I have written about #metoo a couple times now but have failed to press publish. I just can’t bring myself to share all the stories in a public forum just yet. But over the last few weeks, these stories have been ever so present in my mind watching person after person share their story, their words in response to the abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar.
In the past, when I have thought about myself, all I’ve wanted to do is publish names. Much like #metoo, I want the people in my life who have been violent to be called out. But I am starting to shift my response and I feel in conflict.
This man was given 175 years in prison. I have been exploring why that feels so satisfying, yet so wrong at the same time.
The United States houses nearly 25% of the world’s imprisoned population yet less than 5% of the world’s population. This country believes in punitive justice, it’s seeped into our blood. But is it meant to be there? In moments of true actualization, of true clarity, do we actually believe that people should be stripped of their humanity because they hurt someone else?
In my moments of clarity, I find this answer to be no. And it’s simply because in my true self, in my inherent humaness, I acknowledge that the system we live in is the problem. We as people simply display the symptoms of a dysfunctional society. Individuals themselves are not the true cause, but instead it’s the explicit and implicit oppressive systems built by people that are.
It’s all about power and I believe we’ve been duped. If we can take a wrongdoing and punish that person, put them in a prison with no basic humanity or rights, we no longer see the problem. It’s “taken care of.”
But day after day, police officers kill black people, trans women of color are murdered, young boys shoot their classmates, people kill others in the name of religion, we argue over who has the right to what even when it rarely impacts us directly.
It’s always about power. And punitive justice is not working.
How the heck do I teach all this to my kids?
Right now, I’m starting with teaching them about humanity. That we are all unique individuals with unique needs and no single system can serve us all. And especially not any system built by people with power and privilege. And most importantly that punishment in the form we know best in this country does not serve us. We must push back against systems that set us up for failure.
Recently my daughter shared some language by a friend that reminded me how important it is to start small in these conversations. She told me a friend referred to one of her other friends as a “handful.” I could tell she didn’t like this comment but needed help talking through it.
“Do you think they are a handful?” I asked.
“No, they are my friend,” she replied simply.
“Did you tell your friend that you don’t agree?” I asked.
“Maybe tomorrow you can if you want to. Why do you think they said that about your friend?” I asked.
“Because they have time out alot and don’t listen.”
“Do you always like how school does things? Or do you sometimes like to do it differently?” I asked.
“I like it different sometimes,” she replied.
I offered to her that schools often have rules or ways to do things that don’t fit for everyone. Some of us like to learn differently or to try things in other ways. And that it can be really hard when you need or want that, but school doesn’t fit perfectly.
I also offered that it can be hard to be away from your family and that this can be harder on some days than others. I offered how work can be hard for me when I want to do something differently and/or when I miss her alot.
“But it’s not because of your teachers or the school, ” I made sure to emphasize, “it’s how school works in general. It can make things hard for teachers too.”
The next day, she did confront her friend and told them that she didn’t believe that their friend was a handful.
“What did they say?” I asked.
“That I was wrong.”
I reminded her that her heart is saying a good thing and that just because one person believed she was wrong didn’t mean that she was. I also reminded her that people will tell her her whole life that she is wrong and never to believe it. To always believe her heart.
Still today she plays with this “handful” friend. She even gets in trouble with them. We always talk through listening and how to be kinder to her teachers and classmates. But I’d be lying if it didn’t feel good that she bucks the system every once and a while. It’s her way of practicing justice. We’re just working on doing that with love and kindness, rather than at the expense of others.
This may seem like a far jump to prison abolition. But it isn’t when you consider the system of schools in this country. We set up students, in particular kids of color, to head to prison one day. And there, we then strip them of their humanity. The school to prison pipeline is a highly effective, well oiled structural racism machine in our country. It’s laced with inequitable treatment, punishment and dismissal of “handful” kids. I can’t allow her to believe this notion, no matter where it comes from.
So what does this have to do with Larry Nassar? I’m not saying we don’t deal with the symptoms or the harm. Or that we have to forget. In fact, to remember means that we learn from the mistakes in order to build beyond the boundaries that created them. I’m holding tight that deeper work on a system level may result in a different society. It’s hard to fully imagine, but I believe that a world can exist without punishment as the sole solution and thus the erasure of people as participants in our society. Instead, I imagine a world where the system promotes rehabilitation, one that recognizes that just putting people in prison doesn’t solve the larger problem of violence, one where we hold compassion for people even in their and our darkest moments.
A world where Larry Nassar maybe would have sought help early in his life without judgment, that our sicknesses as people would cease to exist when we live in a healthier system. That maybe there would be no Larry Nassar in the first place because we as people have healed.
A world where kids aren’t seen as “handfuls” or problems. That kids are just kids and we don’t “prep” them for the real world through adult lessons. And that perhaps instead we change the adult world to better suit our kids, because our kids have so much wisdom to offer.
A world grounded in forgiveness. Where it’s normal to not wish harm on others, to not wish others to suffer, and certainly not to put the problem out of sight when it’s one small piece to a persistent and failing way of being.
This is all I know right now, I’m figuring the out the rest as I go.