Although the phrase has been echoing around the social media for a while, when it comes out of the mouth of an elected civic leader like the Mayor of Atlanta, and is carried on national/international television, it claims a megaphone:
“Hurt people hurt people!”
If this meme seeds all of the potential inherent in its connotative as well as its denotative meaning, it will be not only the city council of Minneapolis that commits to disband/replace/amend/ its police services board. The step of actually engaging in an open dialogue that seeks first to comprehend and then to apply the import of the concept bodes well in foreshadowing both hope and change for the way policing is carried out in North America. Different in tone and intent from the 50-foot high, three-block-long yellow letters “Black Lives Matter” on what is not named “Black Lives Matter Plaza” by the Mayor of Washington, Muriel Bowser, immediately in front of the White House, “Hurt people hurt people” actually gets into what some might call the weeds of public policy.
It is, after all, the premises and beliefs and attitudes that underpin all statements of policy and the laws that emerge from those policy papers that shape both public policy and legislation. If public policy starts, as it has, with a premise and a belief that sin/evil/crime requires severe punishment as the primary (it not sole) method of keeping its incidence at a minimum, through both shaming the criminal and through warning and deterrence to any others, then institutions will be erected, funded and staffed in order to carry out such a “mandate.” Starting with the concept of isolation, in a cell, imposing a sentence of both silence an alienation, as a religious and faith notion of carrying out the will of God, exemplifies the degree to which western culture has been committed to the symptoms of human behaviour, including how we see ourselves in terms of sickness, wellness, and especially how we are perceived by others in society.
It is by their “deeds” that they shall be known and not merely by their words. However, “reading” those deeds takes more than the eye, ear and sensibility of a criminologist, a legal scholar and a politician. Scanning the cultural landscape of the history of how parents, teachers, principals, doctors, lawyers and eventually legislatures have viewed human beings, especially when considering acts that were deemed “abnormal” (and thereby either deviant or dangerous or both), we can see that actions deemed “abnormal” were immediately “shovelled” into one of two compartments in both our minds and our socially-conventionally-approved-and-funded processes were either “evil” or “sick”. The behemoths of medicine/law on one hand and the “church” on the other were enshrined as society’s instruments of intervention to “keep us safe” (to server and protect), and to “heal” on the other.
We diagnosed, researched, analysed, and prescribed/meted out “treatments” ordered by doctors or judges, in a comprehensive and elevated approach to saving ourselves and our various societies from decay. Integral to this approach is the requirement of division, separation, and even the integration of agents and agencies of “moral enlightenment and education” that will repeat the mantra that there is “Good behaviour” and there is “bad behaviour” and there are “good people” and there are “bad people.” The inculcation of the masses into the commonly held baskets of “Good” and “Bad” and the choice of the best minds to follow in the footsteps of those who previously made similar choices assured both the seeding and the harvesting of these Manichean/either-or/bi-polar seeds.
Bad things happen to good people, by a Jewish rabbi, articulated a different view, given that many considered illness, premature death, accident and/or economic destitution as an act of God, for punishment for deeds they either had not committed or at least were unaware of having engaged in their committal. How many times has a clergy, in the last fifty years, heard the not completely rhetorical question from a parishioner in a hospital or convalescent bed, “Why is God doing this to me?” The presumption behind the question is, of course, that “since I am evil, (in ways I am clearly unaware/unconscious of) what is God trying to tell me?”
I heard such words from a thirty-eight-year-old woman, terminally ill with breast cancer on my first visit to her hospital room. She was angry with God[ja1] ; she was confused about why she had been “chosen” to bear the burden of this lethal and toxic disease. She was also angry at God for having dealt her this ‘hand.’ And, there are many others who firmly believed, near their death, that they were unworthy of “going to meet God” upon dying, for having lived lives sullied by their own unworthiness, imperfection and sins.
In our valiant efforts, creative, imaginative, insightful, nuanced and pragmatic, we have built a repertoire of medical and social and legal services to “address” what we have considered to be our worst “abnormalities” and diseases and evils. And, to some degree they have had some corrective and deterrent impact. We have, however, started at the wrong end. We have become fixated on the notion that we could make our selves and our society “better” (less impacted with one or both of the two-headed monsters of sickness and evil). And we had some theological and ethical scholarship that supported our premises, and our efforts.
Many of these initiatives, too, were also supportive of and emanating from the concept of “dominating” and controlling nature, as some interpretations of Genesis intoned, given an initial premise that nature, separate and different from “human” was more savage and uncontrolled and perhaps even uncontrollable. Power over, as an operating principle, has been a guiding beacon among intellectuals in medicine, science, and law, and the appending and concomitant educational establishments.
Symptom-ology, then, for centuries, has defined our approach to most of our lives, maintaining a kind of duality, and separation of the symptom from our Being. Over the last several decades, converging from many directions in scholarship, a confluence of different influences has washed ashore on the beaches of our consciousness. Among them, being created in the image of God, as a more significant and potentially cautionary cultural, religious, social and ethical marker of our individual and our collective Being’s DNA, has risen to prominence. If as the street-strut has it, “God don’t make no junk!” then what are the inherent differences between what we consider normal and abnormal. Resisting R.D. Lainge’s assessment that “abnormal” is superior to “normal” (given the perpetual blood-shed of war, and the multiple ways we abuse others), we nevertheless are beginning to face what some would consider a minimal shift, others a revolutionary notion, that humans hurting other humans are, themselves, first and foremost deeply damaged.
