A Culture of Because
I was thinking recently about how we solve conflicts as human beings, particularly in the west. We end conflicts through force, hostility, war. We end conflicts in punishment. We end conflicts in revenge.
These concepts are all weirdly capitalistic. An action as a cost. You do something wrong, you must “pay the price.” There are a lot of weird economic phrases when it comes to talking about “justice,” and that makes me think it isn’t justice at all.
When we first send kids to school in the U.S., as I recall, the major message is that if you did well, you were rewarded in some way, and if you did poorly, you were punished. For me, the punishment of a timeout or the loss of a privilege was less of an issue than the disappointment I could see in the authority’s eyes. I initially wanted to do well for approval, rather than for the sake of doing well. It wasn’t until around 2nd grade or so did I start to appreciate school for education’s sake. I began to do well because there were intrinsic benefits beyond ice cream and stickers.
We have genuine reasons for sending kids to school. We have genuine reasons for having kids take a bath, brush their teeth, and eat vegetables.
However, I have noticed that we really don’t explain that to kids. We tend to say, “or else.” Take a bath or else you won’t get dessert. Do your homework or else you won’t be allowed to play video games. Then, if they take a bath and do their homework, they get ice cream and Angry Birds. There are corporeal rewards. There are negative consequences.
It’s similar to the way we train animals, through rewards and violence. Do a good job? Here’s a treat. Do a poor job? Here’s a choke chain or a whip.
When it comes to exotic animals, though, I’ve read that trainers almost entirely ignore bad behavior. Why? Because it’s a waste of time to pay attention to the bad behavior. It makes more sense for more intelligent animals to be motivated by rewards.
So, even if you can see results in a reward system, it’s clear that a system of consequences only defers bad behavior and does nothing to inspire good behavior. In a way, I think it creates negative associations in kids. We teach them that the only reason to do their homework is to avoid being hassled and avoid punishment. It’s not about excelling or improving yourself as a person. There is no practical, reasoned motivation.
Let’s look at fiction:
In the Harry Potter series, we see anti-corporal punishment rhetoric when it comes to the house-elves. They have been trained so intensely by a culture of “or else” that they actually beat themselves when they misbehave or speak ill of their masters. You train slaves in the way you train animals. It’s an incredible power trip and it’s about forming individuals into servants of the system rather than constructing complex, thinking, reasoning, and critical people. You know, like you’re supposed to do when you have kids.
You also don’t promote loyalty. Hermione points out that Kreacher is loyal when presented with kindness. When Harry gives him Regulus’s locket, Kreacher’s behavior towards them shifts entirely. Once treated with care and respect, he pledges his loyalty to Harry and even begrudgingly offers respect to Hermione, the muggle-born. Further, in Gringott’s Wizarding bank, they keep a dragon as a guard in front of the Lestrange vault. However, it has been trained only to react to pain. When it’s offered its freedom, it has absolutely no motivation to stay. There have been no reasons expressed for why the dragon should provide guard duty.
(To be fair, it was Harry who jumped on the dragon in the book, but it makes sense that Hermione would do it, considering her advocacy for house-elves and those subjugated in the wizarding world, including muggle-born witches and wizards.)
Another good literary example comes from The Song of Ice and Fire. Daenerys Targaryen releases the Unsullied from their slavery. The concept of the Unsullied is absolutely horrifying and fascinating. Boys are abused physically, emotionally, and psychologically for the exclusive purpose of making them into automatons. They are robot soldiers. They are supposed to be what Cylons were supposed to be.
Dany offers them freedom, however. She tells them to kill their masters. She releases them and gives them agency. She asserts that she knows they are still human beings who deserve reasons. They deserve to feel loyalty. As a result, they pledge themselves to her. They have reasons to be loyal to her: she is opposed to slavery and oppression. She will treat them like human beings. The slavers offered nothing but or else.
In real life we’ve seen how slavery is absolutely unsupportable. Without reasons, eventually or else isn’t enough. Eventually there is rebellion and open hostility. We see it in revolutions. Though revolutions are incredibly difficult to wage and often mean the deaths of innocent poor people, they are a sign that after a certain point, threats don’t mean much. Human beings genuinely know that there are worse things than corporeal consequences. Slavery, repression, and dogmatic systems end up being more intolerable than the fleeting immediate consequence. Torture is not an effective means of fact gathering because it relies on or else rather than persuasion.
There are four lights.
