Shame and Violence

¡Hola! Everybody… Imagine having me as a student in your classroom. LOL! I went to university at a later age and I got my money’s worth. I challenged, and was often challenged in return, all my professors. If you didn’t have your shit together, I was mos’ def going to ream you a new asshole. Most

professors enjoyed my participation. Most professors were dedicated individuals deeply invested in intellectual development. Most…

::arches eyebrow::

In fact, I remember one professor catching me in conversation with one of her colleagues and she stopped and asked him, pointing to me, “Is this guy in your class?” When the professor affirmed that I was, she added, in these exact words, “Well, you better have your shit together because Eddie doesn’t play around!”

LMAO!

I loved that woman and she helped me tremendously.

I’ll be in prison all day, running my women’s prison workshop and running my men’s group at night. Make it a great day, it may be your last…

* * *

-=[ Shame, Guilt and Violence ]=-

“’How do you know so much about everything?’ was asked of a very wise and intelligent man; and the answer was ‘By never being afraid or ashamed to ask questions as to anything of which I was ignorant.’”

— John Abbott (1821–1893) Prime minister of Canada

Some of you know that I work in the area of criminal justice. More specifically, for the last eight years, I’ve participated in the creation of a community-based model for supporting the men and women returning from incarceration. One of areas of interest is whether pure punishment, without regard to rehabilitation — or in many cases, habilitation — is an effective means of social justice. Of course, it isn’t. In fact, there’s an empirically strong case for shame as a major factor in violence and violent crime. I tend to agree with this, generally speaking. I actually see it all the time. Psychiatrist James Gilligan, who has worked in prisons for 35 years, describes an interesting experience. He was called in to resolve a running battle with a prisoner in which he would assault corrections officers and they would punish him. The more they punished him the more violent he became, and the more violent he became the more they punished him. Nothing they did (at least legally) could stop this man from assaulting the officers.

When Gilligan went to see this man he asked him what he thought was an obvious question, “What do you want so badly that you are willing to give up everything else in order to get it?” His answer astonished the doctor. Usually inarticulate to the point that it was difficult to get a clear answer to any question, he stood up, and with perfect clarity he stated: “Pride. Dignity. Self-esteem.” And then he added, “And I’ll kill every motherfucker in that cell block if I have to in order to get it.” He went on to describe how the officers were attempting to strip away his last shred of dignity and self-esteem by disrespecting him, and said, “I still have my pride and I won’t let them take that away from me. If you ain’t got pride, you got nothin’.” He made it clear that he would die before he would humble himself to the officers by submitting to their demands.

According to Gilligan, this wasn’t true of just this man. In fact, several hundred violent criminals in this country provoke their own deaths at the hands of the police in exactly that way every year. Indeed, this phenomenon is so common that police forces (and this is not counting the clear cases of police misconduct) around the country have given it a nickname: “suicide by cop.” In World War II, Japan’s kamikaze pilots behaved in a way that had much the same result, as do contemporary suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere. In the prisons and on the streets of the United States, such behavior appears to be committed by people who are so tormented by feelings of being shamed and disrespected by their perceived enemies that they are willing to sacrifice their bodies and their lives to replace those intolerable feelings with the opposite feelings of pride and self-respect, and of being honored and admired by their friends and families and at least respected by their enemies. Such people experience the fear that they provoke in their victims as a kind of artificial form of respect, the only type they are capable of achieving.

Articulating a powerful insight, Gilligan adds, “In the prisons and on the streets of the United States, such behavior appears to be committed by people who are so tormented by feelings of being shamed and disrespected by their enemies that they are willing to sacrifice their bodies and their physical existence to replace those intolerable feelings with the opposite feelings of pride and self-respect, and of being honored and admired by their allies and at least respected by their enemies. Such people experience the fear that they provoke in their victims as a kind of ersatz form of respect, the only type they are capable of achieving.”

Here’s the travesty: we recreate environments, at an enormous social and economic expense, that exacerbate these feelings of impotent rage. Our prisons are filled with people whop have become part of a human experiment in how to further destroy destroyed lives. In other words, we take individuals who probably weren’t functioning well to begin with (addiction, abuse, illiteracy, etc.) and make them worse. The icing on the cake is that we do this at an enormous economic expense and that money gets taken out of, yes, you guessed it, luxuries such as education.

There has to be a better way. In fact, there are better ways. Gilligan has run an extremely successful prison restorative justice program utilizing his insights, for example. It is also known that education and supportive services (vocational training, employment assistance, family reunification, etc.) cost a fraction of what prisons cost and are extremely more effective. I believe social justice needs to be brought back to the community, but that’s a fuckin’ crazy idea, huh?

Not too long ago, while reviewing some literature, a colleague sent me the following snippet:

In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed at the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and everyone in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, recalling the good things the person has done in his life. Every experience that can be recalled with detail and accuracy is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully. This ceremony often lasts for several days. At the end, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe.”

* * *

Love,

Eddie

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