My family recently visited a state park for some hiking. I know that we are quite privileged to be able to do it, but visiting nature is really restorative right now.
At the end of the day, we sat near a firepit and roasted vegan marshmallows.
After a few minutes, a woman and her partner asked if they could join us. They sat on the other side of the fire, and we got to talking.
The woman used to work in special education, but now she teaches geography and world religions. She loves her work, because she helps students in her small Midwestern town realize how much possibility there is in our world.
Her partner works for the Department of Corrections as a hostage negotiator.
“In training, you feel like you’re doing the same things over and over. Like, hasn’t there been enough of this already? But then, when you have to use it, you hardly have to think about it, you know just what to do. All that repetition really pays off.”
A few months earlier, several of the guys in our jail poetry class were talking about the drills they’ve been in.
“It was the scariest thing of my entire life. I knew it was just a drill, too. It was fucking terrifying. All these SWAT guys running in, screaming, they’ve got paintball guns, Get on the ground!, yelling, If you fucking move your ass is grass!”
“You’re lying there, face on the ground, can’t move, they might ziptie your hands behind your back, you can’t move for hours. I mean, I was lying there, just watching this puddle of piss spreading from the guy next to me. I fucking hated that guy right then. But he tried to hold it, I know he did. They had us lying there so long.”
“You tell a guard, I have to piss, he’s going to say, too fucking bad.”
“You’re lying there smelling shit, because you know some guy shit himself.”
“You’re smelling shit like right away. They come in yelling like that, some guys shit themselves from fear.”
“I know! I’m that guy. I was so fucking scared.”
“Your on the ground, lying on your stomach on the ground, I mean, the ground is gross, right? You’re lying there with your face on the floor and your neck hurts and you want to like turn your neck, but you got this guy yelling, You so much as fucking move, your ass is grass. Like, it’s pathetic, but it hurts.”
“Walked through this indoor rec later, paintball splatters all over the place. Like, fuck, what happened in here? Some guy in there, they must’ve lit him up.”
“I been through some rough shit in prison, but this one time, it was a piss-ant county jail, I was in the drill there. That was the worst. Like, there were only fifty guys in that place, what’s the big deal? But they came in there, boom, they fucking pepper sprayed us. For a drill.”
“I’ve watched guys die. But that shit, that’s the most scared I’ve ever been.”
I asked one of the guys, Jason, if he’d write about it.
“That’s something people should read,” I told him.
He shook his head.
“I’m trying to write, like, uplifting stuff. Help guys get on a better track, do better than what I done. This stuff … I don’t know. I don’t even really like talking about it. I don’t want to think about it enough to write it down.”
Header image: cropped photograph of a Val Verde county (Texas) drill from the Laughlin Airforce Base. Most of the time, cameras aren’t allowed inside jails or prisons.
We are composite creatures, the edifice of our minds perched atop accumulated strata of a lifetime of memories. Most people, I imagine, have done wrong; remembrance of our lapses is part of who we are. And most of us have been hurt; those grievances also shape our identities.
struggle to be good, despite having been born into an amoral universe and then subjected
to innumerable slights or traumas as we aged.
is a nebulous concept, however. There’s
no external metric that indicates what we should do. For instance: if we are subject to an
injustice, is it better to forgive or to punish the transgressor?
are compelling arguments for both sides, and for each position you could base
your reasoning on philosophy, psychology, physiology, evolutionary biology …
Intellect and reasoning can’t identify what we should do.
A wide variety of cooperative species will swiftly and severely punish transgressions in order to maintain social order. Misbehavior among naked mole rats is generally resolved through bullying and violence, which ensures the colony does not lapse into decadence. (As with humans, shared adversity like hunger generally compels threat-free cooperation.)
Archaeologists suggest that the belief in vengeful gods was coupled to the development of complex human societies. The Code of Hammurabi prescribed immediate, brutal retribution for almost any misdeed.