Focussing on acknowledging the deep damage, however, risks loud and vehement backlash from “law and order” purists, who mostly consider themselves beyond repute. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it in an interview in 1967, “It is hard for a black man to pull himself up by his bootstraps, if he has no boots!” Neither boots, nor an education, nor a piece of land, nor even a wage, for slaves, was a signature, by the slave owners, of their superiority and of the permanent inferiority of those slaves. And maintaining that “traditional” and Christian-church-approved status (under law, and enforced by law), continues to shadow the streets of cities around the world in the last two weeks.
Fanning out from the same premises of superiority, power-over, domination and control are also other legal, legislative and social conventions that pertain not only to what we consider criminal behaviour, but also to inherent power and its abuses.
Statements such as, “You can argue with me if and when you get a degree and only then!” for example, describe a kind of abuse of power that “contemptualizes” the listener. Considering alcohol and drug dependence, too, as a crime, (merely because its symptoms can be destructive and because we are unprepared to investigate its many root causes) is also part of the accepted ways in which we are all complicit, either overtly or covertly and unconsciously. Similarly, relegating those with what the professional class (doctors and lawyers and judges and educators and legislators) deemed “mentally ill” to the outskirts of urban centres, “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” in order to keep “us safe” is another of the previously sanctioned abuses of power. And this abuse continues directly in the underfunding, and the still repressed public discussion of anything smacking of mentally unbalanced actions, attitudes, and expressions. Their root causes, naturally, are ignored, denied, and “too complex” and “too costly” for the society to embrace and then to deal with.
Warehousing the elderly in just another manifestation of how we have “shunted out of sight and mind” those who no longer serve a useful purpose in our culture, where work and making an income have come to define existence (although they cannot define what being a human is) when we all know that such a definition debases the elderly, the infirm, the poor, the ‘other’ (whoever does not fit the definition of normal).
We have, collectively and complicitly engaged in a process of not merely acquiescing (as Fareed Zakaria described those who do not protest trump’s sinister regime) but actually of rendering ourselves as sycophants to a cultural system of abuses of power that can only be sustained by lies.
It could well be that we are witnessing the tidal wave of real politik, of truth-telling, from the powerless, the impoverished, the destitute, and those unjustly charged (or still waiting to be charged) to those in power that the abuses that once conferred a crown of superiority on themselves by themselves, is slowly, if relentlessly, being removed and replaced by a very different ethic, a very different perception of how power is to be deployed.
And the signal of replacing police departments with agencies dedicated to serving and protecting, with appropriate training and intellectual discernment and discipline, can only be a harbinger of better ways of perceiving, thinking, questioning and designing and funding social policy around the world.
They did not know the name of George Floyd in Bejing or Moscow or London, or Paris or Berlin just as we did not know that name in Ottawa or Toronto or Washington barely two weeks ago. And the monstrous murder of that black man, coming as it has on the heels of a global pandemic, another of the signs that we are not caring enough for the planet, is a potential signal, (not merely a symptom) that taking better care of the weakest among us (including this extremely fragile ecosystem) is a much higher calling than one to which we have heretofore subscribed.
If we could begin our discussion of public policy, and any changes we might consider, not only in law enforcement, but also in environmental protection and in education, and the definition of what we collectively consider evil and sick, from the premise that human beings, all of us, if given an appropriate and supportive nest, nurture and education, with both roots and wings, we can and will all fly to the heights of our imaginations and our hearts and our capacity to innovate.
That lens, brought to the fore in both developed and developing nations, and their towns and cities, would shift sharing, collaborating, based on humility and vulnerability both of which are now able to be seen a common to every one of us, as well as to every institution, religion, and ethnicity, from being merely a nicety and a diplomatic civility, to an existential necessity.
We can conceive of each of us being George Floyd, in the sense that the power of the establishment is heavy on the necks of those in their charge, as a primary perspective guiding those determined to hold onto their power, for its own sake, and not for the sake of the humanity they serve.
Let’s stop using phrases like “bad apples” in the police department, especially when it is not merely the bad behaviour, but the silent complicity that protects it. Let’s stop calling Republicans evil, and trump evil, given that we all have voices previously drugged by our own “political correctness” so as not to rock the boat, or not to offend.
Let’s refrain from saying “she lacks social graces” when we know that “she is a control freak dominatrix” Let’s refrain from dichotomizing political ideology into right and left wing for the purpose of sanitizing our news reports into what we call objectivity when we know that what is going on in some quarters including Washington is despotic, tyrannical and dangerous…and as Colin Powell publicly asserts, on Jake Tapper’s State of the Union on CNN yesterday, “I am going to use a word that I would never have thought to use on any of the four presidents I served, he lies all the time.” He also excoriated the Republican Senators who remain silent to these lies.
And for those who now are arguing “this scribe is engaging in precisely the kind of Manichean ethics he decries, think again. The current U.S. administration that cannot and will not differentiate between the looting and the legitimate protests against sabotaging symptoms and the premised that sustain them, and prefers to cling to a law-and-order mentality, and their hold on power, as the definition of responsible government warrant nothing more than dismissal, and that includes trump, barr and the Republican Senate leadership.