The age of the unforgiven
We need more forgiveness and less retribution for both convicts and the cancelled. Also: George Carlin's organizational system, the Feynman Learning Technique, and the Eight Wonders of Life.
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I have the hottest of hot takes. No one on either side, left or right, agrees with me either. Here goes: As a society, we need to back off our incessant urge to punish and start responding more frequently with empathy and tolerance. Whether we’re talking about convicts or the cancelled, we desperately need more forgiveness and less retribution.
I know, that’s some hippie sh*t. We live in bloodthirsty times and you don’t get Retweets with compassion. Everything around us incentivizes us toward rage and tribalism. We may teach our kids all that tolerance mumbo jumbo, but we’ll be damned if we’re gonna offer it to our enemies. It’s more fun to scream about MTG, Antifa, or whomever is the trending target du jour.
These days, the empathy deficit is probably easier to see on the right as it suppresses votes, endorses The Big Lie, and wages war on abortion rights. They don’t even pretend. Power trumps everything and Trumpism still powers everything.
But the left ain’t clean on this either. Progressives obviously get it on certain issues, like mass incarceration or the war on drugs where they realize rehabilitation is key and advocate for paths to redemption that allow the convicted to transform into the contributing. It’s especially true on the drug stuff as it’s become increasingly obvious how ludicrous it is to harshly punish people who actually require treatment. Portugal has shown us how effective decriminalization plus rehabilitation can be. Any “lock ‘em up” tough guy talk is just tough-on-crime chum for FOX News bottom-feeders (and even they are coming around now that pillbillies are caught up in the same cycle).
But notice how quickly progressives’ compassionate attitude evaporates when it comes to cancelling those who say or do offensive things. One foolish tweet can make you persona non grata in perpetua. When can you come back? No one knows, but definitely not yet.
Here, the left is fine with outsized punishments that offer no path to redemption. Oddly, we’re supposed to apply grace to drug addicts who have stolen from or physically assaulted others yet deny it to those who tweet disagreeable or offensive opinions. It’s quite a (heroin?) needle to thread.
Perhaps our inability to forgive is related to the decline in our religiosity. Faith teaches us about redemption: Catholics go into the confession booth, Jews atone for sins on Yom Kippur, etc. Organized religion offers a return ticket from sin that we can apply elsewhere in our lives too. Or at least it used to. Now, political tribalism is our religion and the enemy deserves no mercy. We’ve switched dojos from Mr. Miyagi to the Cobra Kai.
Take the #metoo jerks. Clearly, they should be held accountable for what they’ve done, but what is their eventual path back? Are they just supposed to rot in hell forever? (OK, a mansion in the Hamptons ain’t hell, but it’s tough to tell if the goal is to deplatform them for eternity or what.) What’s the end game here? If all that “get tough” sentencing is an ineffective solution to violent crime in the inner city, it’s odd how many seem to think it will work on these dudes.
“Who cares? Screw ‘em!” I know the vitriolic approach offers short term feelz, but so does, y’know, cold-blooded revenge. That approach keeps the cycle going without solving anything. Plus, it’s hypocritical. You can’t expect Mother Theresa kid gloves for your side and Vito Corleone cement shoes for their’s.
Similarly, due process is worth fighting for regardless of who’s on trial and for what crime. As Nadine Strossen, former president of the ACLU, puts it:
[I consider myself] a “bleeding-heart liberal” but even more important to me are the classic liberal values that are under siege from all sectors of the political spectrum, left to right, including: freedom of speech, thought and association; academic freedom; due process; and personal privacy.
We should aim to bring these classic liberal values to the court of public opinion too. Anyone who wants beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence, expert testimony, and a jury of one’s peers for defendants in the criminal justice system should also want similar due process guardrails for those on trial for their careers and livelihood. Otherwise, the accusations of “witch hunt” and “lynch mob” start to feel appropriate.
(Of course, it’s also worth noting how we got to this point. The justice system has repeatedly failed women and people of color to the point where they’ve been forced to work outside the system. Cancellations, boycotts, protests, whisper networks, and workplace revolts are what you get when the existing power structure fails to deliver justice.)
Still, there’s a reason it’s called due process and not due reaction. We’ve got to fight our shrinking attention spans; instant reactions are a bad pairing for forever punishments. Hot takes are a bad way to decide human fates.
So how do we recover from our addiction to harsh punishments? Restorative justice might be the answer. (Now we’re really getting into some hippie territory.)
Restorative justice views crime as a harm against the community and against the victim. Restorative justice emphasizes repairing harm, healing, and rebuilding relationships among victims, the offenders, and the communities. Crime is a violation of relationships and people. Restorative justice goals are the acceptance of responsibility by offenders, reparations of harm, strengthening the connections of victims and offenders to their community, and more stable and peaceful communities.
It’s the process that allowed Rwanda to heal from a genocide where the death toll was more than 10% of the national population. It would have taken over 100 years for everyone in prison to be tried in the existing Rwandan court system. So they created gacaca courts instead.
Gacaca courts were a type of justice reserved for lower-level offenders who were remorseful for the role they played in the genocide. During gacaca court, a community would come together to address the specific crimes of an individual. The offender would take responsibility for their actions and apologize. Then any victims or survivors would have an opportunity to ask questions or talk about the impact that this individual had on them. Then the community would work together to decide on a punishment for the individual. This incredible example of restorative justice allowed communities and individuals to heal.