But punishment invites further punishment. Every act of revenge can lead to yet another act of revenge – the Hatfield and McCoy families carried on their feud for nearly thirty years.
Punishment is fueled by anger, and anger poisons our bodies. On a purely physiological level, forgiving others allows us to heal. The psychological benefits seem to be even more pronounced.
But forgiveness is hard. Sometimes people do terrible things. After her mother was killed, my spouse had to spend her entire afternoon prep period on the phone with a family member and the prosecutor, convincing them not to seek the death penalty.
And incidents in which dark-skinned men hurt white women are precisely those for which prosecutors typically seek the death penalty; after my mother-in-law’s death, the only national news sites that wrote about the case were run by far-right white supremacists trying to incite more hatred and violence toward innocent black people. (I’m including no links to these, obviously.)
time, I was working on a series of poems about teaching in jail.
wife’s mother was murdered Saturday –
at four a.m., scattering birdseed,
a cigarette, shucking schizophrenic
into the unlistening air.
a passing man tossed off a punch,
her to the ground.
stomped upon her skull
there was no more her
that battered brain.
intubated the corpse &
it oxygenated by machine,
each blip of needless heart
my wife convinced
to let the mindless body rest.
taught another class in jail
men who hurt someone else’s mother,
daughter, or son.
man who murdered,
New York inmate #14A4438
black hair & brown eyes,
been to prison twice,
2002 & 2014,
paltry grams of crack cocaine.
man received a massive dose
years of penitence.
Nearly a decade of correction.
Victor Frankenstein share the blame
the murders of his creation,
man he quicked but did not love?
can we walk into a maternity ward
one, nursing now, will be a beast.
Are monsters born or made?
mother-in-law is dead, & our man is inside again,
after “spontaneous utterances,”
in blood, photographed with
bandage between his eyes.
we, in our mercy,
always stood firmly on the side of Frankenstein’s creation. Yes, he began to kill, but misanthropy was
thrust upon him. The creature was
ethical and kind at first, but the rest of the world ruthlessly mistreated
him. Victor Frankenstein abandoned him
in the laboratory; he befriended a blind man, but then the man’s children chased
Frankenstein’s fiancée did not deserve to be strangled – except insofar as we
share blame for the crimes of those we love – but I understand the wellspring
of the creature’s rage.
In Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, a junk dealer’s attempt to honor the anonymous victims of Iraq’s many bombings gives rise to a spirit of vengeance. The junk dealer acts upon a grisly idea – most victims could not receive proper funerals because their bodies were scattered or incinerated by the blasts. But what if many stray pieces were collected? An charred arm from Tuesday’s explosion; a ribcage and lower jawbone from Wednesday’s; two different victims’ legs from Thursday’s. The city is so wracked by violence that there are plenty of body parts to choose from. And then the junk dealer could take his creation to the police and say, Look! Here is a body, victim of the attacks. Here is a dead man we can honor properly.
truth, the junk dealer’s plan was never terribly well thought out. Once he completes the corpse, he realizes
that using his creation as a locus for lamentation would be no better than all
the empty coffins.
the corpse springs to life, seeking vengeance on any and all who wronged its
component parts. In the creature’s words
(as translated by Jonathan Wright):
of people to seek revenge on grew longer as my old body parts fell off and my
assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that
under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would
was my enemy, because there was never enough of it to accomplish my mission,
and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my
supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.
killing had only begun. At least that’s
how it seemed from the balconies in the building I was living in, as dead
bodies littered the streets like rubbish.”
the creature realizes that the people he attacks are no different from the dead
victims that he is composed of. He can
chase after the terrorist organizations that orchestrate suicide bombings, but
the people in those organizations are also seeking revenge for their dead
allies. The chain of causality is so
tangled that no one is clearly responsible.
States forces have been inadvertently killing innocent civilians ever since
invading Iraq … an attack that was launched in retribution for the actions of a
small group of Afghani terrorists.
