Radical Empathy

I’ve been reading Mariame Kaba’s “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us,” this new book about the abolition of prisons/police/etc. It’s all stuff that has existed for some time, but that is coming into prominence more as we see the increasing violence of police against Black people in the news all the time. The book looked interesting because I always want to explore the furthest reaches of what’s possible, of the roots of evil or injustice in the world. It makes the case that abolition of the cops and prisons wouldn’t mean some new, violent world, but instead trying to put in place a world that doesn’t need them anymore.

I think when I was growing up, it was a more innocent time. It usually is, when you’re a kid. I remember always being curious about things, but never trying to offer expert opinions when I was younger. I didn’t pretend to know anything. This partly came from being hard of hearing. It was like I never really knew the world, everything just a bit out of focus, so I had to really try to learn and to soak things in intensely. I remember in high school being frustrated that I didn’t know very much about politics or the news or anything. But looking back, I was just taking my time. I had to do it my own way.

By college I was starting to pick up on things. I just took it at my own pace and began really just sort of throwing myself into the world. It wasn’t really a coherent ideology. I just started to sort things into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and seeing what the issues were little by little. By 2014 or so, with the rise in mass shootings, that was the impetus for a lot of my views. That and seeing how women, minorities, etc were wronged. These things were easy ways to let the ideology form.

All of this is just to say that we come by the path of righteousness in various ways. Nobody’s perfect at first. Learning and education are the thing. “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us” doesn’t mince words about the need to abolish police and prisons. These are things I myself might have qualified or whiffed on even pretty recently – there’s this thought that it would lead to some horrific outpouring of violence, an unjust society. But the book doesn’t think so. Instead, the roots of most crime could be soothed and eventually go away and we wouldn’t need police or prisons to act as external tools to punish anymore.

One of the things that’s stuck out to me in the book so far has been the anecdote about Martin Shkreli, who jacked up drug prices to comically, criminally insane rates. He got thrown in jail – but only for some kind of white-collar upper class reason, not for what he did to the drug prices. And the drug price issue hasn’t disappeared. Throwing him in jail didn’t do shit.

Punishment is unnecessary. How much do I need the state to act as some kind of a blunt hammer to make me feel OK? I’ve never had to call to the cops and I’ve lived in plenty of out of the way places by myself with nobody I knew around. The idea of sticking somebody – even Sirhan Sirhan, as the recent story went – in jail out of purely moralistic, punitive reasons, doesn’t appeal to me anymore. I remember I used to worry about recidivism. This comic book idea of the killer coming back and killing again. Jason Voorhees shit. I think this is the kind of base-level puerile emotional appeal we should avoid going forward.

I remember in Orlando some time back, there was a case of a guy who’d shot and killed a pregnant police officer and had beat up his girlfriend. He got totally pulverized by the cops a while later. They put out his eye. The reaction at the time was something like ‘man, good riddance, he got what he deserved!’ I was apprehensive. I remember thinking ‘well, what happens next time when they get the wrong guy?’ Cops aren’t inherently good, or even mostly good. They go on power trips all the time. And extending from that – maybe this guy in Orlando doesn’t need to be brutalized by state sanctioned troopers anyway. Maybe the justice system should be impartial.

Instead maybe we need a new system where things are more fair and people aren’t scrounging to survive. People are inherently troubled and flawed, and the external crises going on, poverty, climate, etc, don’t do anything to alleviate this. Maybe we need to quit blaming the individual. I titled this “radical empathy” – trying to not have this draconian medieval view of individuals if I can help it. But maybe it’s not that radical at all.

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