You know how there are words that you know but only sort of? And usually because of context? Well, lately there’s one that’s been appearing daily — impunity — so I finally repaired to the OED to get a firm grasp on its antecedents and its meaning.
The definition of impunity is exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action, according to the OED. It comes from Latin roots meaning unpunished.
One of the things that has felt to me like it’s going right in our screwy civilization lately is that federal law enforcement is, uh, enforcing the law and charging the miscreants who stormed The Capitol on January 6th.
This is not seeded in an urge for revenge in me. Nor is it really a wish for punishment, except in my primitive brain. But it is a heart-felt desire for justice. Or so I tell myself. People died. People were injured. People were frightened. People were traumatized, and there ought to be some kind of consequences to causing those events and feelings.
There would be consequences for ordinary folx who perpetrated such things. Um, not so fast, Beloved.
In a New York Times article on Internet trolling — which sounds so very minimal reduced to those two words but actually has real-world damages attached to it — one angry, if damaged, women wreaked utter havoc on families in the U.K., in Canada, and in the U.S. causing hundreds of defamation suits to be filed against her.
“On Thursday, Judge Corbett issued a ruling in the defamation suits, finding that Ms. Atas was responsible for what he called ‘unlawful acts of reprisal.’ Ms. Atas, he wrote, is ‘apparently content to revel in ancient grievances, delighting in legal process and unending conflict because of the misery and expense it causes for her opponents.’ He ordered Ms. Atas to stop.”
All well and good, no? Good, we say to ourselves, she has to stop. She has been stopped. But, wait.
“But the judge left it up to the plaintiffs to try to get her slanderous posts taken down, even as he decried the free-for-all nature of online activity. ‘A situation that allows someone like Atas to carry on as she has, effectively unchecked for years, shows a lack of effective regulation that imperils order and the marketplace of ideas,’ he wrote.”
Google, Facebook, WordPress were approached by a legion of those defamed, who begged the tech behemoths to take down slanderous, patently untrue, posts about them, their families, and their businesses. For years. Not until The New York Times reporter who wrote the story, Kashmir Hill, called as part of her research did they take down one post. Not one. Despite the legal ruling.
In as much as I would love to reassure all of us that regulation is absolutely the way to go, I am convinced that it isn’t. We couldn’t possibly regulate with enough specificity, and besides, now that the practice of law has slipped its bonds of justice and shifted into the realm of loopholes and gotchas, attorneys would be punching the air every time they figured out how to avoid justice. [In all fairness, not all attorneys, but I daresay, a lot of them, certainly those in Big Law.]
I actually think that the real way to fix a scenario like this one is to examine, revise, and repair the rent veil of connective infrastructure that makes us work together for the common good, that even acknowledges there is a common good, and that we all have deeply personal and abiding reasons to work toward its rehabilitation.
Rehabilitate comes from Latin roots that mean to make able again. We have lost our ability to recognize our connectedness, Beloved, and it’s literally destroying us. Consider these disparate examples …
In the Look, There’s Haley’s Comet! version of disconnection … “WASHINGTON — As racial justice protests erupted nationwide last year, President Donald J. Trump, struggling to find a winning campaign theme, hit on a message that he stressed over and over: The real domestic threat to the United States emanated from the radical left, even though law enforcement authorities had long since concluded it came from the far right.”
The premise here is shine the light anywhere else to distract from what is really going on. The powerful pulpit of The Oval Office was used to obfuscate genuine threat.
Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal, a contributing opinion writer, worked as an emergency room physician before becoming a journalist. A former New York Times correspondent, she is now the editor in chief of Kaiser Health News. She writes in “Yes, It Matters That People Are Jumping the Vaccine Line,” “When hospital administrators and politicians’ spouses get immunized before people more at risk, it undermines confidence in the system.” I’ll say.
“Gregg Gonsalves, who is 57, H.I.V.-positive and an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, said he faced an ethical quandary when he was notified of his eligibility for the vaccine; he was unsure whether to sign up. His 86-year-old mother has not gotten one yet.
“Ethicists are saying, ‘if offered, take it,’ but stepping in line in front of my own mother? I know speed is of the essence in getting shots into arms, but this is entrenching gross inequities,’ Dr. Gonsalves said. (He declined to say what his decision was.)”