To seek vengeance, we need someone to blame. But who should I blame for my mother-in-law’s death? The man who assaulted her? That’s certainly the conclusion that the white supremacist news sites want me to reach. But I sincerely doubt that this poor man would have hurt her if a prosecutor hadn’t ripped him from his friends and family, condemning him to ten years within the nightmarish violence of America’s prisons, all for participating in a small-scale version of the exact same economic transaction that allowed Merck to become a $160-billion-dollar valued company.
Do I blame the racist white legislators who imposed such draconian punishments on the possession of the pure amine form of cocaine, all while celebrating their pale-skinned buddies who snerked up the hydrochloride salt form?
blame myself? As a citizen of this
country – a wealthy citizen, no less, showered with un-earned privilege – I am
complicit in the misfortunes that my nation imposes on others. Even when I loathe the way this nation acts,
by benefiting from its sins, I too share responsibility.
is hard, but revenge would send us chasing an endless cycle of complicity. The creature in Frankenstein in Baghdad
mind he still had a long list of the people he was supposed to kill, and as
fast as the list shrank it was replenished with new names, making avenging
these lives an endless task. Or maybe he
would wake up one day to discover that there was no one left to kill, because
the criminals and the victims were entangled in a way that was more complicated
than ever before.
are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely
criminal.” This sentence drilled its way
into his head like a bullet out of the blue.
He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting
for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original
components. This was the realization
that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was
also a victim. The victim proportion in
some of them might even be higher than the criminal proportion, so he might
inadvertently be made up of the most innocent parts of the criminals’ bodies.
“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”
Mark Salzman wrote a beautiful memoir about growing up as a nerdy, well-off, suburban white kid. Lost in Place is charming, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone who likes memoirs and to parents raising children in the suburbs.
Salzman loves to write, and he was
lucky enough to make a career out of it.
But, as a well-off white male, he does not have the lived experience to
know intimately every sort of character who might populate his
books. Even while writing Lost in
Place, he was forced to imagine the experiences of an other –
Salzman the adult was writing the book, but he was attempting to recreate the
world of Salzman the child. He was
forced to empathize with the (occasionally foolish) thoughts and experiences of
the youth he once was; I’d argue, based on the emotional impact of the book,
that he succeeded.
The experiential distance between Salzman the adult author and Salzman the youthful protagonist is probably much smaller than the distance between, say, Salzman and an epileptic female nun, or the distance between Salzman and a troubled Latino teen.
Salzman’s Lying Awake, a book about faith and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to maintain it, includes both such characters. But when he sent a first draft to his editor, she was less than thrilled. In Salzman’s words (from his memoir True Notebooks):
was a minor character in the story, a juvenile delinquent with a terminal
illness. Although I had given Carlos
tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor. She thought he needed a personality. And “please please please,” she urged in one
of her notes, “give him a different name.”
is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured [my friend] Duane, [who writes for the Los Angeles Times,]
must have had to write about them at some point. I asked if he could recommend any good books
about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research. He thought about it, then answered, “Not
figured that was the end of that, but then he said, “But I volunteer down at
juvenile hall twice a week. I teach a
writing class there. If you’d like to
come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book.”
Salzman knew that he was too ignorant
to properly empathize with the perceptions of his character, and so he opened
himself to the world in order to learn more.
He visited the juvenile detention center. Soon, he began to teach his own writing class
there. He became friends with several
students; hoping to provide moral support, he attended every court date of a
young black male who’d shot and killed another kid during a violent altercation
in a movie theater.
All writing draws upon empathy. Even to create nonfiction, a writer must
empathize with the reader, puzzling out which words will best allow others to
understand whatever it is that the writer hopes to convey. And with fiction, unless we expect authors to
populate each and every novel with clones of themselves, a writer must ponder
the ways that a character – and people similar to that character – would
perceive the world.
Imagining what it would be like to inhabit the hearts and minds of others compels us to fight injustice; without these experiences of empathy, we might be complacent to focus only on our own circumstances.
