What do you do, if somebody hurts you in the street? What if they assault you, or mug you and take all your money, leaving you bruised and battered? What if they break into your house, ransack it and escape with your valuables? How about when somebody vandalises your car, or causes your car to become damaged in a collision, due entirely to their negligence, carelessness or recklessness? Who do you call? If you’re like most people, you call the Police, without thinking about it. They’re the obvious people to turn to. Everybody does. You want them to find the perpetrator and punish them, depriving them of their liberty, if necessary and using whatever violence and force they need to use, in order to apprehend the criminal. We want our property back. We want revenge. We want the wrong-doer to be punished, so that they don’t do it again. We think this works. We think it makes society safer and better. It’s an unquestioned article of collective faith.
Do we ever think through what could have brought another human being to the point of committing such harm against other human beings? Do you think they were born that way, or did they become that way, through violence and extreme deprivation visited upon their own lives, unjustly and unfairly? In which case, does the application of more deprivation, force, punishment and violence serve to correct them, or does it just reinforce the callousness they have already built up against the rights and feelings of their victims?
If you look at the evidence dispassionately, calling the Police isn’t working. The rates of recidivism are at an all time high. The more harshness and punishment we apply, the worse it gets. We’re dealing with a population of humans so damaged and unloved that they have lost the capacity to feel any remorse or guilt for dishing the same out to other people, even strangers. In fact, it’s probably easier for them to hurt a stranger, so in what sense does isolating them further from humanity cause them to develop more empathy with people they’ve never met? It doesn’t. The more you harm these perpetrators, the more they perpetrate. It’s a downward spiral and correctional facilities are not helping. They’re worsening the situation. They amplify the disenfranchisement and remove any last vestiges of hope.
Here’s a thought. Imagine that, at a very early stage, before serious crimes are committed, the criminal-to-be is given another sort of treatment, for their misdemeanours. There are always early indications of children that will grow into off-the-rails adults. The injustice hurting their souls is already palpable. You can tell that they already feel unloved, isolated, frustrated, impotent, trapped, hurt and wronged, even when they’re small. You can see the resentment building against every person that compounds their life’s unhappiness. Imagine that instead of giving them punishment, detentions, isolation, admonishments, judgements, banishments, further deprivations, violence, pain, force, harsh treatment, cutting words and less love and acceptance, we instead gave them art.
What would happen if you put a guitar, a pair of drum sticks or paint brush into the hands of a young person that needed to express their rage and let it out? Would their impotent powerlessness be directed toward theft, vandalism, violent crimes, damage to property and dishonesty, or would they put all that emotion into their art? What if our first response to petty crime was to embrace them, listen to them, understand them, offer them some support and sympathy and provide them with the tools and techniques to speak their pain, their sense of deprivation, their sense of loss and their sense of injustice being visited upon them? What if we kept that up, with each lapse into anti-social behaviour? Would we manage to turn around even a few lives? I think we’d achieve a lot more.
A child, taught to create, learns that he is not powerless or disenfranchised. He learns that he can shape the world to be a place in which he can thrive. It provides an outlet for the anger and frustration, for the violence that builds up, for the hatred and contempt. It lets them dissipate their negative views of people and turn, instead, to imagination, creation, innovation, inspiration and achievement.
But we call the Police instead. We tell the head teacher, who often calls the Police for us. We default to a regime of correction that bypasses creativity entirely. We eschew anything which might permit them to express their rage and frustration in a dissipative, positive manner. Instead, we insist they contain it and bottle it up inside. It’s inconvenient for us to deal with. We opt for beating them into submission, metaphorically (and often literally!), when that might be what’s at the very root of their anti-social behaviour in the first place.
What if we called the Art Squad as first responders, instead of the Police, especially for minor crimes? The Art Squad would arrive on the scene, armed with creativity coaching knowledge, art materials, encouragement, respect and love and embrace the little criminals, helping them see that the world can be a much more beautiful place, of their own making and that they don’t have to suffer their fates in silence. What if we showed them, through the Art Squad, how to turn their own lives around through making changes that matter, speaking their truths and showing the world at large that it ought to care more about people unfairly foist into their particular situations? It would be worth a try, wouldn’t it?
But there is no Art Squad. There is no three digit phone number to summon the creative resources of society, at short notice, to help misbehaving youngsters recreate their own worlds for the better. There are no painters, poets or musicians on standby, waiting to intervene. No, instead we make it worse, until they, the minor criminals, rot and decay into hardened criminals, capable of doing the worst kinds of damage in society. And when they have, we throw them into a concrete garbage can and leave them there, forever. And we, as a society, feel better for having restored law and order. We feel righteous for using State violence to make these human beings live even nastier, more deprived and hopeless lives. Then we have the gall to talk about “rehabilitation”.
We haven’t the collective imagination to envisage and call into being a more positive response to anti-social behaviour than the violent, para-militaristic, top down, unfeeling, uncaring, uncompassionate, harsh, forceful answers we serve up, time and again, even though it’s blatantly obvious that this answer hasn’t worked, doesn’t work, never will work and can never be made to work, through the application of more of the same. We don’t have the insight and courage to try building the Art Squad. And so we perpetuate a horrible cycle of violence, waste and destruction of lives. We suffer, as a society, because we can’t even question or inquire into alternatives to traditional policing.
So next time somebody wrongs you, “who you gonna call?”