When I was a boy learning about life and community in a poor area of Milwaukee, I saw and experienced eating dirt. Although I don’t recall if there were specific ages when we were inducted into the practice or were no longer eligible for it, I do remember what it looked like. The boy expected to eat dirt was generally confronted by someone — usually a friend, but certainly not just a passing acquaintance, and told that he had to admit to an offence against him. In my memory that is when the offender became aware that he was surrounded. The choice then was to admit the offence and say a few things about your stupidity and meanness or face the prospect of being jumped, head pushed to the ground, and forced to eat dirt. Literally.
The pain and humiliation of eating dirt were real. If the barbarism could be extracted, the residual message would be, “You offended me/us/mine through (thoughtless) disrespect. Your denial or disagreement about this is further disrespectful and requires a course correction. After this you will be more thoughtful and we can be on the path to putting this behind us.”
Claiming that you didn’t intend the offence was deemed irrelevant and might even escalate the incident into an all-out ass-kicking. In hindsight, I find it interesting that those carrying the grievance would likely argue the lack of intent when they were called out at home or in school. On the street, however, intent was not on the negotiating table. You did it. Admit it or suffer consequences immediately.
When the dust settled and differences subsided, the offender and offended where often seen together figuring out new ways to be with one another. Of course the newly defined respect was tinged with fear of consequences, a situation unlikely to be associated with human dignity or worth. But the boys could be comrades again. If the offender really understood his offence and didn’t adopt a silent pretense of innocence, it was unlikely that there would be a repeat trip to the dirt. If he quietly held onto his innocence, it sometimes happened that he’d eat dirt again. Or he might be dropped as a friend completely, flailing in a social milieu, reaching out for a hand anywhere to be connected to someone — anyone — once again. To stay on track, the offender needed to suspend his doubt about the rightness of his behavior and take on the perspective of the offended, at least for a while.
To clarify, I do not believe that this eating dirt was bullying. In fact, more than once I witnessed an older or bigger boy, or a boy with insufficient social connection to the offender, trying to get someone to eat dirt when the crowd turned on him instead. My sense is that the practice was not about getting even but about making things right with a friend through force.
Absent the brutality, I am sort of in favor of the principles of eating dirt.
Let me explain.
A majority of Wisconsin voters who voted in the recent years elected Scott Walker three times. The results of his failed policies that pander to a few at the expense of the many suggest these voters need to eat dirt. Remember that they don’t need to agree with me. They just need to take the perspective of the wronged — namely everyone.
Wisconsin voters who didn’t vote in these elections have contributed to my sense of being unwell in my home state. Those who did not vote also need to eat dirt.
The Wisconsin State Legislature, Republicans and Democrats alike, need to eat dirt. Their failures to work through differences, rejecting Medicaid Expansion, gutting the UW system, harming Wisconsin’s children and teens through vast education cuts, and jeopardizing the health of our environment point to a need for them to eat dirt. They need to take the perspective of the poor, young people, families, and future generations whose citizens are inadequately educated.
The President of the UW System who sold our universities, colleges, and schools down the river with his hubris that he could somehow outsmart ALEC needs to eat dirt
ALEC. Period. Dirt.
The US Department of Justice needs to eat dirt for not pursuing ALEC for the criminal and traitorous organization it is. They need to pursue them for fostering Stand Your Ground laws that have perpetuated the murderous behaviors of white racists.
White people in the U.S. need to give up the pretense that racism is not alive and well. Don’t want to fess up? Want to somehow claim an exemption because all lives matter, you weren’t alive during the enslavement of Africans in the U.S, or you were raised poor or working class yourself? Eat dirt.
The American Psychological Association needs to eat dirt for colluding with the CIA in endorsing torture of prisoners. The APA broke a professional and human contract. It did harm to prisoners and their families. It did harm to civilians who lost lives and property through the escalation of war triggered in part by this torture. Even today they are studying their complicity in failing to address the ethical mandate to do no harm. That is rubbish. They helped get people tortured and need to eat dirt.
Of course, there is an alternative. Apologize. Admit wrong doing, intentional or not. Say a few things about stupidity and meanness. Then we can talk and work our way back together again. That is, except for ALEC. ALEC just needs to eat dirt and die.