Obviously, there are times when a apparent attempts at empathy fallshort.
But there’s a difference between recognizing that some artists don’t empathize enough, and the idea that artists shouldn’t attempt to empathize with others at all. In the New York Times editorial “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” author Kenan Malik writes that:
Emmett Till’s mother urged the publication of photographs of her son’s
mutilated body as it lay in its coffin.
Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the
civil rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality. It was from those photos thatMs. Schutz began her painting.
suggest that she, as a white painter, should not depict images of black
suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s
novel The Satanic Verses should be censored because of supposed
blasphemies in its depiction of Islam.
In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has
observed, the campaign against Ms. Schutz’s work contains an “implicit
disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are
possible across racial lines.”
In order to convincingly include a troubled youth in his novel, Mark Salzman immersed himself in several young people’s lives. He allowed his heart to grow. And he, as a person, was changed. When he first began teaching, he saw those kids as the sort of bullies who’d harassed him when he was growing up. After a few years, he saw them as friends, many (if not all) of whom had been forced to endure more trauma as children than other people weather in a lifetime.
weren’t monsters, they were people. And
he found a way to write about them such that readers, too, would recognize
their shared humanity.
And perhaps, perhaps, feel outraged enough by his characters’ circumstances that readers, too, would work toward changing the world. Because the world is clearly in need of change. And empathy is the only force powerful enough to compel us to do it.
When I started bouldering, I had the pleasure of attending a gym run by Jess McCauley. He was an excellent climbing coach – although this was a very small gym in Mountain View, California, many of the kids he taught excelled at national competitions.
Then Jess decided to become a school teacher. He was clearly great at working with kids, and had a B.A. in history focusing on African studies, so he figured he could do more good inside a classroom than a gym. As he finished his education degree, Jess began working as a substitute teacher.
His first job was in my spouse’s high school “Biotechnology” class. The day before, she exhorted her students: “The sub tomorrow is a good friend of mine, and I’m gonna be really upset if you’re hard on him.”
Everybody knew Jess was great with kids. He’s a funny, charming, knowledgeable, muscular dude. But every time a substitute teacher steps into a classroom, the chance that something will go wrong increases dramatically.
Teachers build relationships with students over the course of a year. As you work with a group of people, you learn to read subtle social cues – you’ll know when two students need to be separated from each other, when somebody might need to take a momentary breather in the hallway. There’s a lot going on inside a high school beyond content education, and teachers develop an intuitive feel for the social dynamics inside their own rooms.
With experience, most people get better at this. I imagine my spouse’s content knowledge didn’t improve much over her first five years in the classroom, but she became a better teacher. She learned how to read and work a room.
And I know how much effort she puts into establishing a culture of trust inside her room. But there are still problems.
In the morning, she teaches AP biology to her school’s “best and brightest,” kids bound for college at top-tier universities. Many of those students would probably learn fine if you gave them all textbooks and put a straw-filled scarecrow behind the teacher’s desk. Their neurochemistry tends to mesh well with the norms of public education.
In the afternoon, she teaches “Earth and space science” to kids who actually need a good teacher. (Unfortunately, many schools pair their best teachers with the honors students and assign whomever’s left to the kids who need the most.) These are students whom administrators often expect to fail – and yet, when given appropriate challenges (like a recent assignment engineering challenge to build a functional solar still), they shine.
Still, when a substitute steps into these classrooms, there’s a major risk that something will go wrong.
Last year, when our family traveled to St. Louis for the National American Biology Teacher meeting, one of my spouse’s students punched a classmate in the head.
During another of our trips, a student flipped a desk. The year before, some students locked a sub out of the room and looped twine between the door handle and a lab table, tightening their barricade with a bar from the coat closet. Those same kids stole the fire extinguisher that day (which my spouse only knew because they gleefully hugged her and told her so at graduation – nobody expected for these kids to receive diplomas, so they were understandably elated to be there).
