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Humankind Read-Along Part 9: Intersectionality Matters

Blogger Allie Phillips smiling and holding a copy of Humankind by Rutger Bregman

Welcome to the penultimate post of the Humankind read-along! I can’t believe it’s almost over. I feel like I’ve been reading this book forever!

Despite a busy week I made it to page 346 and the following discussion prompt: 

On page 344, Bregman argues that “tough talk, retaliation, shutting down borders, dropping bombs, dividing up the world into the good guys and the bad - that’s easy. That’s looking the other way.” What do you think?

This quote comes from Section 5 entitled “Turn the Other Cheek” in which Bregman primarily discusses crime, policing, and prison reform. 

Bregman argues that non-complementary institutions are more effective than the total institution setup of typical prisons. Rather than a prison that locks up people in cages and strips them of their humanity as punishment for the crimes they have committed, a non-complementary prison looks more like a rehab resort, with regular doors and regular rooms, classes, and activities. In fact, it’s hard to tell the difference between the guards and the prisoners in this type of setting. 

These non-traditional prisons have lower recidivism rates than typical prisons because the inmates are imprisoned in an environment that mimics the real world more closely. They are properly rehabilitated so that they can reintegrate into society without returning to violence. 

Bregman also argues against the “broken windows” philosophy of policing that matches up with veneer theory and betrays the slippery slope fallacy. If there’s one broken window in a neighborhood, that invites more vandalism, and the next thing you know there are squatters and then drugs and then violence. This perspective over the past fifty years led to police getting hard on non-violent crimes so that many more people were being imprisoned within these damaging total institution style prisons that just set people up to be released even further hardened against the world, committing more crimes and returning to prison again and again. 

I have some hot takes on this section.

One of the golden girls sprays herself with water and takes a deep breath

I think Bregman provides an interesting concept here—the idea of prisons being spaces of rehabilitation rather than dehumanizing hell holes is certainly aspirational. But the gestalt of his argument here seems not human-centric, but white-male-centric. 

Given that Bregman is indeed a white man, even before opening this book I was anticipating how his privileged identity might shape his writing. As he shifts from perspectives of anthropology and biology to understand humanity’s past and embraces the present via lenses of sociology and psychology, his vision for humankind proves myopic. He fails to see the world from the eyes of people who are not like him and who lack the inherent power that comes with being born like him. Without the nuances of an intersectional discussion accounting for race and gender, his argument falls short. 

The problem with being hard on crime, particularly misdemeanors, is not just that the policing is excessive or that criminals need to be rehabilitated. The problem starts with systemic racism. 

That prisons in the US are filled with Black and LatinX men speaks to the crux of the matter: justice is being enforced in a racist manner. Even if prisons are made more humane, it doesn’t change the fact of who is getting locked up the most. Yet while Bregman acknowledges that the broken windows policy has “proven synonymous with racism” he ignores that that was very well the intent. The purpose of getting hard on nonviolent crime was not to make cities safer, misguidedly buying into veneer theory, but to oppress minorities by locking up Black and Brown men. Bregman’s superficial attempt to address racism within the frame of his larger argument misses the mark. 

When discussing the idea to “turn the other cheek” on a more personal level, such as in an interaction between two individuals, the primary example Bregman uses is between two men. A man is mugged at knifepoint by a teen. Then the man gives the teen his coat, which effectively disarms the teen. The man takes the teen out to dinner and convinces him to return his wallet and gives the mugger $20 cash for his knife.

I just want to point out that this anecdote only works because it occurs between two men. Anytime I am interacting with a man who I don’t know I am on my guard. Like virtually all women I've been catcalled, which is at minimum embarrassing, but can also signal danger. If a man were to go so far as to pull out a knife and demand my wallet, there’s no way I would “turn the other cheek.” I would never trust that I could undo an attacker with kindness. I fear it would possibly incite greater contempt in him toward me as a woman. To quote Karen and Georgia, hosts of the podcast My Favorite Murder, fuck politeness, and to Bregman—fuck turning the other cheek. If I even suspect danger, I’m out of there, and I don’t care whose feelings are hurt. 

When someone wants to rape or murder, he’s not going to be persuaded to face the horror of his ways by a woman being kind to him. (That’s just what’s expected of women all the time anyway, otherwise she’s labeled a bitch.) Moreover, if a criminal is caught for committing rape or murder, I want justice for the victim. I’ll go so far as to agree with Bregman that criminal rehab is important, but justice is equally important. 

Even if it’s human nature to be decent, it cannot be denied that some people do terrible violence. Whether that violence is a product of shaping by their environment or the self they were born with is irrelevant to the fact that it happens. 

To bring us back to prison reform, I don’t know that all violent offenders can be transformed into better people, no matter what cushy-hippie rehab prison you house them in. Maybe it’s my own shortcoming that I can’t wrap my head around this, but that just doesn’t seem like justice for people who’ve been murdered or raped, either. How do you punish a person for their crimes while also acknowledging their humanity and changing their hearts and minds? Who says you can? 

When it comes to what should happen and what’s possible regarding prison reform, and what this means for our global society, I’ll be looking to other authors for their expertise, not Bregman. 

What are your thoughts on “turning the other cheek”? What have you read lately that’s fired you up? Share your own hot takes in the comments! 

We’ve come to the final prompt for the Humankind Read-Along! On Monday I’ll share my take on this last discussion question below after finishing the book. 

Which of Bregman’s “ten rules to live by” 

resonate with you the most? Do you have any rules that you choose to live by? On finishing the book, how do you feel about human nature? Will you think differently about anything?



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