Interaction of Political and Cultural Change
Hal Pepinsky, email@example.com, “peacemaking” at pepinsky.blogspot.com
April 10, 2017
I have just returned from a conference on “Critical Intersectionalities of Crime and Social Justice” at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. Profound thanks to the graduate student association of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice managed to bring in keynote speakers from as far away as Italy, and provide all the meals I as a participant needed to feed myself from beginning to end, with free registration. What a remarkable feat, and how much I got to share and learn with old friends and new ones, including making music together. Thanks again.
I have a habit of asking myself what substantive conversation most profoundly disconfirmed stereotypes on one hand and helped me affirm further define for myself and those I’m having conversations with the roles I choose to play as an economically privileged white man privileged to have managed to avoid even traffic tickets, let alone legal felonies I have committed. At this conference, that moment came during discussion at a session on police violence against people of color, notably murder of African-Americans, going unprosecuted and unpunished.
When a white friend and experienced mediator and I proposed transcending getting legal justice, black people in the session responded that if we had grown up being black, we would be angry and want convictions and punishment to show us white folks that black lives matter. Then as now, I agree. My principal responsibility is to change my own kind, whose racist political domination has driven mass incarceration represents the US Constitution’s exception to the 13th Amendment’s prohibition on slavery…for penal servitude.
In his essay “On the Jewish Question,” Karl Marx argued that, as attempted by the Chinese Communist Party, first the underclasses had to gain political power over their oppressors, then in self-interest come to a cultural transformation, a state of “human emancipation”—the revolution to end all revolutions. I propose that the two social movements can be built simultaneously, symbiotically.
When I first got to know survivors of inter-generational ritual murder and cannibalism historically coinciding in the US with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan who in rare cases sought legal retribution against those who had raped and tortured them from infancy, I learned that it is not my place to judge victims’ choices for legal justice, for punishment of their torturers. It is instead my duty as one privileged to have grown up safely to respect their decisions, recognize rather than try to change the pains they have suffered which I have been privileged to avoid, and respect their primary authority to decide to pursue prosecution as fully as their anger demands and the justice system allows. Opening ways to transcend the anger, pain, loss and injustice suffered by people of color depends white people’s political recognition, in practice, that arresting, detaining, convicting and punishing, let alone shooting and killing is as wrong and unacceptable when white people do it, especially those given legal authority to use force and confinement, to use violence, in the white supremacist system of enforcing law-n-order. You can’t move people to change the system until there’s enough recognition by the dominant political class that the system is inherently unfair and provocative of the violence it seeks to oppose, and instead joins and leads. Of equal importance, you can’t persuade people to give up on systematic punishment, from children by adult “caregivers” to law enforcement, or for that matter in war, until the oppressors acknowledge that “the system” is inherently unjust. Speaking from my own position of privilege, it is my responsibility not to speak for black people, but to spread and amplify their voices, their feelings, their demands for justice on their own terms. That’s one of the responsibilities I accept. It’s real, and it’s not my place to change “those people,” but to try to change my own kind first and foremost, to get us to give up on the punishment we do and support, as the prevailing, self-serving punishers…my other responsibility. Members of oppressed classes are capable of commitment to non-violent change rather than punishment, among my leading role models in cultural transformation of violence, as in my own country, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harriet Tubman…just for starters. I also have come to respect and support the primary right of victims to obtain justice on legal principle, on their own terms. The primary responsibility to persuade my own kind, let alone people of color, that mediating resolution of conflicts and violence in all our relations, rather than punishing those we hold power over, is in my own economically, white, male, adult practical self-interest, whether I’m a perpetrator or a victim. I also have admiration for black sisters and brothers who somehow respond to the injustice of their individual and collective pain, oppression, anger, loss and fear, to transform violence itself in their own communities and in mine. May political and cultural transformation proceed hand-in-hand, victims and offenders playing their own roles in getting harm and injustice recognized, let alone transformed. I come to the project of social change as a member of the offender class, primarily responsible for transcending the impulse to establish order by punishment itself…driven by awareness of the damage that systematic domination does itself. Once more, many thanks to the student organizers of the conference, and to learning from and being moved by those over whom I have been born to hold privilege and pass judgment, to oppress. Love and peace, hal