When my spouse plans trips, she requests that only experienced substitutes be assigned to cover her classes, but there’s only so much that somebody unfamiliar with the room can do. I imagine that if she were subbing for somebody else, the chance of something going wrong would still jump, even though she can keep her own classrooms orderly. Those are students she’s grown familiar with.
High school is a stressful environment. And putting a new face into that kind of situation can trigger trouble.
But, what’s a little worse than high school? In terms of, like, people don’t want to be there, emotions flare, you’ve got massive numbers of athletic young men crammed into a cramped little space?
Oh. Right. Prison.
One consequence of the federal hiring freeze is that many prisons have been relying on substitute guards. These subs might be trained guards who usually work other blocks – or they might be classroom instructors, medical staff, clerks. Female secretaries dressed in their office clothes (i.e. skirt, button-down blouse) might be suddenly assigned to patrol the halls of a men’s prison.
When a substitute steps into my spouse’s classroom, kids might get hurt. When a substitute enters a prison, people could die. According to a terrifying article from the New York Times,
As the shortage of correctional officers has grown chronic under President Trump – and the practice of drawing upon other workers has become routine – many prisons have been operating in a perpetual state of staffing turmoil, leaving some workers feeling ill-equipped and unsafe on the job, according to interviews and internal documents from the Bureau of Prisons.
Dozens of workers from prisons across the country said inmates had become more brazen with staff members and more violent with one another.
The traditional rules go unenforced, which emboldens people to push the limits further. When guards can’t be relied on to keep a prison orderly, gang violence often takes over as an alternate form of control.
In My Brother Moochie, journalist Issac J. Bailey describes the emotional fallout that accompanied his older brother’s violent crime. After this brother, Moochie, was sent to prison, Bailey’s family crumbled. Several of his younger brothers got involved with petty crime and have been cycling in and out of prison ever since. For instance, Bailey’s younger brother James, who is traumatized by the violence he witnesses in prison:
The man who was killed was “a little Asian dude smaller than me, so about fifteen of them ran into the room and started stabbing him,” James said. “Dude was supposed to go home the next week. What’s crazy is dude is from California and he can’t even speak his family’s original language. They stabbed him out of fear.”
A shortage of prison guards throughout the state’s correctional system meant the few on duty didn’t always manage to make the rounds through the dorms on schedule.
I teach at our local county jail. During a staffing shortage two summers ago, the jail became much less safe. According to former inmate (and excellent human being) Max Smith, “Guys learned to time things. A guard would be walking through for the count, some guys would be wailing on somebody inside a cell, they’d have somebody go up, ask the guard a question, distract him right when he got to that window. Then he’d keep walking and they’d continue beating the shit out of somebody. It was a scary place to be.”
Maybe there’s more that my spouse could be doing to establish a culture that will stay calm even when substitutes come into her classroom. But I know that she’s already trying awfully hard, and she’s one of our country’s best teachers.
I think it’s safe to assume that the average prison guard puts less energy than she does into cultivating a safe and respectful environment. When subs cover for them, bad things are going to happen.
Maybe we as a country don’t want to spend so much money on our prisons. If so, we should probably be spending a whole lot more on education, so that we won’t feel the need to lock people up – public schooling is a chance to turn people’s lives around, but it’s not like we’re pouring money into that. And there’s sentencing reform. With shorter prison sentences, we wouldn’t need so many guards.
But I can’t imagine that the best solution is to conscript secretaries, teachers, and medical staff into patrolling the halls.
In Philosophical Investigations (translated by G. E. M. Anscombe), Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that something strange occurs when we learn a language. As an example, he cites the problems that could arise when you point at something and describe what you see:
The definition of the number two, “That is called ‘two’ “ – pointing to two nuts – is perfectly exact. But how can two be defined like that? The person one gives the definition to doesn’t know what one wants to call “two”; he will suppose that “two” is the name given to this group of nuts!
