Crime and Punishment (part 3)
September/October 1998

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continued from part 2
So far, I’ve suggested that our taken-for-granted acceptance of the seemingly simple, fitting, and effective millennia old tradition of punishing crime—of an eye for an eye—simply does not and cannot work. I asserted that punishment damages self-esteem, leaves most individuals feeling hurt, ashamed and resentful, and creates an adversarial relationship. And I held that those who are punished are more likely to see themselves as outsiders rather than as valued members of their community, to feel hopeless about achieving their ends, and to act out, to act against others. I concluded that punishing is disempowering rather than empowering, that it abandons rather than connects, and that thereby it actually exacerbates the very conditions it aims to eliminate.
Now I want to suggest that the punishing way of dealing with others not only doesn’t diminish crime, it actually helps create it. In other words, this essay might have more appropriately been called Punishment and Crime. I also want to suggest that punishing someone and engaging in criminal activity are really two sides of the same coin: They are both strategies for fleeing unexpressed pain, and are both largely the result of parental practices and societal mores. Both are enacted by individuals who do not trust that they can achieve what they want by way of the care of the other/others. In other words, both are acts of disconnecting (as well as dysconnecting) rather than connecting, and therefore are attempts to achieve ends without dialoguing and without concern for how others are affected. Since we achieve our power through our connection to others, both are enacted by people who have a sense that they are without power. And both are angry, but impotent, lashings out in order to avoid feeling hurt, scared, and the like, and to avoid acknowledging this to someone else for fear of discovering that he or she doesn’t care.
When I was young, my father would sometimes spank me. Such was the frightening outcome of my mother’s "Wait ’til you father comes home." When he’d arrive home and she had explained to him why she was upset with me, he became angry out of all proportion to whatever I might have done or to my age or size. To be fair, I don’t think this happened very often. Nevertheless, it had a profound effect on me. Among other things, it rendered me passive and shy, and unable to even imagine the possibility of striving for a doctorate.
Looking back, I would guess that he spanked me because he was scared; I imagine that he was at loss to know how to deal with a small child (his father dies when he was three); that he was scared that he would lose control of the situation if he wasn’t stern; that he was upset with me for being an interruption to what he was doing; and perhaps he was even scared that the neighbours would judge him to be an incompetent father if he wasn’t stern. I know he believed that giving me a licking was for my own good, because he told me so.
If my father ever trusted that he could appeal directly to me for cooperation, he never expressed it. He never sat down and looked me in the eye with care, or caringly asked what I wanted or how I was feeling. And he never apologised for how he treated me.
I suggest that in spanking me my father was acting out, and he was doing so because he was uncomfortable with and disconnected from both his and my pain, and because he had no sense that he had a legitimate place in the larger community (a disturbance common to children of immigrants), or that he had any real personal power.
In order for my father to see and be concerned about my pain, he would have had to notice his own, and he was unwilling to do that. In other words, he spanked me to avoid having a genuine dialogue with me, so that he would not see his own unfinished pain. And he spanked me to overcome his sense of powerlessness by exercising his power over me. The fact that this was so common, was socially accepted and not considered a crime, and that my father didn’t realise the harm he was doing, did not make it any less disturbing or abusive.
It’s easy enough for most of us to grasp these disturbing effects in extreme situations, for example when a child is being physically or sexually abused. Although it seems to be much less obvious to many of us, it’s also very disturbing when among other things, the child is being spanked or otherwise punished, being called names, teased or criticised, being compared to another child, being told what to feel or not to feel, being encouraged to be competitive, being lied to, being ignored, etc.
What I am suggesting is that the problem of criminality is not simply a matter of some bad apples to be gotten rid of. The people we label criminals are merely at the most obvious end of the continuum, the tip of the iceberg. The problem is that almost universally we accept a wide variety of disturbing parental and interpersonal practices as appropriate, useful, and even caring. Take, for example, the currently popular practice of "time out:" A child is "out of control," "won’t listen to reason", is having a "tantrum" (all stated pejoratively, critically). The parent is advised to order the child to repair to his/her room and not to return until he or she has cooled down, has regained "control."
