2020 - Not 1920

The tragic difference between punishment and solution

Punishment, revenge and assigning blame are a different mental and institutional process than accepting the new reality and finding a solution. The latter is painfully underdeveloped.

A tree falls on your leg during hiking. What do you do?

1) Are you seeking blame? Are you making efforts to punish the tree?

2) Or do you try to get yourself into a hospital to have your broken leg fixed?

The option not to have the tree fallen on leg does not exist. The best possible outcome is a healed leg. The solution is in the hands of firemen, paramedics and doctors.

The first would be seeking blame/punishment/revenge. The second is a solution. And the line that divides them is acceptance.

But what is obvious with a tree becomes less so when the cause of the misfortune is a human.

A murderer kills a father. What does the world do?

Our minds immediately goes to punishment. And as a consequence, and on an institutional level, we don’t have any bandwidth left for a solution.

There is a massive institutional infrastructure dedicated to revenge – pardon, punishment – but next to nothing about a solution. Indeed, we don’t even know what a solution would be.

But if you point that out, there will be a collective shriek that but… but… but the precedent and future murders and the victims’ memory and the survivors’ feelings, etc. And those are all correct. But this is where our attention to a murder ends: meting out revenge.

There is a huge entertainment segment dedicated to punishment. Cop shows, investigations, the entire genre of whodunit, not to mention court room dramas and any other ways we can root for the villain to get punished. Our punishing instinct is well-satiated (and stoked). Our need for solutions – what would a solution even be?

As a consequence, institutions to punish, revenge, or to point blame are big, heavily funded, revered and famous. Institutions to rectify the damage are less funded, less prestigious, and there are no TV shows on social workers, therapists for victims, or life after a murder. The only institution that gets its own shows and is dedicated to solutions is healthcare – as doctors tend to start their work by accepting that the patient is not healthy and work from there. Denial and seeking blame for the gunshot wound would not get a doctor very far in healing the patient.

In practice, punishment is less about the feelings of the victims and survivors, and more about the onlookers. On a behavioral level it serves the elimination of reward coming from murderous behavior so as to disincentivize it for others who might regard it as an option. But it does not help the victim – and it does not help the survivors.

Finding who killed the dad won’t help the victim’s children graduate from college, there was no chance of that. The killer won’t be able to provide therapy for the survivors – and is probably not willing to anyway. His punishment is merely a (very costly) way to break the link between murder and reward, because if he could get away with it, why wouldn’t he do it again? It is thus a behavioral negative enforcement as well as prevention of future murders by him or other aspiring murderers.

What an investigation and a trial is not: It is not help to the victims, even if we are strongly conditioned to look at it as such.

Punishment and solution are sharply different in this case – mostly because there is an element of punishment present (unlike in the tree example) that takes all attention away from finding a solution. Indeed, we don’t even know what a solution would be in such a case.

What can be the solution to the emergent situation after the death of a father? Clearly, the family needs to achieve the best achievable outcome. Once again, there is no chance to make the murder not have happened. So the best achievable outcome is … what exactly?

It all starts with acceptance.

We have satiated our thirst for revenge, glorified it as justice and creating a precedent, now we have to move on to recovery.

But there are no TV shows to tell us what that would be. There are no institutions – not well-known and well-funded ones, anyway. A politician wouldn’t get much credit for funding victim recovery institutions – probably because acceptance is regarded a women’s thing, picking up the shreds and restart life on the ruins. It is like cleaning the house over and over again – rather than hunting down who is responsible for it becoming messy.

Politically, it pays better to do the macho, posturing thing, i.e. giving more money and weapons to police, enforcement, maybe even courts – than funding social workers and therapists.

If there was a more muscular and better-known institutional setup for victim recovery, we would probably know what the best available outcome is for the victims, just as we can recount the supposed functions of the punishment system in our countries.

But the problem gets even stickier when it comes to politics.

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