Nobody Deserves Anything: The Menu of Punishment or Atonement

The very concept of punishment is primitive and stupid. When I was in my high school gay-straight alliance, there was a general push for anti-bullying policies and, despite my being the victim of worse bullying than most of them, I would never have wanted to press charges in the school conduct system, much less, legally. First, my first instinct is mercy and I don’t like using coercive force. The taste in my mouth from extorting someone into submission through any means, especially, including the state’s violence and awesome power is very sour.

The biggest problem with the policies, however, is that they ultimately are counterproductive. Having a zero-tolerance anti-bullying policy is going to get lots of people in lots of trouble for minor offenses which will be on their record and follow them. Even if they don’t get in trouble, they are being controlled by fear. Both of those scenarios lead to resentment and strengthening their homophobia so that should they ever gain power, they’ll use it for homophobic purposes. Revenge leads to a cycle of vendetta and always has.

The administrators at the various institutions I have been a part of have always had the position that they wished to crack down with an iron fist any explicit form of supposedly anti-social behavior and be conspicuously obtuse to any subtle and less than overt acts of cruelty. Their primary concern is not the safety or welfare of their members but their liability both in the court of law and of public opinion. A fact I illustrate to make the point that while my fellow GSA members were eager to work with the vice principals, the school’s purposes were not altruistic and the school didn’t care if their students were unkind or prejudiced unless it was in a manner for which the institution could be held responsible.

Of course, policing the homophobes with an iron fist would not end their homophobia but like all prohibitions, would drive it underground and make it more sophisticated. For those whose primary means of justice was punitive, that’s the end of the road for their options. The GSA proposed nothing constructive or positive as a means of combating the hatred of their opponents. Had my fellow members of the GSA sought atonement and symbolic restitution as opposed to revenge and a safe space with sanitation enforced through the literal and metaphorical gun, not only would it have engendered far less resentment and thus backlash, it would have engendered a respect and goodwill of their opponents and both ended and likely have exposed the more subtle and harder to police forms of oppression.

I use this all as an example of what the aim in handling any form of misbehavior should be. It should not weigh what punishment should fit the crime but what use will fix the psychological pathology that led to it. Punishment, of any type, drives those pathologies to seek less overt mediums through which to manifest themselves. Even in non-social contexts, for forms of misbehavior, punishment drives crimes underground. If they weren’t afraid turning themselves in then they very often would and would amend any damages they had caused.

The embarrassment and shame of the exposure is often deterrence enough. The belief that there is a perfect menu were punishments fit crimes is false and people should not get what they supposedly deserve. Rather, the harm caused should be undone and atonement should be made through exposure, truth, apologies, forgiveness, reconciliation, and, ultimately, absolution. If necessary, medical treatment for any anti-social pathology may be warranted and that might include quarantining them to prevent further harm. The aim of none of this should be any abstract notion of what someone deserves as opposed to what will fix the problem and leave the air disinfected and clear.

The punitive route is a Faustian Bargain, it does accomplish the end of scaring people out of behaviors sufficiently to reduce overt incidents which does make people safer and, importantly to the institutions, absolves them of liability. It’s faster, dirtier, and dumber in that it requires no science or sophistication. Yet, the price paid for the celerity and lack of brains such an approach has is the ultimate cycle of vendetta it perpetuates and the mental wounds that never heal and are only worsened to erupt much later.

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