In every circumstance there is a choice, whether it’s personal or societal.
From a societal aspect, it seems many of our choices boil down to choosing either a punitive or compassionate approach to solutions that challenge our communities. In the US, we seem to take a punitive approach to most of our societal issues.
An examination of our overall response to homelessness exemplifies the point. Instead of looking beneath the surface of the problem to discover solutions, we vilify the homeless as lazy and moochers instead. We think they should just pull themselves up and get a job and realize the American Dream, but we don’t want to help them do it. We cry ‘socialism’ and ‘entitlement’ and ‘dependence,’ and blame them for their own undoing. As Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs demonstrates, when one is focused on merely surviving day to day, anything else takes second place. But we refuse to offer the one thing that will help them, a means to have a roof over their head. In some cities like mine, we kick it up a notch by forcing the homeless out of public spaces and booking them like criminals. A blatantly punitive, not compassionate approach that only exacerbates the situation.
Norway provides an example of a compassionate approach. It dropped its homeless rate by a third in four years simply by getting to the root of the problem and providing housing.
“This means that homelessness is understood as a housing problem, not primarily or solely as a social problem, and the provision of housing with or without follow-up is considered essential to prevent and reduce homelessness,” says researcher and project manager Evelyn Dyb at the NIBR City and Regional Research Institute at Oslo and Akershus University of Applied Sciences.
The US obviously takes a punitive approach to drug addiction as well. Instead of applying compassion and the understanding that we’re dealing with a disease, we criminalize drug abuse. It’s my personal contention that by taking this approach, we actually enable their thievery and other violence. We keep our prison industry alive with drug offenders, with almost half of its occupants convicted on drug related charges. (rarely do the drug companies or doctors who push the pills suffer any consequences).
The nation of Portugal decided to approach drug addiction from a compassionate angle with robust positive results. But their society first made a conscious effort to adjust their perspectives:
Portugal’s remarkable recovery, and the fact that it has held steady through several changes in government – including conservative leaders who would have preferred to return to the US-style war on drugs – could not have happened without an enormous cultural shift, and a change in how the country viewed drugs, addiction – and itself.
As a last example, I’ll utilize the current US border issue and the choice this administration is making by acting punitively instead of compassionately. Prior to the Zero tolerance policy, and at the behest of the Obama administration, migrants were released to relatives with ankle monitors to ensure their accountability to appear to court cases, etc.. There were social workers and agents involved to act as liaisons to help them through that process. Our nation does not act compassionately in this regard any longer.
Detention centers have morphed into concentration camps as they’ve become overcrowded and unsanitary due to defying the Flores Settlement as well as scrapping the prior administration’s more compassionate program of release with the ability to monitor.
I’ve observed a couple of compelling reasons behind the US’ consistent punitive approach to most social issues. The first is hard to miss: greed. The private prison industry takes millions in taxpayer money every year to house non violent drug criminals. GEO and CoreCivic are currently earning a whopping $775 a day to house migrants instead of releasing them to relatives. Drug manufacturers have raked in billions thanks to Oxycontin. Quite a few people became much wealthier by creating the housing bubble, which helped create the homeless crisis.
From another stance, there’s a healthy contingency in our midst that infuses a religious flavor to the idea of punity, choosing to draw from the notion of an authoritarian god instead of the example of a compassionate savior.
In each example, the compassionate approach is more humane and overall healthier for the society who employs it. The punitive approach only seems to poison a nation by reinforcing greed and authoritarianism. Would that the US could have a paradigm shift along the lines of Portugal and Jesus’ teachings.