I woke up this morning with a start. We all have those occasional flashes in unconscious states, where myriad things we’ve been consciously thinking about just come together. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about not just my work at Rikers but the horrific things that are happening at our border and the ways we fear and even demonize the Other—those people we think the world would just be better off without. We are becoming entirely too comfortable with the idea of indefinite detainment for people we fear because don’t know and/or understand them. And we’re becoming—and this is the most important part—we are becoming alarmingly comfortable using the law as a weapon to strike these people down. I think of all the people we use the law the stigmatize, whether it’s calling the cops because someone is non-violently bothering us, lawyers using our incredible precise surveillance state to make lawbreakers of anyone they decide to make lawbreakers of, the sickeningly abstruse term illegal alien. Every day our general public—you, me, and every Other we don’t know—are becoming less knowledgeable about our increasingly volatile world, while our institutions—our governments but much more actively our corporate ecosystem—have access to more and more information about us.
Yesterday my cousin, who is in her twenties and in med school but I get the impression has been asking herself the difficult questions people ask themselves when they are at the points in their lives where they are consciously making decisions that will affect who they are for the rest of their lives, sent me a Facebook message asking if I knew how she might find an inmate or inmates to become pen pals with. I asked her if she had any preferences for whom she’d like to reach out to, and she only that they be adult. This struck me when she wrote it, and has stuck with me since. I’ve told myself and anyone who would listen that my primary motive for this work is empathy. This has perhaps sometimes been simply a catchword, or a way of getting around the fact that I went in without a firm pedagogy. But I believe, more and more each day, that unrestrained (ok, perhaps just less restrained) empathy is our only way out of the situation I describe in the paragraph above. I want people, myself included, to listen voluntarily to the stories of people whose stories they currently think are unimportant, even reprehensible. I want more people to decide, like my cousin, to write to one or more of the more than 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S. I want people to consciously humanize the many people we encounter on social media whose ideas we detest (this is always a tough one for me). I want us to have conversation, rather than linguistic warfare.
I’m no longer terribly religious, but this is my little Sunday sermon to all of you, my friends. Be good to each other. And be good to each Other.