» Government Rants, Practice in General » Understanding People

Understanding People

TED is a wealth of inspiration. I recently watched a talk by Andrew Stanton, who wrote Toy Story. Discussing the story’s hero, Woody, he explained the character’s selfishness in the context of his various other, more positive attributes. He noted something to the effect that we are all willing to act certain ways as long as certain conditions are met. It’s true.

Experience has taught me that people are rarely just bad. People are filled with desires; they want certain conditions to be met. Some want the sun and moon but thrive in modern society on far less. Others want something very simple and violate society’s norms in all kinds of horrible ways fulfilling their desires. In many instances, the issue isn’t any special evil lurking within, but rather a lack of conformity between the urgency and importance of their needs and the real world’s ability to meet them without imposing an unacceptable consequence on someone else.

It is much easier to understand people’s actions, especially the actions of clients, in that framework. The dichotomy that so frequently confuses judges at sentencing, the Jekyll & Hyde difference between the good man described by family and the monster described by the government, isn’t so confusing anymore. In criminal defense, powerful desires are involved. If the condition that must be met for them to be otherwise law-abiding citizens flows from a deep physical and psychological chemical dependence, it’s not hard to see how the person desperately focused on placating that might look quite different from a gentle, caring person whose needs are met. Even recidivism makes more sense if you assume people are more likely to worry about meeting their most basic emotional needs than they are to consider the legal ramifications of their actions.

Talk with any inmate and you’ll see that, in prison, respect is key. It says something about what the system does to them. We strip them of their humanity. Outside, the winners of the rat race may seek wealth or fame, but inside, nothing matters as much as respect. Prisoners have food and water and shelter, but they’re robbed of any feeling of inherent worth or dignity. The system ensures the condition they crave above all else is respect, the outward manifestation of the basic humanity we stole from them. Then we stigmatize them in every aspect of their lives. They can’t prove themselves on level playing ground. We make them desperate for something we’ve done our best to put beyond their reach, then we act surprised when they don’t act like the perfect people most of us fail to be when we have every advantage.

No one’s as simple as most of us pretend they are. People society might otherwise dismiss and warehouse could do amazing things if given the right opportunity. If we give them a chance and they waste it, then we exhibited admirable compassion and insight. We’d be acting in accordance with the virtues we demand of the people we most wholeheartedly endeavor to render incapable of doing the same. Embracing the richness of individual personalities and the fact we are all able to do great things under the right circumstances, we could change the entire tenor of the system. We could transform it from a plaything we use to satiate our sick need to punish into an efficient mechanism that improves the lives of everyone involved. What are we waiting for?

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