About 25 years ago, my law firm represented the surviving children of a couple that had been shot to death by a sixteen-year-old kid. The kid, let’s call him Dan, had also shot and killed the children’s grand-mother that night.
The surviving children weren’t suing Dan. But in representing them, we wanted to find out what had gone on in the killer’s mind when he entered the family’s home and shot the children’s parents and grand-mother.
Easy enough assignment, I thought. I’ll go up to the state prison and talk with the guy. I learned a few things during that “conversation” with Dan that I remember more clearly than anything I ever learned in law school.
When I asked Dan how he felt about killing these three people, he reacted as most emotionally and mentally healthy people would when answering a question like, “Why did you choose a roast beef sandwich for lunch?” No anguish, no guilt, no shame, no regret. No emotion. Dan showed no feelings. “Absence of affect” is what the psychologists called it. He was sixteen years old, and he was emotionally dead.
Cultural competence is a big issue for a lot of people involved with service organizations. You need to be able to communicate with and relate to people from diverse cultures to provide services effectively. We often think in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, class, age, social or economic status, etc..
Cultural competence is also important for personal safety and self-defense. It cuts across race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other categories that we usually associate with cultural competence. Part of cultural competence for personal safety is the realization that there are sub-cultures of people who think and behave in ways most people cannot comprehend.
Most people are ego-centric. It’s hard for them to realize that not everyone thinks and behaves as they do, that not everyone has the same belief systems, mental capacity, values, or norms.
The lesson Dan taught me was basic: there are some people out there for whom killing is not that big a deal. Dan’s story is more complex than that. He had been severely abused since he was a small child. Other factors affected his life. But the bottom line was that when I met Dan in that dreary prison library he no longer had any capacity for compassion or emotion.
Another lesson I learned was that people hold vastly different belief systems. When I worked for a district court, one of our criminal cases involved a father who had raped his daughter with a dildo. He rationalized that he was teaching her about babies and that it was his right and his job as a father to do so.
Yet another case dealt with a mentally ill mother with schizophrenia and paranoia who had abducted her daughters and kept them on the run for years. Her intentions may have been noble, but the effects of her actions were harmful. Her daughters were smart and resilient girls. They recovered. But for many years, these girls lived like fugitives and beggars. Well-meaning people had assisted the mother because they assumed she was thinking and behaving as they would have. They didn’t realize that she was mentally ill.
Keeping yourself and others safe should include your realization that not everyone has the same world view or behaves as you do. Simple, you say. But think about it. How often do you use ego-centric type of thinking when gauging others?