Love Letters to Humans (no. 97) — on Punishment

Punishment is the relational fuckery of conflating violence with education. Most often the lesson is “be less like you and more like me.” This can be a perplexing lesson coming from someone who takes no issue with their own cruelty.

Sometimes our punishments are so subtle they’re nearly invisible—a quiet but intention-laden withdrawal from conversation, a rejected invitation to engage, a sideways look of disapproval. These aren’t always cruel or punitive choices… and sometimes they are.

Other punishments are blatant, violent, and unmistakable. A dressing down, shunning, shaming, loss of work or community, verbal or physical abuse, neglect, incarceration, death.

We come by our relational fuckery honestly. We learned through experiencing and witnessing punishment that to influence others, get our needs met, and effect change in the world, the most effective strategies were coercion, manipulation, threats, and punishment.

The commonality across punishments is the intention to dehumanize the recipient and reinforce our illusion of superiority so that we can feel safer, more worthy, comfortable, or resourced.

Is punishment working the way you want it to? Is it working politically, in your organizations, in your communities, at home? Is it making you better? More whole? Is it restoring your relationships to harmony?

If you have been following the unspoken rule that to be good you must participate in your own punishment or the punishment of others, I invite you to consider a life of disobedience.


The June-August session of Disobedience School for Humans Raised to be Good Girls and Nice Guys has almost filled. I’ll lead another cohort in October. Let’s talk if you’d like to know more. I’d love that.