I laughed aloud when I read this statement. I borrowed Philosophical Investigations a few months after the birth of our second child, and I had spent most of his first day pointing at various objects in the hospital maternity ward and saying to him, “This is red.” “This is red.”
“This is red.”
Of course, the little guy didn’t understand language yet, so he probably just thought, the warm carry-me object is babbling again.
Over time, though, this is how humans learn. Wittgenstein’s mistake here is to compress the experience of learning a language into a single interaction (philosophers have a bad habit of forgetting about the passage of time – a similar fallacy explains Zeno’s paradox). Instead of pointing only at two nuts, a parent will point to two blocks – “This is two!” and two pillows – “See the pillows? There are two!” – and so on.
As a child begins to speak, it becomes even easier to learn – the kid can ask “Is this two?”, which is an incredibly powerful tool for people sufficiently comfortable making mistakes that they can dodge confirmation bias.
(When we read the children’s story “In a Dark Dark Room,” I tried to add levity to the ending by making a silly blulululu sound to accompany the ghost, shown to the left of the door on this cover. Then our youngest began pointing to other ghost-like things and asking, “blulululu?” Is that skeleton a ghost? What about this possum?)
When people first programmed computers, they provided definitions for everything. A ghost is an object with a rounded head that has a face and looks very pale. This was a very arduous process – my definition of a ghost, for instance, is leaving out a lot of important features. A rigorous definition might require pages of text.
Now, programmers are letting computers learn the same way we do. To teach a computer about ghosts, we provide it with many pictures and say, “Each of these pictures has a ghost.” Just like a child, the computer decides for itself what features qualify something for ghost-hood.
In the beginning, this process was inscrutable. A trained algorithm could say “This is a ghost!”, but it couldn’t explain why it thought so.
From Philosophical Investigations:
And what does ‘pointing to the shape’, ‘pointing to the color’ consist in? Point to a piece of paper. – And now point to its shape – now to its color – now to its number (that sounds queer). – How did you do it? – You will say that you ‘meant’ a different thing each time you pointed. And if I ask how that is done, you will say you concentrated your attention on the color, the shape, etc. But I ask again: how is that done?
After this passage, Wittgenstein speculates on what might be going through a person’s head when pointing at different features of an object. A team at Google working on automated image analysis asked the same question of their algorithm, and made an output for the algorithm to show what it did when it “concentrated its attention.”
Here’s a beautiful image from a recent New York Times article about the project, “Google Researchers Are Learning How Machines Learn.” When the algorithm is specifically instructed to “point to its shape,” it generates a bizarre image of an upward-facing fish flanked by human eyes (shown bottom center, just below the purple rectangle). That is what the algorithm is thinking of when it “concentrates its attention” on the vase’s shape.
At this point, we humans could quibble. We might disagree that the fish face really represents the platonic ideal of a vase. But at least we know what the algorithm is basing its decision on.
Usually, that’s not the case. After all, it took a lot of work for Google’s team to make their algorithm spit out images showing what it was thinking about. With most self-trained neural networks, we know only its success rate – even the designers will have no idea why or how it works.
It’s possible to create images that most humans recognize as one thing, and that an image-analysis algorithm recognizes as something else. This is a rather scary opportunity for terrorism in a world of self-driving cars; street signs could be defaced in such a way that most human onlookers would find the graffiti unremarkable, but an autonomous car would interpret in a totally new way.
In the world of criminal justice, inscrutable algorithms are already used to determine where police officers should patrol. The initial hope was that this system would be less biased – except that the algorithm was trained on data that came from years of racially-motivated enforcement. Minorities are still more likely to be apprehended for equivalent infractions.
When an algorithm thinks that the shape of a vase is a fish flanked by human eyes, it’s funny. But it’s a little less comedic when an algorithm’s mistake ruins somebody’s life – if an incident is designated as a “gang-related crime”, prison sentences can be egregiously long, or send someone to solitary for long enough to cause “anxiety, depression, and hallucinations until their personality is completely destroyed.”