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No Experience Required

Many brilliant and well meaning people seem to think they if they can only make those that inflict suffering and injustice, experience suffering and injustice, they will reform.

But caught up in their righteous fury, they never critically examine history or humanity to test that assumption. Sadly, it isn’t that easy. If it were, war and punishment would be ethical and effective. They are objectively neither. Threats, fear, and torture have no place in an ethical world.

I’m proof that specific experience is not required to champion reform and the causes of those who suffer. I’ve never been homeless, nor have I ever had to suffer many of the worst consequences of the various injustices I try to combat as best I can. Indeed, like Siddhartha’s discovery of suffering outside his father’s walled garden, the very fact that I haven’t experienced it makes me more aware of it’s wrongness.

Relying on personal experience is a double edged sword. Police for example are often required to have been tazed before they are authorized to carry tazers. They believe that because they have experienced it they now have the moral authority to inflict it on others.

Pain and suffering are not just wrong, they are universally wrong. (Pain sought, like scratching an itch isn’t really pain, by pain I mean like being struck or having a tooth ache or a headache.)

“They could be shown the mastery of their minds and bodies, so that they could achieve the full expression of their powers, not spend their lives like ineffectual ghosts trapped in a marvelous machine beyond their skill to operate. They could break the domination of pain, so that it became a sentinel and not a tyrant, sending messages which the rational mind could accept or ignore as it pleased. Above all, they could choose to die only when they wished; they would be shown the many paths that led beyond the grave, and the price that must be paid for immortality in all its forms. A vista of infinite time would open up before them, with all its terror and promise. Some minds could face this, some could not; here was the dividing line between those who would inherit the universe, and those who were only quick-witted animals.” ~Arthur C Clarke

The logic of “that’ll teach’em” is broken for the exact same reasons revenge logic is broken. Just as a wrong cannot be undone with punishment, enduring punishment doesn’t give you the right to do wrong. Though both can feel that way because of the nature of the evolved primate mind. Desires can be as misleading and misplaced as pain and suffering. You may want to bully (or starve) the bully, but that’s just as wrong. No one deserves it. That’s the point of compassion. It isn’t selective. It can’t be. Selective compassion is just favoritism and kin selection. It’s racism or nationalism. Etc.

We recognize this in the context of some criminals, when a life of philanthropy can be undone by one murder or one rape. The net balance of pleasure in that context doesn’t matter.

It’s also like hazing rituals, where more senior figures abuse more junior figures and justify it because they experienced it. A distressingly high percentage (over half at least, though time and reform is slowly killing them off) of American parents it seems are this brand of stupid and ethically bankrupt. (At an emotional level I would be quite pleased to be able to personally murder people who scare or hit children but I don’t/won’t.) And once again, I don’t have to have children to know hitting them is wrong any more than I have to have been a Jew or a Nazi to know Nazism is wrong.

The personal experience card is usually just special pleading. A way to try and guilt opponents from the field and to above yourself of the rules by which everyone else has to deliberate.

I don’t have to have been prison raped or raped at all to strenuously oppose prison on that ground alone, yet I do oppose it. To the point where I’d advocate destroying prisons non-lethally from the outside. (Like say driving a remote control van full of cement bags through prison walls until they run out of money to build them or it starts looking cheaper to enact needed reform.)


Experience can just as easily make someone callous and abusive as it can make them compassionate. That’s one of the many reasons authoritarian reform (and training) efforts are doomed to fail at inspiring universal (in both senses of the word, among students and the scope of) compassion.

It’s also the flaw of right wing thinking. The Ted Nugent belief that you can make people (or children, since I have to mention them additionally because they don’t really count as “people” in our culture yet) better simply by hurting them.

People who come through suffering as better people did so despite the suffering, not because of it.




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