» Courts, Government Rants » It’s Not Just About Them

It’s Not Just About Them

I’m no expert at dog training.

If you come to my house, the pony-sized dog will mercilessly lean on you while drooling. If she’s had any water recently, you will probably wish you were wearing a wet suit. If you don’t have one, consider bringing a change of clothes. All we have to show for our multiple failed attempts to train her are lots of hurt feelings. All hers. Any mild correction results in her pouting off to bed for about a day and looking like you’ve beaten her. Any failure to positively reinforce, even when she hasn’t done anything remotely resembling what you wanted her to do, results in her pouting off to bed and looking like you’ve beaten her until you feed her again. She’s very sensitive.

The German Shepherd, on the other hand, has an indomitable spirit. He wants nothing more than to do whatever thing happens to pop into his head. He will do anything for food or attention or just because he’s accustomed to doing it. He will stick with whatever he’s doing on so long as there isn’t something more interesting on his agenda. He responds well to positive reinforcement if you can get him to focus, but when he gets fixated on something else, he is frequently too focused to care about about anything else. He often needs firm correction or else you’re just wasting your time. You probably couldn’t hurt his feelings if you tried, so it works for him. Sort of.

It’s interesting comparing the things that work with one dog but not with the other. The approach for the sensitive one is to nurture and provide an environment where desired behaviors are encouraged and undesirable behaviors are ignored. The other dog benefits from the same approach, but he isn’t limited to it. Telling him not to do something then punishing him when he does it actually works. It works well, in fact, but only so long as you are capable of punishing him under the circumstances. The results of correction don’t form good habits that last a lifetime. At best, they lead to opportunities for positive reinforcement. In the end, he isn’t that different from the other dog.

People aren’t dogs, but we aren’t that different from dogs either. We all like to do things that get us rewards. We all dislike punishment as long as we’re likely to get the attention anyway. Some of us learn from stern correction. Some of us sulk away into a corner, learning only that those attempting to impose their will on us are dominating and cruel. For the most part, the system blindly treats us all the same.

At the various dog training courses I’ve attended over the years, I’ve noticed that people who think they can use firm correction with some measure of success tend to only use firm correction. They completely abandon the difficult work of consistent repetition and reward, which requires patience and thoughtfulness. Their dogs are rarely that well-behaved as a result. At best, they are hesitantly obedient, living in near-constant fear of what might happen to them if they mess up. When something triggers their instincts, they abandon the fear of leash-snaps that stays in the forefront of their canine minds in more controlled environments.

With the right dog, being abusive might get you what you want. If you are cruel enough, you might even look like you know what you’re doing. But is that really what you want to do?

A recurring theme over at Gamso – For the Defense is the idea that grace and mercy are things to be granted; things about the giver, not the recipient. For years he’s eloquently driven the point home. We know how awful mankind can be, but it isn’t just about them. Like he asked a little while ago, what sort of people are we?

Looking outward can be horrifying. Evil exists, have no doubt. A philosophy that ignores the worst we are capable of doing is naive at best and dangerous at worst. I see that strong correction may be required; the rapid response of the police to a home invasion and the immediate immobilization of a dangerously impaired driver make all our lives better. I may be a criminal defense lawyer, but I live in the same community you do and drive on the same roads. I do not want carnage in my home or on the streets. I want to be happy and safe just like you do; I just do not want to become the bogeyman because I am scared and obsessed with keeping everyone else obedient. Looking outward shifts the focus from ourselves and what we can control to scary things that bring out the worst in us. We abandon the idea of building the world we want with thoughtful planning over time and instead just act like abusive dog owners.

Looking inward, on the other hand, can be empowering. How can you expect to make the world a good place by doing bad things to people? When you last quit a bad habit, was it because your life was in shambles, with nothing but ruins in front of you and nothing but a barren wasteland of shattered dreams in front of you, or was it because you hoped for a better life and thought it might actually come true? You aren’t out murdering someone tonight because you’re on a registry or because the world treats you like a rotten beast unworthy of love. You aren’t smoking meth in a dark alley somewhere because you’re already a felon with too much to lose. Looking inward, you can see the flaw in how most people view government; it’s really just a preoccupation with forcing other people to obey and harming them when they don’t. Looking outward just results in strong correction, more the frightened response of a helpless master with an excess of power and a dearth of understanding than a viable solution to an ongoing problem. Looking inward helps ensure our actions are consistent with the kind of people we want to be.

It’s clear that we should first look inward, not outward. We shouldn’t dwell on what other people are doing, worrying ourselves into a fit because we’re terrified about what they intend to do with their freedom. We should instead begin by looking at ourselves and acting in line with the best in each of us, not with the worst we fear in each other.

Do you want to live in a country of people who at best follow orders when watched? Then we have to watch everyone. Do you want a country that’s only pretending to be good because being bad means their draconian masters might express their disapproval with violence? Then we have to hurt everyone. Until the paradigm shifts and we quit fretting about what the real monsters are doing and instead examine what we’ve become trying to fight them, we’re not going to solve anything.

It isn’t just about “them.” It’s more about what the way we treat them says about us.

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3 Responses to "It’s Not Just About Them"

  1. Tim Anderson says:

    You said this:

    “It’s clear that we should first look inward, not outward.”

    I couldn’t disagree more.

    I think, of all things, we should be most deeply sceptical about our inner sensations. Why? Because the confidence interval on a sample of one is . . . infinitely large. That is to say, if all I have to go on is my own experience, then (literally) any other person’s experience is equally likely to be true, no matter how greatly it diverges from mine.

    Looking outwards is the only way that we can compare and confirm that our personal experiences have any general validity. How do we look outward reliably? Inductive methods. Reasoning from the mass of particulars to the general.

  2. Andrew (the other one) says:

    Admit it: this entry was just an excuse to talk about your dogs.

    1. Matt Brown says:

      Guilty as charged.

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