But could something like that work in America? Common Justice (an alternative-to-incarceration and victim-service program) is trying. It offers support to survivors and lets them help decide how those who’ve wronged them can repair the damage. The key to its approach is a restorative circle where the parties strive to reach agreement about how the accused can make things right. Danielle Sered, the program’s founder and author of Until We Reckon, explains:
Our criminal injustice system lets people off the hook, as they aren’t obligated to answer the victims’ questions, listen to them, honor their pain, express genuine remorse, or do what they can to repair the harm they’ve done. They’re not required to take steps to heal themselves or address their own trauma, so they’re less likely to harm others in the future. The only thing prison requires is that people stay in their cages and somehow endure the isolation and violence of captivity. Prison deprives everyone concerned — victims and those who have caused harm, as well as impacted families and communities — the opportunity to heal, honor their own humanity, and to break cycles of violence that have destroyed far too many lives.
One huge benefit to this approach is how it encourages the accused to acknowledge the suffering they’ve caused. What victims often desire most is recognition of their hurt and the moral wrongs involved. Right now, those things often make little/no difference so there’s not much incentive to admit guilt and take responsibility. But if we offer a path for bad actors to reenter society, accountability becomes a much more enticing option.
Imagine if we applied this approach to those who’ve been metoo’d or cancelled for other reasons. Picture a restorative circle where Charlie Rose (or Kevin Spacey or Matt Lauer or…) sits down with his accusers, apologizes, and accepts responsibility for his actions. Then he’d have to listen to the negative impact of his behavior. Collectively, an appropriate punishment could be administered and a path back offered.
Still don’t think America will go for it? Fine, put it on TV and televise it. Maybe Oprah can run the whole deal. Justice + Entertainment + Capitalism = What could be more American?
Obviously, it’d be hard to pull off. But if we continue on our current path, it feels like half the country’s going to wind up cancelled for one reason or another. Eventually, we may have no alternative. In the end, the question may be do we actually want healing and rehabilitation or would we rather stick with the visceral thrill of putting someone in the hole?
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There’s more! Read the rest here for thoughts on "settler colonialism" vs. Bitcoin, Joe Rogan, Google’s ridiculous data export buttons, and more.
1) Ryan Hamilton on his Netflix special, touring with Jerry Seinfeld, & how to write a joke. Ryan’s a great comic (and a pal) and you should check his Netflix special. He doesn't do a lot of pods so it's neat to hear him talking craft on this ep of the If I Was Starting Today podcast with Jim Huffman.
When new comedians ask me for advice, I always tell them the comedy end of it just getting onstage. Everybody has their own process. But the business part, I feel like I can give advice on that: Don’t watch what other people are doing. If someone gets something ahead of you or you get something ahead of someone, it doesn’t mean a lot because every comedian has a very unique, individual, distinct path. So comparison is pretty futile in this business…
It's not like you choose things, sometimes things choose you. And who you are is not something you can change. And eventually it just comes out onstage.
Over time, Carlin formalized that system: paper scraps with words or phrases would each receive a category, usually noted in a different color at the top of the paper, and then periodically those scraps would be gathered into plastic bags by category, and then those bags would go into file folders. Though he would later begin using a computer to keep track of those ideas, the basic principle of find-ability remained. “That’s how he built this collection of independent ideas that he was able to cross-reference and start to build larger routines from,” Heftel explains.
3) Dacher Keltner’s Eight Wonders of Life. “I define it as the feeling of being in the presence of something vast and mysterious that you don’t understand with your current knowledge,” says Dacher Keltner, a leading researcher into the psychology of awe. Eight ways to seek out more awe:
1. Witness other people’s moral beauty and courage
2. Move in unison with others
3. Get out in nature
4. Listen to or create music
5. Take in visual art or film
6. Seek out a spiritual or religious experience
7. Consider a big idea
8. Witnessing life and death
4) The Feynman Learning Technique. The physicist leverages the power of teaching for better learning: 1) Pretend to teach a concept you want to learn about to a student in the sixth grade. 2) Identify gaps in your explanation. Go back to the source material to better understand it. 3) Organize and simplify.
It turns out that one of the ways we mask our lack of understanding is by using complicated vocabulary and jargon. The truth is, if you can’t define the words and terms you are using, you don’t really know what you’re talking about…
When you write out an idea from start to finish in simple language that a child can understand, you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas. You can better explain the why behind your description of the what…
Only when you can explain your understanding without jargon in simple terms can you demonstrate understanding. If you require complicated terminology to explain, you have no flexibility. When someone asks, you can only repeat what you’ve already said.
5) The “ultimate cancel” comedians face. Add Chris Rock to the list of comedians ripping cancel culture.
He said it was particularly pointless to target comedians because they already face the “ultimate cancel” of their jokes failing.
“You don’t really have to cancel us, ‘cos we get the message — they’re not laughing! … When we do something and people aren’t laughing, we get it,” he said.
As such, dictating what people should find funny is “disrespecting the audience,” he insisted.
“Like, ‘Oh, you think you know more than the audience?’ The audience knows more than everybody,” he said.
There's more! Read the rest here for bonus “spotted” commentary on Robert Smigel, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Ted Lasso.
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About the Rubesletter: Weekly musings from a standup comedian and startup veteran. If you like my comedy or writing, if you dig tech, politics, art, wellness, & pop culture, if you enjoy smart/nuanced takes & hate BS, if you’d like me to turn you on to other people making cool stuff, then subscribe.
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