The reality is that when a child is "out of control" (so-called, but not really), it is because all of his or her previous efforts to request care have failed. At this point, the child has all but lost trust in the parent’s care. The tantrum is a final, desperate effort to beseech the parent to be solicitous. At this moment, what the child needs most—and is screaming out for—is to be reconnected, not abandoned. Instead, he or she is given the message that being hurt, sad, or angry is shameful and disturbing. In being time-outed, he or she is actually being exiled: displaced, disconnected, and disempowered.
With regard to name-calling (e.g., "slowpoke"), we say (in another disturbing societally supported and encouraged project to flee pain) that "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!" Actually, this is not at all true. I do hurt when someone whose good regard I desire calls me names. And since I cannot will how I feel, this adage actually calls upon me to pretend that I don't hurt-to magically flee my pain. 
When someone calls a child names (or teases or criticises or compares him or her to someone else), the child concludes that who he or she is not good enough for others and must change—or at least appear to change—in order to avoid losing love. In my view, this is the root reason why so many of us are occupied with trying to orchestrate others’ judgements of ourselves, instead of being busy being who we would otherwise be.
You might be surprised when I say that children are commonly taught what to feel and not to feel. I’m not saying that all those moms and dads explicitly tell their kids how to feel (although they sometimes do). I am saying that in the face of such injunctions as "Don’t be a sissy!", "No point getting out the crying towel!", "Snap out of it!",  "Get over it!", and their children quickly become afraid to express feeling. It is almost inevitable that most children learn that it is shameful or dangerous to express feeling more intense than "okay" and "fine." They consequently discover how to control how they breathe, and to otherwise choke down emotional expression, all the while trying to distract themselves from realising how distressed they feel, or denying that they are feeling distressed at all.
We also teach our children that competition is necessary and good (e.g., Little League and Spelling Bees). Although we may believe that we’re helping them build a sense of adequacy, competing more often maintains and heightens the participants’ sense of themselves as inadequate. (See Alfie Kohn’s No Contest, the case against competition, 1986.) After all, not everyone can win a race; in fact, like the lottery, almost everyone loses. Even the person who wins this time is always in jeopardy of losing next time and ultimately will lose, since we all will eventually lose our potency. In addition, since competition pits one person against others, others are necessarily seen as opponents, as foes, rather than teammates.
Moreover, when I compete I must always be alert, always on guard, continually attending. When nearly everything is a competition (e.g., salesperson of the month), I can never rest. It shouldn’t be surprising then that so many of us are stressed out.
Beyond sports, we have turned nearly every activity into a competition. There are beauty contests, spelling bees, best pie or chilli contests, bull riding contests, even leap frog jumping contests and competing to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, to name a scant few. (Beauty contests lay claim to a single standard of beauty. But since beauty really is "in the eye of the beholder," such contests inevitably create "distorted maps" of beauty and render everyone—even those who win such contests—secretly believing that they can’t, don’t, or—next time—won’t meet the ultimately indescribable standard of beauty.)
Some of our rationalisations for punishing children are that otherwise they will become "wild animals," and that they need to be taught to act properly because they are "wilful" and "have minds of their own," and therefore are unlikely to be cooperative. The implication is that they are naturally bad and uncooperative and have to be coerced or scared into cooperation and "goodness." I submit that these claims are false and that there is a heavy price to be paid for using our power over our children to get what we want; It disempowers the children, and disconnects and displaces them.
The theme of place is of fundamental importance with regard to crime and punishment. If we are to be honest, energetic, productive and fulfilled members of society, we must have a place in that society (e.g., in the family, neighbourhood, workplace). Punishing someone—young or old—evicts him or her from that place. Being pushed out of or refused place disempowers and disconnects.