Gross inequities are just a few of the many reasons We the People no longer default, even to begrudging connection. If we want to reweave the social fabric that connects us all, we need to rebalance every inequity, which, before you squawk, no, we won’t do perfectly, but could we at least start?
And what about the protestations of Rome about transparency around the sexual abuse scandals? Oh, now we find out that their committees and confreres don’t include priests who belong to religious orders. A brother and sister have waited 25 years to speak their peace, and now, the Dominicans have spirited away their abuser and he cannot be found, but it is, nonetheless, assured that he is working in fulltime ministry.
No wonder our connectivity is frayed. It’s moth-eaten as well.
Saul Kassin is a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied false confessions for 40 years. He says, “Most Americans don’t know this, but police officers in the United States are permitted by law to outright lie about evidence to suspects they interrogate in pursuit of a confession. Of all forms of subterfuge they deploy — like feigning sympathy and suggesting that a suspect’s confession might bring leniency — this one is particularly dangerous.
A 1969 Supreme Court determination “made it lawful for the police to present false evidence. … There is almost no limit to the type or magnitude of deception permitted — one lie or many; small lies and whoppers; lies aimed at adults or anxious and unwary teenagers.”
No wonder the mothers of Black sons sit them down to have what is known as ‘the talk’ about how to behave with law enforcement. There can be no trust that officials are after truth if they are lawfully permitted to coerce through untruths.
Abby Lee Hood is a journalist who was raised in rural Tennessee. In “The Real Meaning of Hillbilly,” she writes, “The conservative community I felt alienated from had forgotten its progressive roots. The fact is, in the early 1900s rednecks and hillbillies weren’t backward; they were ahead of the times.
“During the West Virginia mine wars in the 1920s, rednecks formed a multiracial coalition of coal miners, and they forced cafeteria workers to serve everyone in the same room. Rednecks organized through the Industrial Workers of the World and the United Mine Workers of America, both of which are still active today. Miners led strikes, protests and even armed clashes against coal companies.”
“The American Constitutional Association and the coal companies” rewrote history and “made sure students didn’t know about the miners who wore red bandannas and organized an integrated army of immigrants, whites and African Americans decades before Brown v. Board of Education made it to the Supreme Court. The bandanna wearers were called ‘rednecks,’ and at the time, it was an insult.
“Today, redneck culture has become less about building solidarity among working folks and more about supporting white nationalism. Urban Americans often think of rednecks as backward, and make jokes about us being uneducated and inbred. … ‘The stereotype is a backward, culturally ignorant group of people,’ Frank Keeney, grandson of one of the early resisters, said. ‘People don’t know the history of these resistance fighters.”
Ms. Hood affirms, “In the Blair Mountain miners, and in leftists in general, I found my roots and my people — working-class folks who know struggle but embrace social freedom and equality.”
This is what all of us must do, Beloved. We must find our roots again. We must find our people. If we try to move on too quickly, and we skip this reconnection step in reconstructing our social fabric, we will end up exactly where we are today. Divided.
The title of Dwight Garner’s article this morning caught my eye. “Let’s Become More Divided.” Wow, I thought, how could that possibly work? This is where a click will take you. He’s searched the literati of the world who have claimed, repeatedly I might add, that there are two kinds of people — and gone on to enumerate, in their not so humble opinions, just what comprise their particular two kinds of their peculiar moment in time.
For my purposes in this essay, I liked the one by Henri Cole from The Paris Review.
“I divide the world into people who want to control something and those who want to make something.”
This binary suits our peculiar moment in time, I think. There are those of us who feel like our world is out of control. So much of what has shredded our social fabric is those who want control. The reason is simple. Some of the rest of us don’t think that the specific controls they want suit all of us. Or will bring the results we want, or even, they want. This desire for control comes from the past and, often, wants a return to an imaginary past.
Then there are those of us who want to make something — we are the artists, the creators, the dreamers, the envisioners, the ones who believe in a brighter, better future.
Divide-and-conquer tactics have gotten us to where we are, Beloved. Remake-and-rebuild tactics will take us to where we want to be. As Amanda Gorman said at The Inauguration, there’s a “hill to climb.” Yes, one maker, one effort, one dream, one creation, at a time.
What do you want to make? Do that.
Dr. Susan Corso is a spiritual teacher, the founder of iAmpersand, and the author of The Mex Mysteries, the Boots & Boas Books, and spiritual nonfiction. Her essays address the intersection between spirituality and culture. Find out more at www.susancorso.com