Some incomplete thoughts on conditioning and responsibility

I find myself wondering about the lines that surround conditioning and responsibility. We are shaped. Shaped by parents (including lack thereof). Shaped by community (again, including lack). Shaped by society. We could almost say that our lives aren’t entirely our own. This is being conditioned. We are also agents in our lives. We encounter experiences, and we respond to them. As agents, we make choices. This is our responsibility. Both exist, side-by-side. Both are true. And yet, these two things can be in conflict. Rather, they can create a heap load of complexity in what often seems relatively straight forward.

Let’s look at something like crime. Let’s say a violent assault. A man (Man A), is accused of assaulting another man (Man B). Perhaps words were exchanged. Perhaps there was a look, or an action. It doesn’t matter really. Man A assaults Man B. That can be the end of the story. The newspaper can read the police report, which is full of witness statements, and get the story. Print the story. End of the story1.

But what if we dig deeper. Who is Man A? Where does he come from? What happened in his home? Where did he experience his earliest traumas? Where did he get his modeling? Who showed him what it means to be a man? How to settle a disagreement or a conflict? Who helped wire his nervous system?

This is about exploring the conditioning that helped to create the story. Odds are (I’d wager a bet on it) that we’ll find violence within Man A’s story. Of course, we’re likely to find it within Man B’s story as well — largely because violence is so close to all of us in this culture. We’re all conditioned within collective waters. We are all breathing the same violent air2.

In many ways, one could argue that Man A’s behavior was set in motion years before by both individual (parents) and collective (society) forces. In some ways, the assault had happened before it happened. But what does this do for or say about justice? Where is responsibility?

We are all responsible for our own healing. To learn what moves in us and work to change it — where changing it would benefit us and those we live with. The responsibility for our actions comes within the healing from them. Of course, Man A should be held to account for what happened. The thing is, our current system doesn’t actually do that. In fact, it does worse. It punishes him. It likely reifies the story living in his body: you are no good; you are violent; you must use your violence to deal with the world around you. Healing becomes impossible. So the illness grows. Festers. Metastasizes.

This violent assault — where Man A is guilty of harming Man B — can be an opportunity. It can be a moment of healing. It can be a space where, collectively, we say to Man A, No. We don’t do that here.” And then help him find his way into healing. Man B can heal as well. He can be guided to finding the place within him where violence lives, and learn what might want to grow within him.

But as long as justice means punishment, this will never happen. Justice, it seems to me, must mean healing. It must mean that we find our way back to wholeness. To recognizing that we are all products of social conditioning that isn’t what we signed up for.

These aren’t new thoughts. They aren’t really even mine. These ideas are related to concepts such as Transformative Justice that have been around for some time.

There’s so much more to say here. To close I’ll emphasize that in my mind, to recognize that conditioning plays a role in things such as this, and to reframe responsibility as about healing does not obstruct an important part of the justice process: accountability. Our culture has, in my opinion, twisted the idea of accountability into a form of punishing. But really all accountability is is a recognizing that our actions are out of alignment with our social agreements. To be supported in being in account is to be invited to continue to belong. If we want to heal our society, it needs to be done from this frame. That’s one I’d take to the mats.

  1. Well, not really. We would assume that if there was a police report, there was also an arrest. And a trial. And Man A is probably sent to prison in order to achieve justice’.↩︎

  2. To be clear: I don’t believe the air is violent. I’m pointing to things like white supremacy, patriarchy, etc.↩︎

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