Parents who criticise and punish, or ignore their children, are actually demonstrating violence—not care—in their everyday lives. I think that this is the primary reason that when I ask my students "Who wants a love relationship just like their parents’ relationship," hardly anyone ever raises a hand. (If their parents’ relationship was loving, rather than violent, their kids would want one just like theirs.)
Many of you I suspect will object to what I am saying here. You will, I imagine, defend your parents’ criticisings and punishings. I have often heard you say that you deserved the punishment and that it taught you important lessons. Perhaps you have learned something important, but I submit that you never deserved punishment in the first place, and that the price of your lesson was high—greater than any benefit: You also learned that somehow you’re bad for being who you are and that there is something disturbing and undesirable about who you are. As a result, you’ve learned to conceal yourself so those upon whom you depend won’t harm or abandon you for being who you are. In so doing, you have abandoned, displaced, and disempowered yourself: you have set yourself against yourself. To the degree and in the ways that you’ve done so, you’ve also set yourself against others.
It is these interwoven themes of being disconnected, displaced, and disempowered which leaves us believing that we are not worth being with and not worth loving and—in the absence of seeing ourselves as genuine participants in our community—believing that we have little right to pursue our passions. I suggest that this is the fundamental disturbance in our relationship with ourselves and others.
This absence of connection, place and power is also the basis for the whole spectrum of criminal activity. I become dishonest—I would say criminal—in my dealings with those supposedly closest to me long before I become a civil criminal. I act criminally when I lie and cheat; when I take something that’s not mine—a towel from my hotel room or pens from my office—when no one’s looking; when I claim less income or greater deductions on my income tax than is true; when I sell you something but am knowingly silent about its flaws; when I cheat on an exam; when I am being undercharged for an item, but don’t bring it to the cashier’s attention; when I have an affair; when I lie to my friend...
When I act criminally, I act againstsomeone because I have lost trust that others care and will help me get what I want. I see myself as disempowered and acting against others appears to be the only way to become empowered. As a male child, this is what I enacted and practised when I played cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, and Monopoly. I submit that the tendency for male children to engage in—or, at least, to continue engaging in—such adversarial play has less to do with genes and hormones than is generally supposed, and more to do with parents and others criticising, punishing, and/or ignoring children.
All criminal activity involves using power over somebody. Using power over someone necessitates stepping out of the dialogue. So it is actually an expression of pseudo-power. I suggest that genuine power is not power over someone, but the power to grow, to create and to love, and that it can only accrue within the context of ongoing dialogue, and only through community membership.
All of this is usually difficult for most of us to realise because most people who are behaving disturbingly are also self-righteously claiming the correctness of their behaviour. ("It’s for your own good." "This hurts me more than it hurts you." "Spare the rod, spoil the child.")
The ultimate remedy for Criminal (and criminal) behaviour is not to continue disempowering, disconnecting, and displacing; it is to empower and to help each person connect and find his or her place.
With regard to parenting, the remedy involves, among other things, engaging in the dialogue, acknowledging one’s own vulnerability, acknowledging how the child is affected, apologising for previous transgressions and requesting forgiveness, taking seriously—supporting and cooperating in—the child’s obtaining and achieving what he or she wants (or clearly and respectfully stating the parent’s objections to the project), and engaging in cooperative conflict resolution.

©1998 Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People


ABC News • Nightline in Primetime:• "Crime & Punishment"

The Price of Punishment
Everyone Pays
Doing the Time 
The Prison of the Future
Death Row


Doing Time in Texas
Sitting on Top of the Volcano
‘Blood In, Blood Out’
Is This Where We Want To Go?

Punishing someone and engaging in criminal activity are both are acts of disconnecting and therefore are attempts to achieve ends without dialoguing and without concern for how others are affected. Since we achieve our power through our connection to others, both are enacted by people who have a sense that they are without power.

Empowering People

Essays on Being Human

Chapter 1
On Feeling
Chapter 2
On Pain
Chapter 3
Being Depressed
Chapter 4
On Primal

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