Lock them away

Many of us have memories of being isolated. I think of occasions when I was isolated by peers. I find myself pushing those memories away so I don’t have to live with discomfort and embarrassment.

We isolate people during the pandemic in case they transfer the virus to others. On other occasions we isolate people in case they harm themselves. We separate people in war zones, when fires or floods threaten lives, and we do the same when people are violent. In Aotearoa people often face isolation when they are poor, not housed, differently abled, belong to groups others don’t approve of and when they are unemployed.

Isolation is sometimes welcome. It is possible to enjoy it because it offers peace, the space to be creative and an opportunity to review what life is offering or what it might bring. When I’m alone, I take more notice of my surroundings and hear sounds I have ignored. Those moments are refreshing.

Sometimes we push people away to punish them. It was decided long ago that those who break laws should be punished by separating them from their social supports. Society decided law breakers should be lonely and live with rejection as punishment. We know the decision to shut law breakers away has not reduced crime but the view that it is a good way to change behaviour is still firmly in place.

Prisoners face punishment and rejection at the same time. When those two powerful concepts are coupled together, they generate fear. Rejection and punishment give rise to feelings of paralysis, violence, sadness and lack of self- worth. Fear follows self-doubt and sometimes people become so afraid of life they choose to stop living in order to stop the pain.

When a person is sent to be alone because they have done something which displeases society, they find it very difficult to emerge with any self-worth. If one is placed in a cell one can only talk to one’s ‘self’. If that sense of‘ ‘self’ has been built in a family where rejection was used as discipline, then confinement in prison will be confirmation that traumatic situations cannot be resolved through conversation. Talking to ‘self’ leads to noticing faults, dwelling on mistakes and severe frustration because no-one is there to offer a way forward.

Prisoners have some opportunities to test their sense of self against the opinions of others. If they are taken into a rehabilitation programme, have visitors from time to time, join a kapa haka group or sit with a tutor, there will be brief moments when conversation helps them to ‘see themselves in a mirror’. But these are fleeting moments, there is no real continuity and it is hard to imagine that any promise of a new life can be real.

There are many examples of groups administering punishment and rejection at the same time. It happens in schools, defence forces, corporations, organisations, sport, politics and religion. It is interesting how often we expect isolation to ‘teach people a lesson’. Many of us know the feelings we had when we were removed from the school class and sent to a ‘time out’ room for breaking the rules. I recall feeling lonely on those occasions but I don’t recall changing my behaviour just because I spent time alone in a small room.

Millions of people around the world are sent to camps or ‘rehabilitation centres’ until they see the error of their ways and are willing to believe what others believe. Time and again it does not work. Some are prepared to face death rather than change their views and the rejection they endure seldom alters their beliefs. A number of mechanisms are built into our communities which punish people by separating them from others.

Social media platforms are often used to punish people for having strong views about politics, education, family life, health, conspiracy theories, scientifically validated facts, beliefs and international issues. The vehicle for punishment via social media is verbal attack, abuse, name calling, avowed disbelief, and argument rather than debate. Digital communication sometimes makes it possible to avoid speaking to people face to face thus providing the means to punish at a distance. Social debate via the internet is mostly impersonal. It avoids taking complexities into account and means we don’t have to watch while someone shows their displeasure.

It is fascinating to note that strongly held views are not changed when people are punished verbally on line. Isolating those who ‘believe’ from those who don’t ‘believe’ only serves to fix views in concrete and set people against one other. The powerful process that convinces us some are ‘wrong’ and some are ‘right’ is often named as ‘research’ on the internet. It usually takes us down paths that serve to convince us we were ‘right’ in the first place. We are separated into ‘pockets of opinion’ by advisers who convince us not to doubt and then we isolate those who disagree with us.

When someone hurts me or I decide they are ‘wrong’ the temptation to reject them is very strong. I admire victims of crime who can forgive, refuse to punish and encourage the perpetrator to live a new kind of life. That takes more psychic strength than I imagine would be available to me if I was a victim. Perhaps one feels differently at the time, perhaps I would find enough loving within myself if I had strong supports around me but I remain uncertain about that. I struggle with the idea we can accept everyone no matter who they are, how they behave toward us or what they say to us. However, I know combining isolation with punishment seldom makes a difference.

People don’t alter their views when they are attacked, not listened to or told with great certainty they are wrong. Public and social media thrives on people taking sides and works hard to make it all very entertaining. It is seldom educative, solution focused or desirous of a resolution. Sometimes violent protest is the only mechanism left when dictatorships rule. But ‘facing off’ needs to end before ‘facing the issues together’ happens.

As soon as someone is certain I am ‘wrong’ I become more entrenched in my own views and cling to them because I am being isolated by someone who is sure they have the answer. I notice that happening in classrooms, prisons, hospitals, religious groups, academic settings and amongst health and therapy professionals. Both participants usually stay wedded to their fundamental beliefs.

The difficult way forward is to stay engaged, make room for people to be different and find ways to accept that no-one has the full picture. It is hard to accept there are no solutions that are likely to last forever. What seems to be most conducive to helpful change is an inclusive process where people assemble jigsaw pieces that at first seem unlikely to fit together. The completed picture will not please everyone but no one will feel rejected, punished or diminished.