Power is not evidence example: restraint in schools


Staff members in a school held down a young girl with Downs Syndrome and forcibly taped her shoes to her feet with large amounts of duct tape. 

That’s all we know, from the story.

The fact that strong adults decided to do this isn’t evidence of anything else. In particular it’s not evidence that:

  • She was especially disruptive, or:
  • She was doing something urgently dangerous, or:
  • The teachers were overwhelmed, or:
  • This was a last resort done only after gentle options were exhausted, or:
  • She is exceptionally difficult to care for, or:
  • She doesn’t belong in the class she is in, or:
  • Her disability made the problem hard to solve, or:
  • Anything remotely like that

But, a good percentage of the people reading and commenting on stories like this seem to be assuming that, if this happened, there’s a good reason it happened, and that the reason had something to do with the child and her disability. This is the assumption even of a good percentage of people who think the staff were wrong to do this to her.

It is hard not to make that assumption. It’s really ingrained.

But power is not evidence, it is not a reasonable assumption to make. And it is important to bear that in mind.

Power is not evidence: a rallying cry against dehumanization

Content warning: this post contains somewhat graphic examples of horrible things that happen to people. Proceed with caution.

There is a lot of abuse in this world. A lot of people have far more power over others than they ought to, and even necessary power is misused routinely. Even good people with good intentions harm routinely others by misusing their power.

Often, when force is used against people, they’re presumed to have deserved it. Or worse, to have deserved it because they’re a Kind Of Person who inherently needs to be treated that way. And this is bad. It allows abuse to go unchallenged and even to seem noble – in cases where if people would just *look*, they’d understand.

For instance:

Sometimes people are punished. This is not, in itself, evidence that they did something wrong, or that they are bad, or that they were behaving substantially differently from others. It’s evidence that someone powerful decided to punish them. And that’s all.

Sometimes children are put into segregated programs. This is not evidence that they benefit from segregation, or that they are a kind of person who needs that. It’s evidence that someone powerful decided that kids Like That don’t belong around the real kids. And that’s all.

Sometimes teenagers are sent to harsh programs for bad kids. This is not evidence that they were bad, that they deserved it, that the programs benefited them, or that they are fundamentally different from other kids. It is evidence that someone powerful decided to send them to a program. And that’s all.

Sometimes people are institutionalized. This is not evidence that they are dangerous. It is not evidence that they need to be locked up for their own good. It is not evidence that they are a kind of person who can’t be free. All it’s evidence of is that someone powerful decided they weren’t really real, and needed to be separated from the real people. And that’s all.

Sometimes adults are described as having no mind or having the mind of a little child. This is not evidence that they are incapable of thought or communication, or that they’re a kind of person whose choices don’t matter. It is evidence that someone powerful decided not to listen to them. And that’s all.

Power is evidence of power. And that’s all. And keeping that in mind makes it possible to notice what is actually going on, and to treat people a lot better.

And when you understand that power is not evidence, there’s the horrible part, because you have to notice the abuse and the horrors you used to be able to ignore.

But there’s also the wonderful part. Because you realize that everyone is real, and that nobody needs to be treated as an unperson. And that this horrible brutality and dehumanization is completely unnecessary *and that it can be stopped*.

And if you remember, if you can keep in mind that everyone is real and that power is not evidence – you can become trustworthy. Some people are the targets of pervasive dehumanization efforts, and – if you are able to see this as absolutely unjustified, on a core level, if you can be trusted to see others as real *all the time*, you can prevent these efforts from working.

This is an important skill to acquire. It can save lives (sometimes, including your own).