There’s the cliche of a little kid asking “Why?” after every assertion. This joke has more depth to it than we sometimes realize. We get flustered with kids because they don’t know anything. They don’t understand their surroundings. They simply don’t understand why they have to take a bath. So, we say “or else” instead of telling them that we take a bath because it kills germs that could make them or the family sick. We don’t explain to them that homework can help them learn more; that it’s practice for real-world problems. We often don’t sit down with them and show and explain why it’s important. It’s hard to explain these things to kids, but I think we really need to start taking that time because we have too many adults that think we have to intervene in conflicts by using threats and consequences.
The United States does this a lot through war, or “police actions.” We have an unmatched military. We are the biggest baddest motherfuckers on the block. When faced with global problems like Saddam Hussein and Syria’s use of chemical weapons, we feel as though we must use the threat of consequences to reinforce American dogma. That’s what it is, really. It’s not about peace. The west is not a proponent of peace because peace is bad for the Capitalist market. Peace requires justice and American dogma is one of “or else,” rather than “because.”
Osama Bin Laden wanted to destroy America. In some ways, he was very successful. He simply offered a new “or else” for the dogmatic system to use. Don’t criticize our government or else the terrorists win. Don’t oppose preemptive strikes or else you’re anti-American. Don’t question the system or else we’ll arrest you without cause and keep you without charges or trial. President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act 2012 that permits indefinite detention to protect “us” from terrorism.
This is a big problem. Our revenge culture is good for nothing but the Capitalist market. It’s not good for people because it requires escalating conflicts. We fight fire with fire, which is contrary to basic fucking reason. Dr. Mrs. The Monarch said it herself, “You fight fire with water.”
Do you see? We have these phrases, these memes, like fighting fire with fire, that are about driving consequences rather than employing reason. It is an absolutely contradictory and illogical concept, and yet people quote it as if it were an obvious truth, because it invaded our cultural consciousness through normalization.
We don’t explain. We don’t reason. We don’t substantiate. We don’t cite sources. Instead, we are short sighted and rely on perceived “common sense.” We think in terms of immediate effect. We think small picture. We stop at Stop signs to avoid getting tickets. We drive sober to avoid getting a DUI. We resist hitting people to avoid going to jail. We say that capitol punishment is a deterrent of murder, even though it’s totally not.
We have seriously confused legitimate consequences with revenge. We don’t teach people why we have the rules we have because the majority of our rules are about reinforcing a system driven by dogma and capitalism.
You violate the rules so you must make restitution. You must “pay a debt to society.” That’s complete nonsense. That phrase specifically refers to the payment of time in a correctional facility. You pay with time. Consequences should not be about making restitution, or paying what is supposedly owed to the collective. Consequences are about reinforcing the logic of the rules. They should be about justice, rather than revenge. Consequences should be teaching tools, which means they must have reasons. And there is a devastating clue: What if some of the rules have no reasons?
So it all comes back to a major question people ask: “Ranger, how do we change the culture?”
The answer is the same: “We change the way we think.” We must change the way we analyze situations and react to conflict. We must abandon the illusion of revenge in exchange for one of justice, peace, and reasoning. We must substantiate and explain our rules. We must comb through the dogma and cut out what is illogical, what has no reasoning to support it.
When we raise children, we need to answer their questions entirely. We need to justify our assertions and our instructions. We need to stop embracing this outdated dogmatic notion that is so pervasive in Western culture: That we must destroy a child’s will.
If you’ve gone to school in the United States, you have experienced the methods often used to destroy will: or else. When you made mistakes or chose to be contrary, you weren’t reasoned with. You weren’t informed of the larger ramifications of your actions. You were not treated like an intelligent human being that can process big-picture issues.
We need to stop teaching children and adults this method of handling conflict. We need to drive people to achieve for the sake of the achievement, the sake of learning, the sake of growing and evolving and making the culture and planet better. We need to reinforce the expectation of reasoning and evidence.
If we can prove to a child that it is in their life-long interests to do their homework, you won’t have to say “or else.” They already know there are larger consequences beyond an early bedtime and no TV. By fostering this culture of or else, we are teaching people to focus on the external and immediate cause and effect as it impacts them individually. It’s incredibly divisive. It divorces children from others and stifles the development of empathy.
So, I guess that’s the biggest reasoning I can give for encouraging people to embrace because. Without because there is no empathy. Without empathy, there can be no peace. Without peace, there can be no love. Without love, there can be no humanity. And that’s because if the only real person in the world is “me” then there’s no motivation to do anything that doesn’t immediately benefit “me.” There is only the motivation to avoid consequences, to maintain the status quo, to never cause “problems,” and never question the dogma.
We must become a culture of because. We can start it by teaching our children to ask “why” and then teaching them “because” when they ask us.