danger of assumptions

The assumptions that guide and control our everyday thinking and behaviors are generally helpful, saving us the trouble of having to consciously consider our every thought and movement.

Assumptions become dangerous and destructive, however, when they stand in the way of our progress and improvement as individuals and as a society.  We assumed our (flat) earth was at the center of the universe. We assumed that a particular ethnicity or gender was inferior to others.

A movie I recently saw reminded me of one of our contemporary, cherished assumptions. In K-Pax (2001), Prot is a character who claims to be visiting Earth from some distant planet. At one point, he describes the social structure of his home planet to his psychiatrist, Dr. Mark Powell. When Powell asks him about punishment on his planet, Prot responds as follows.

You humans, most of you, subscribe to this policy of an eye for an eye, a life for a life, which is known throughout the universe for its stupidity. Even your Buddha and your Christ had quite a different vision, but nobody’s paid much attention to them, not even the Buddhists or the Christians. You humans. It’s hard to imagine how you’ve made it this far.

Our assumption is that punishment and vengeance are necessary to keep individuals in society in check. We simply assume eye for eye and tooth for tooth. We assume that society has a right to its pound of flesh for every wrongdoing. We assume that vengeance is good and necessary, a God-ordained right. And it looks like the U.S. is very serious about this assumption. Consider the following.

  • The U.S. leads the world when it comes to prisoners per capita—730 incarcerated individuals for every 100,000 of the overall population. For comparison, we can look at some other countries: Russia (508), South Africa (310), Mexico (199), England and Wales (154), Canada (117), Italy (108), Germany (83), Switzerland (76), Japan (55).
  • The population of the U.S. is about 5% of the total world population. U.S. prison population is about 25% of the world prison population.
  • In 1980, about 350,000 people were incarcerated in the U.S. By the end of 2002, over 2 million people were incarcerated in the U.S. (at a cost of over $40 billion per year).
  • The majority of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. are people of color. The percentage of people of color is even higher on death row.
  • Prison sentences in the U.S. tend to be much longer than those in the rest of the world. The U.S. is one of only nine countries which has both the death penalty and life without parole. (The others are China, Comoros, Cuba, Israel, Kazakhstan, Lesotho, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe.

The purpose of this essay is to challenge the acceptance of our assumptions concerning equating punishment, retribution, vengeance, and getting even with justice. We need to think about alternatives, but that’s not the purpose of this particular essay.

When Dr. Powell asks Prot why he chooses to visit Earth, Prot says he likes to visit class BA-3 planets (early stage of evolution, future uncertain). He also really enjoys our fruits and vegetables.

For further reading on this subject, you may want to consider the following links. Much of the information listed above comes from these sources.

© panthera2, 2012.

passing by on the other side

In large cities like Philadelphia and New York, it’s said that a person in distress should never scream for help. A cry for help is a plea for personal intervention. It’s asking someone passing by to become involved. It’s much better for someone in need to scream ‘Fire!’ Since its main focus is on a structure, a fire is perceived as less intimate, and a stranger is able to respond with less fear of becoming personally involved.

I recently watched Central Station, a movie in which Dora, a retired grade school teacher, makes a living by writing letters for illiterates in a large Rio de Janeiro train station. Dora has long given up any quest to find meaning in life, and doesn’t even bother to mail her customers’ letters.

Then, when one of her customers is struck dead by a truck outside the station, Dora is forced to watch the dead woman’s young son trying to survive alone on the city streets. Feeling a pull to do something, Dora initially sells the boy on the black market. Unable to live with that decision, however, she rescues him and sets out on a long journey to unite the boy with his remaining family in another part of the country. In doing so, Dora abandons her livelihood and the comfort of her home. She sacrifices many days and much of her savings.

I’m also thinking about an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (Season 7, Episode 9) in which Detective Goren becomes aware of inmates at a New York state prison being subjected to torture. Realizing that going through normal channels would be slow and ineffective, Goren risks his own career by going undercover without authorization to expose the misconduct. He does get results, but loses his job in the process. Goren does not regret his actions.

At this point it may be worthwhile to bring to the table a story told by Jesus.

And Jesus said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his clothing, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever you spend more, when I come again, I will repay. Which now of these three, do you think, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do likewise.

It’s interesting to note that Dora, Detective Goren, and the Samaritan are not particularly religious. But all three go far out of their way, two of them abandoning comfort and career, to become involved for the sake of someone who is suffering. Not one of them questions whether or not those suffering deserve assistance. They see a need, and they’re compelled by compassion to act.

In my experience, it is those who claim to be followers of this Jesus who are least likely to respond to a cry for help. It is they who are least likely to risk comfort, reputation, career, or their savings to reach out to those who suffer. It is they who are most likely to carefully weigh whether or not a potential recipient is deserving of their love. Too bad.

© panthera2, 2012.