Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Impunity is learned behavior, here's how it plays out in politics

This morning, "We Can Work It Out" by the Beatles is playing in my head. In that song, I hear a story about two people in disagreement. One wants to listen and is willing to hear the others' views. The other is unwilling to listen or consider alternatives. These are some of the elements of a power struggle in relationships and in politics.

Our nation is divided and polarized after a bitter and dramatic election. I see the memes painting Trump as an infant, a toddler, an idiot, a racist and a host of other things, all created to raise emotions. I also see the memes and articles deflecting blame for the outcome of the election upon foreign agitators. All were created in response to what may seem a terrible loss for the millions of people who supported Hillary Clinton.

I supported neither Trump nor Clinton. Though I disliked Clinton more, I still have an open mind about Trump. I have no concerns for what he says for I know him to be an entertainer. I am only concerned with what he actually does as president.

But one thing that I see in the memes of Trump supporters is a sense of impunity. Impunity is defined as follows: exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action. When one has overwhelming power over another, one has a sense of impunity. He can act as he pleases upon others with less power, without fear of retribution or consequence. Impunity is the sense that I get from conservatives determined to see Trump cut Social Security, Medicare and food stamp programs.

I saw impunity in Hillary Clinton, too. Clinton and her allies disposed of Bernie Sanders yet still expected his supporters to fall in line, as if we had nowhere else to go. I supported Bernie Sanders in his bid for the White House. I still support him because he is true to his principles and takes no money from wealthy individuals or business interests. I saw Hillary avoid prosecution in her email scandal. I saw her give cover to her friends in the DNC after their emails were disclosed with their plans to work tirelessly against Bernie Sanders. That's impunity.

Impunity comes in another form. A refusal to listen to the other side, to consider alternative solutions or points of view. I encountered that kind of attitude with a great many Clinton supporters during the primaries. I could see their expectations in their words. They told me that if I voted for Bernie, and later, Jill Stein, that I was effectively voting for Trump. They felt justified in their attempts to exert power over me, to tell me how to vote, and many of them seemed to have zero concerns for the consequences of their actions. Their words communicated a sincere lack of concern for my views and my concerns because the only thing that mattered to them was that Trump was defeated. They were not concerned with democracy.

We learn impunity from our parents. We've all had the experience of watching our parents impose their will upon us without consideration of our concerns. We've all felt powerless as we watched our parents disappoint us, coerce us and punish us as children. Then they told that we weren't listening to them. That is impunity. We learn that impunity is normal, that it's justified, and that it's OK. We also learn that we can act with impunity because that's a familiar feeling. As we grow older, we may find that we have power over others and that it's OK to act without regard to how others might feel.

But there is something else we learn. We learn that with power comes the right not to listen to others, not to accept the views of others, not to air their grievances or concerns before acting.

Many years ago, a friend told me that I had difficulty listening to others because of a vision impairment that I was born with. She told me that I could not see the point of view of others because of that impairment. But now I know better. I know now that I learned not to listen to others from my dad. Dad had overwhelming power and acted with impunity. I saw him destroy my property, take away privileges and ground me for weeks as punishment without addressing any of my concerns. He did not listen to me, he only expected me to comply.

But there is a consequence to impunity that many people do not recognize until it is far too late: the loss of influence. While my dad may have had good intentions, he did not listen to me. If he doesn't listen to me, I don't have to listen to him. He no longer has influence in my life anymore. This is not how I want it to be, but it is what it is.

This impunity, accompanied by an unwillingness to listen, is exemplified by Congress. Congress has proven over and over again that they are not willing to listen to us, the people. They are primarily concerned with the people who finance their campaigns and nothing more. "Money talks, bullshit walks" applies to Congress now more than ever, and that phrase carries impunity in it.

Congress has a 97% re-election rate despite reaching new lows in popularity. That's impunity.

We allowed this to happen because the feeling is familiar. The feeling we get from dealing with people who have overwhelming power over us is a familiar feeling to many of us. Some of us just accept it as the way it is and move on. Some of us move beyond those familiar feelings to become active participants in the political process and agitate for change.

Have you ever had the feeling that you do things you don't want to do, no matter how hard you try not to do that thing? That's compulsion. It's often unconscious compulsion. We eat too much, we gamble, we drink, we punish ourselves in our thoughts and we hide our pain. These may be signs of addiction, but more importantly, if we weren't raised by people willing to listen to our concerns, we learn to isolate or hang out with people who won't listen, either. We find jobs with employers who won't listen, too. This plays out in politics as having a government that won't listen.

Bernie Sanders was right. Real change comes from the bottom. If we want change, then it must come from the bottom. It starts at the bottom of our hearts. Then it moves on to our family, our friends, our kids. Though I have read many books on the subject of listening, I must say there is one book that nails it: Raising Human Beings, by Ross W. Greene, PhD. I know. I sound like a broken record, so hear me out.

Raising Human Beings explains in simple terms how to collaborate to solve problems. Human beings are problem solvers by nature. We're built for it. We have big brains that allow us to move beyond acting on instinct, brains that allows us to reflect on our experience and change how we respond to situations that happen over and over. Raising Human Beings teaches us to see the behavior as the signal, not the problem, and that reward and punishment are not the solution to the problem.

Raising Human Beings is a book about how to collaborate with our kids to solve their problems that can give rise to challenging behavior. But to me, it is more than that. It is a recipe for human survival.

The problems we face will require durable, repeatable solutions that everyone involved can do. We can come up with those solutions by collaborating with others. Impunity assumes we don't need the others when in fact, quite the opposite is true. It is only through collaboration, that we can solve our common problems. That means no egos, no ulterior motives, no gamesmanship or brinkmanship.

If we want to solve the problem of a government that does not listen to us, we must institute change by listening to others. We must raise a generation of kids who had parents that listened to them. I know, its slow and will take time. But if you have a better solution, I'm all ears.

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