Friday, June 09, 2017

Skills, punishment and reward, and the war on drugs

After I wrote my last article, Skills, punishment and reward in the context of American politics, I heard a voice in my head talking about the drug war. I could just hear Nixon's voice talking about what he'd like to do to the hippies and the African Americans of the counter culture revolution. And I thought of my own kids and how they should be able to live in a world free of drug violence. My family and I live a life of relative peace and I intend to teach my kids how to do the same as adults.

So I recalled this meme. It was about John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy adviser. There was a cool quote on the meme, so I looked for the meme but didn't want to spend an hour poring over hundreds of images to find the right one for this article. So I did some more digging and found this article, "Legalize it All", by Dan Baum, in Harper's Magazine and the quote used by so many meme artists:
At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Baum also dug up a priceless quote by H.L. Menken which is well worth repeating here because it is worth a laugh: "Puritanism. The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." The drug war was a lie and still is. God forbid that someone should be happy without God, or even on their own motive force.

Decades ago, I read a story about Pete Townsend, a singer, songwriter and guitarist for the band, The Who, in OMNI Magazine. Back then, Townsend was drinking a fifth of cognac a day and shooting heroin and he wanted to stop. Then someone contacted him about a potential solution, "a little black box". Townsend received treatments that involved attaching small electrodes to the skin on his head and passing a small current across his brain. The idea was that the current was at a certain wavelength and amplitude that would induce his brain to release the endorphins that were replaced by the heroin and the booze. After some weeks of treatment, Townsend was unhooked and happier. It was then and there that I realized that my brain is a 2.5 million year old pharmacy.

The Townsend story was well documented and isn't it interesting that the little black box never came into popular use as a drug addiction treatment? Maybe that's because at least one science fiction writer I used to read figured out that the same black box that could get you unhooked from drugs could be the drug. We wouldn't want people figuring out that they could use tiny amounts of current to induce their brains to get high, either. But I digress...

What I find so interesting in the drug war is that the entire effort is based on punishment as a deterrent. Why provide an alternative solution that people can use when a punishment will provide all the motivation anyone will ever need to stay off drugs? Because that would require teaching the skills needed to stay off drugs. Skills?

Happiness is not a destination or even a state of mind. It is a skill. You can experience joy to be sure, and you can do it without God or drugs. In fact, the pleasure people feel on God or drugs depends on the capacity of the brain to produce the endorphins required to generate the perception of pleasure. But it takes skill to get to that place, to establish the context to know you're experiencing pleasure.

It takes skill to go to a church and sing until you're crying with joy just as much as it takes skill to know where to buy the smack, heat it up on a spoon and inject it. Both of them require knowledge, and repetitive experience with anticipation of the reward. But neither can fill empty arms if you lack interpersonal skills to really get to know someone else, or to be of service to someone else.

If you're familiar with the history of the drug war, ask yourself, why those god-fearing people felt it incumbent upon them to punish others for not falling in line and being good citizens? Where does a god-fearing man get the idea that his hands are the right hands to punish other people for their sins? Didn't their conception of god say that, "Vengeance is mine", not a task for mere mortals? Who knew that there are natural consequences to our actions?

As I was writing this article in my head the last few days, I could not help but recall the scenes of torture in the movie, 12 Years A Slave. There is one particular scene that I will never forget, where a white man holding a bible and reading scripture while another white man whips an African woman who knows not why she is being punished. Now I look back on that scene and wonder again, why didn't they teach their slaves the skills they needed to achieve the morality they preach?

This to me, is the essence of the war on drugs. If the war on drugs is about morality, then teaching the skills to achieve that morality would come first. But what followed the war on drugs was a war on education. In the 1950's, 60's and 70's, we had some of the finest public primary education in the world. Then Paul Gann came along to limit taxation in a way that changed the face of California. Since then, the State of California has been mired in huge budget deficits and an ailing public education system. It wasn't just California. Conservatives the land over have worked hard to weaken public education to make way for privatization. The path to privatization of a public service is to weaken it so much, that a private solution seems palatable. Just think Betsy DeVos.

What if the alternative to the war on drugs is to teach skills that kids need to get along with others? Those skills include collaboration, critical thinking and discovery. Those kinds of skills help kids to stay off of drugs, because if you know how to collaborate on a solution to a problem, you know how to ask for help. But that's not what the powerful and elite Christian conservatives want. They want the rest of us to seek their version of a punitive god first, you know, for redemption. Their concept of redemption is what they were taught by their parents, so how would they know any better?

With millions of people in prison for drugs, with their lives destroyed, and future generations starting at a disadvantage, we need to rethink our punitive ways. The failure of the drug war is proof that punishment teaches zero skills. Well, it does teach one skill: obedience. Punishment and threats of punishment have another element that few parents seem to understand: punishment wipes out critical thinking skills.

I know this from my own experience. A young mind juiced up on adrenaline from punishment is not able to think critically about what went wrong, how to ask for help (a parent bent on punishment is not interested in helping their kid, let alone collaborating with him), and is incapable of talking about how to avoid the problem next time the same situation comes up.

One last thing about the whole punishment and reward mentality. If you're a fan of Pavlov, you know that punishment and reward make animals more susceptible to suggestion. The skill missing here is discernment, discernment of the natural consequences to an action. If you're teaching punishment and reward, then making a young mind open to suggestion is what you're doing. That suggestion could come from anywhere, and usually, that is what we call "peer pressure".

Consider the following situation: For years, a couple had been teaching their kids reward and punishment to get them to do what they want, to behave better. But now those kids have friends. Some of them are drinking or popping pills. And now, those kids are thinking, I better do what they do or my circle of friends will punish me. I may lose my friends.

When we collaborate with our kids to solve the problems in their lives they will surely encounter, we teach them to ask for help. When we punish them for their misbehavior, we teach them not to ask for help. I have kids and I want to see them asking me for my help to solve their problems. I'm not talking about solving the problems they encounter for them. I'm talking about collaborating with them to solve the problems they encounter. Then when they are adolescents, I want them to know that if they have any questions about drugs, they can always come to me for help.

The skill of collaboration isn't just for kids. It's for adults, too. Adults who are using drugs to check out don't know how to collaborate enough to avoid using drugs, for if they did, they wouldn't be using drugs. The joy of collaboration is a joy unmatched by any drug. Collaboration is baked into our genes and is the primary tool that has allowed the human race to survive.

Collaboration is the antidote to the war on drugs. Collaboration is the ultimate morality, for when we collaborate together to solve our problems, we will have peace.
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