time, it would be – but it doesn’t. Again, I’m not going to put a number out there, I won’t even presume to say that the deterrent fails more often than not. Clearly it fails often enough; punishments are not rare, by any measure, and neither are the sorts of damages punishments have been shown to cause. I repeat: deterrents fail often enough, and damaging punishing inevitably results. There is no winning these bets, only degrees of losing. Punishing damages people, and our wish that bad behaviour can be reliably deterred is back-firing. Our chosen method to solve crime and misbehaviour is what is causing it, and not the other way around.

If this is not heartbreaking to us, we can consider that we have been desensitized to it. There is only so much horrible irony a person can take before we just switch off. It’s the system, it’s not our fault.

That doesn’t mean it’s not wrong.


Punishment, Rewards, and Human Nature

. . . and Capitalism.

We are not ‘born bad,’ despite what our authoritarian parents and leaders would have us think, despite that everyone seems to think we are. The Christians call it Original Sin, they think we are born evil and need God and His rod to beat it out of us, and the evolutionists think we are basically animals, and need to be civilized by force.
So we use punishments and their inverse, rewards, to teach us how to behave and this makes everything about us and our desires. That is the concept of punishing, to turn us away from an unwanted behaviour by causing some pain for us – just in case the actual negative consequence of our behaviour escapes us. Punishing brings an immediate focus of it to us, to our personal selves. Rewards do the exact same thing: when we do something good, it’s made good for us.
Of course, this teaches the opposite of any true morality, this negates any idea of altruism. Punishments and rewards simply train us to behave certain ways only because of the benefits or detriments to ourselves. This does not teach concern for others.
This is how we raise our children, this is how we teach, all day, every day, for the longest period of childhood and education of any animal on Earth . . . and then the Capitalists talk of competition, self interest and even greed as “Human Nature.”
Of course, Human nature is only a collection of observations, and not in fact a cause or explanation for anything. Again – all day, every day, for the longest period of childhood and education of any animal on Earth, we punish and reward, making every teachable moment for every human only about himself, and then we declare people to be “naturally” only interested in themselves.
Pffft, I say. Rubbish.
Science is telling us that the “blank slate” theory is not true. And correct as they may be, born as a blank slate or not, we spend, again – all day, every day, for the longest period of childhood and education of any animal on Earth – writing on, drawing on, and inscribing into our slates, until our slates are left with no clear, unused space, we end with layers upon layers of script, all mixed up and nearly indecipherable. It is truly no surprise that the original state of our slates is such a mystery, but it is no mystery that we very actively and forcefully write on it ourselves, and science also tells us that all that energy and force will not be without effects.
Human nature is what we make it. Until we stop so forcefully creating our natures, we will never know what it may have been, what the scripts might be if we really allow nature to mark our slates.

The Common Denominator, Part #2

Again, psychology tells us that abuse and trauma are damaging to the psyche, and to a person’s development. In simple language, we often say that an abused person “has problems.” It is often considered that an abuser was him or herself, abused. Alice Miller thought so:

“It is very difficult for people to believe the simple fact that every persecutor was once a victim. Yet it should be very obvious that someone who was allowed to feel free and strong from childhood does not have the need to humiliate another person. “

Alice Miller
Alice Miller (20th century), German psychoanalyst and author. For Your Own Good, “Unintentional Cruelty Hurts, Too,” (trans. 1983).

Considering the above, often in cases of clear abuse or even heinous crimes, the perpetrator’s own experience of received abuse is not in evidence. We can be baffled when some person commits acts of violence, and the public record shows that no abuse or violence was committed against the offender. This can become fodder for ‘Law and Order’ crusaders, it can appear to give the psychology of abuse a black eye, it can be pointed to as debunking any correlation between the receiving and the committing of abuse. Then there is talk of sin, Original Sin, video-game and TV and film violence, as well as talk of genetic predisposition. Again, though, the existence of a precursor, or common denominator can reconcile this apparent conflict.

If we thought differently about it, if we saw our world in perhaps a darker light, if we had a reason to think that most people were in fact abused, if our view assumed few people escaped abuse, that view would certainly change the puzzle. When someone committed crimes or abuses that shock and horrify us, we would see that they probably were offended against, as per Miller’s statement; there would be some chance to understand it in some way. The conflicts would clear away, and our confusion would be lessened. That is the key. That is my premise.

– here’s part #1:

Original Sin

Mass-murderers like Charlie Manson and Andreas Brevik (spelling?) seem to think everyone is a psycho like them. They have it in common that all they thought they needed to do to start a race/faith war was to kill a few people, a few tens of people, and the war would be on, that all the average guy needs is for someone to start the killing and we’d all jump in and go on a mass mass-murder spree, a national, even global, bench-clearing brawl. They think everyone is like them, or at least that we all secretly want to be.
A core belief in people’s intrinsic violence, intrinsic evil, that’s what that is. Or to put it in other words, they hold with the doctrine of Original Sin.
Which is, of course, is a strong predictor for the nearly universal belief in the social tool known as punishment.
(This is what makes Charlie so captivating when he talks. He seems to know this, that he and we are not that far apart.)
It’s no secret that the religious, at least the Christian religious make no bones about this, that Original Sin is a tenet, they think it’s true, hence the need for God. And they mostly all follow the extrapolated idea from it, “spare the rod and spoil the child.” But what of the disavowed, the atheists, the lapsed? Also true, for the most part. We can deny the church, we can deny the bible, but it is foolish to deny that the bible is the basis of our entire culture here west of Afghanistan and east of Hawaii, (possibly excluding much of Africa) for the last 2,000 years. You atheists, you church-bashers, know this: use the rod, and you propagate the very thing you hope to extinguish!
This is a key part of the interaction between religion and our faith in punishment as a social tool. When everyone is punished, when we are all raised with punishments that begin long before we have any understanding of the world, then a vengeful god makes sense, the idea of a punishment awaiting us at the end of a mis-lived life seems, reasonable. It has precedent, at least in our minds. Of course, this idea is normally expressed the other way ’round, that God and his punishments are the model for our lives, as written into many faiths’ texts. I don’t hope to change any minds among the religious followers, but the atheist reader will have to admit that the actual function is arranged in the natural timeline of a human life: parents first, God second.
It seems that there is no getting around our cultural heritage, certainly not if we still cling to the most important and influential beliefs of that legacy while only disavowing ourselves of the less reality-based and purely theoretical ones.
Alice Miller:
“Wherever I look, I see signs of the commandment to honour one’s parents and nowhere of a commandment that calls for the respect of a child.”