Saturday, December 31, 2016

Indignation and punishment

Woodworking tools (1910) By Takkk
By Takkk
 via Wikimedia Commons
Audre Lorde's well known quote, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," derives much of its power and appeal from its flexibility. Interpreted one way, it rebukes those with too great a focus on practical politics, since the dominant parties of the existing order have by definition mastered its practice. Looked at another way, it calls us to leave behind the specific tools of domination, the tools shaped by the needs of a house of bondage and designed to create and maintain it. Genuine liberation, opposed to changing the hand that holds the whip, requires us to reject the habits of thought and action developed to wield power.

When I attempt to identify the "master's tools" in my own habits and in ways of thinking I take for granted, experience tells me to look for contradictions. I look out for contradictions between the ways I think, the way I imagine the world, and the way I live in it. If a way of thinking doesn't serve its intended purpose, that doesn't mean it has no purpose. It makes sense to ask what purpose such a way of thinking does serve. Sometimes, the ways of thinking that serve no useful function turn out to serve the desire for power, the wish to dominate. Once I see them clearly, I can eliminate them, because I know them as the master's tools: the tool of the ones who hold the whip, and the part of me that wants not justice but power.

Our society today makes use of a prison system of unprecedented cruelty, and at least in the United States, of unprecedented reach. Over the past forty years, our societies have expanded the use of courts and prisons so much we have come to accept a new lexicon, with expressions such as "carceral culture" and "prison industrial complex". We have literally sculpted our worst domination habits in stone and barbed wire. The impulse behind this structure of selective cruelty, the impulse to punish, the desire to relieve our pain by punishing, is one of the most effective tools of domination.

Our ideology of punishment has next to no utility for the actual painful, frustrating, and messy business of dealing with human evil. The desire for punishment, the illusion, heavily promoted by a thousand television shows, of emotional release from the punishment of the offender: these have shaped our thinking toward enforcement and incarceration, but they offer little or no help to victims or to the people tasked with dealing with offenders. The desire to punish serves the domination complex well, but it offers little to the rest of us. It is, in almost every way, the master's tool.

To see what this tool looks like in the hands of the Left, how wielding it deforms our thinking, consider this example from a couple of years ago: a post from Anne Thériault's web log "The Belle Jar", criticizing Leigh Anne Tuohy for requiring two young Black men to prove their bona fides as harmless individuals to a friend of hers.

The essential criticism Ms. Thériault makes is warranted: nobody, most emphatically including Black men, has any obligation to justify themselves to suspicious strangers. But look at the way Ms. Thériault proposes Leigh Anne Tuohy ought to have responded to her friend's suspicions:

She’s at a crossroad here – two roads diverged, etc. Had she taken the road less travelled, Ms. Tuohy might have said to her friend, “Wow, you’re being really racist right now! I’m not comfortable with how this conversation is going.”
In other words, Ms. Thériault suggests Ms. Tuohy ought to have called out, judged, shamed and punished her friend.

Enough people have written about the kind of fears fears that started this incident to fill a web log for a year. I will just make one observation: punishing people for being afraid doesn't work. Punishing people for showing fear will make them hide it; punishing people for acting out of fear may force them to act differently, but the underlying attitudes remain untouched by punishment. Indeed, punishing people for fear echoes the absurd statement in Alice in Wonderland: "...don't be nervous or I'll have you executed."

Transporting Coke By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia via Wikimedia Commons
By Alex Proimos via Wikimedia Commons
What, then, could Ms. Thériault have suggested? What could Ms. Tuohy have done? Many possibilities exist; one that occurs to me would be to encourage empathy. Those of us who react to young Black men with fear tend not to consider who has more real reason for apprehension. When a young Back man meets an older "white" person, who most likely has the power? Who will the police believe if the encounter goes badly? Pointing that out does not shame an individual. Instead, it challenges them by making the reality of the choices they have to make clear. It also encourages an empathetic response, and empathy can overcome fear.

Calling other people out, in th manner suggested by Ms. Thériault, has grown common enough to rate a name of its own: call out culture. In some quarters, calls for a replacement have gone out. I welcome criticisms of "call out culture". I believe the impulses underlying the development of call out culture are ultimately the same as the impulses leading to our carceral culture. and I suggest we have little choice but to resist them. They are the master's tools, and we cannot use them effectively to tear down the master's house, or to build a more just and habitable structure in its place.

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