Last weekend I decided I would get the kids outdoors for a little time in nature. The Susquehanna River was frozen over, with the most remarkable ice formations. Even though the water is not deep in this part of the river, ice somehow piled up several feet. The photograph above is of a chunk of ice 30 meters out into the river. I felt safe because after a week of frigid weather, the bottom layer of ice was quite thick.
It didn’t take long before four police cars and two fire trucks showed up. I was yelled at in front of my children, told I could be arrested for endangering the safety of a minor, and cited for disorderly conduct.
This small incident reveals a lot about our society. First is the presumption that legally constituted authority should decide what is an acceptable level of safety for oneself and one’s family. I suppose going out onto the ice was more dangerous than staying indoors or on the sidewalk, but I deemed it in my children’s best interest to be outdoors in this amazing ice world.
Secondly, I sensed that what really disturbed the police was not that they actually believed we were in danger of falling through the ice. I’m telling you, that ice was thick. I think what disturbed them was the violation of normality that our little adventure represented. It makes people uncomfortable to see someone flaunting social norms. Thousands of people driving by in their cars, from work to mall to home to restaurant — and we were doing something that, while not expressly forbidden by any law, wasn’t condoned either. That’s why the charge of “disorderly conduct” is appropriate. What we were doing deviated from the established social order.
A third thing I found noteworthy was the routine, automatic attempt to shame and humiliate me. I think the usual explanation of petty authority wanting to feel powerful is only a small part of it. The shaming felt more professional than personal, and the police officers didn’t strike me as unusually nasty people. How they behaved was written into their job description, which draws from a whole worldview – which has deep religious and philosophical roots – in which punishment and reward are the main motivators of human behavior. If you want someone to stop doing something, you apply a legal or psychological penalty. Obviously, legal and psychological go closely hand in hand: the essential feature of incarceration is prolonged humiliation, the stripping away of dignity. The term for imprisonment, “corrections,” is telling, bringing to mind a paternalistic authority who corrects its charges when they misbehave. I hear the same method used in parenting all the time: “You should be ashamed of yourself!” “What’s wrong with you?” “Why did you do that?” An older but still current term, “penitentiary” also connotes “I’m going to make you sorry. I’m going to make you join my judgment of you in self-judgment.”
Photo Credit: Jimi Eisenstein
In my tete-a-tete with the officers of the law, I knew what I was supposed to do to avoid trouble. If I had preemptively acted penitent, they probably wouldn’t have issued me a citation. Unfortunately, I couldn’t bring myself to pretend like that, for one thing because it just seemed so ridiculous that I should ashamed of doing what seemed so right and natural, and second because I didn’t want to show my children a model of capitulating before authority. In declining to comply with the expected dominance/submission ritual – in other words, by defying the prescribed “order” – I naturally invited the charge of dis-orderly conduct.
A fourth observation, that is more personal than social: despite my conviction that I had done nothing wrong, it was hard to resist the feelings of shame that welled up as twenty men and women, decked out in the regalia of authority, surrounded me unified in their belief that I was foolish and irresponsible. We are social animals, our identity a product of our relationships. We learn to see ourselves through how others see us. Even as I strove to maintain my equilibrium, a part of me felt ashamed; it wanted me to abase myself and beg forgiveness, that I might be accepted by the group. The experienced underscored for me the importance of being firmly grounded in a community or counterculture that validates one’s work as a protester, resistor, or change agent. That is why it is sometimes important to “preach to the choir.”
While the power of shame, judgment, and social approval to induce conformity is great, and may seem to bear a strong pro-social effect when, for example, it becomes unacceptable to voice racist or homophobic opinions, I am afraid that these tools have important limitations. For one, while they induce conformity, they don’t address the root of hateful opinions or antisocial behavior. The racist of homophobe is likely to carry the hate and express it in some other, more subtle way. Secondly, the threat of shame can drive people to defensive, self-justifying positions. For example, castigating someone for enjoying the benefits of privilege in a racist and classist society might drive them into an ideology that justifies their privilege (the poor deserve it, black people have a culture of irresponsibility, rich people are “job creators,” and so on). In my case, one effect of the shaming was that I became inwardly defensive and absolutely closed to the possibility that maybe I had been reckless or irresponsible. Because to admit that possibility would be to accede as well to the shame. It would be much, much easier to admit I’d been reckless if someone had said, with thoughtful concern, “Hey brother, that ice is thinner than it looks.”
I think we will be much more powerful as activists if we can create conditions for the perpetrators of injustice to feel safe in seeing the truth Rather than taking an attitude of, “You are an ignorant and morally inferior person who needs to be shamed and corrected,” we could take an attitude of, “I know you, like I, are a caring and intelligent person. Here is some information to help you act more deeply on that care.”
Is it possible to base a society on dignity rather than humiliation? Has there ever been such a society? I have read of indigenous societies where someone who was acting selfish or harming others would be brought into a healing circle; I also have read anthropological accounts of social rejection and ostracism being used to enforce cultural norms. Perhaps even to be brought into the healing circle was humiliating – but humiliation could be a good thing too, referring to the process of coming to humility. And humility is the knowledge that I am neither above nor below my brothers and sisters.
If that is a truth – if we believe in the fundamental dignity of all people – then the problem is not only that we use the tools of shame, humiliation, and punishment for the wrong ends; the means itself is wrong, and it is inseparable from the end of domination and control. That is why, for disciplinarians everywhere, the principle of obedience is more important than that someone does this or doesn’t do that; every crime is a variant of the real crime: insubordination. A close look at that word reveals its connection to disorderly conduct. This isn’t only a legal phenomenon; we see it as well when child disobeys a parent and is punished. While the parent my say that the punishment is for breaking a particular rule, in reality the punishment is for breaking the rules. For the disciplinarian, the more rules there are, the better, even if the rules are trivial or absurd – all the more opportunity to establish the principle of obedience.
The goal of authority is to maintain authority. Therefore, to receive leniency, the transgressor against authority need only display contrition or enact some other ritual of submission. Having repudiated the true crime of insubordination, he can receive a reduced or suspended punishment. But woe to he or she who mouths off, protests, or otherwise fails to display sufficient submissiveness.
A justice system that were healing rather than punitive in nature would focus not on the principle of obeying the rules, but on providing the opportunity for contrition for the actual crime itself. This is contrary to the mentality of punishment, which is, “I will make you be sorry”: instead it holds that given the opportunity, remorse will arise naturally. That implies a trust in other human beings that is the essence of valuing their dignity, and it would turn the established order upside-down.