Everyone has heard the phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi both famously said that if we follow this law then the world will be blind and toothless. They were speaking only of the vindictive or retributive aspect attributed to this saying. However, this phrase has another meaning.
It was a violence prevention measure and is perhaps the world’s first codified example of man trying to limit violence.
The phrase is contained inside the Hammurabi Code which was written by the King of Babylon nearly 3,500 years ago. It was an attempt to control, limit, and reduce violence by reminding the victim that his response must be proportionate to the wrong inflicted. You can’t do worse than what was done to you. For example, if someone killed your goat you didn’t have the right to then burn down their home and kill their family. It had to be an ‘eye for an eye’ which covered the huge transgressions and a ‘tooth for a tooth’ which applied to the minor offenses.
A student who is yelled at by a teacher is never justified to retaliate with a cussing rant, throwing his books, slamming the desk, or storming out of the classroom. The response is totally inappropriate.
A student who is bullied, treated poorly or even horribly, isn’t then justified in attacking the school. Murder is not the appropriate response. In fact, there is no real or perceived injustice that a student can ever experience in a school that would then equal out to murdering his peers and teachers.
This doesn’t mean in any way that an ‘eye for an eye’ policy should become our standard practice. A student yelled at by a teacher cannot then yell back at a teacher and a bullied student cannot then bully another student. A person can always protect himself, but one wrong doesn’t then justify another wrong. Unfortunately, too many students and adults feel that this is acceptable practice and we see it played out with horrible results in our schools, families, and society.
A person is killed by a police officer so five police officers are killed in another state. The response is totally inappropriate and no real or perceived injustice could ever justify such an extreme act.
What we learn from the ‘eye for an eye’ phrase, as well as current events, is that people have always needed and will always need strong leadership and clear mechanisms to help temper their response when they have suffered an injustice, real or perceived. If left unfiltered, too many will retaliate too often with greater violence and worse acts of injustice.
As a leader, there’s two things we can do:
1) Set high standards:
Never accept or make excuses for inappropriate responses. Remind students and adults that going overboard will never be permitted. Be quick to insist, “You cannot hit someone because they called you a bad name…you cannot publicly disparage someone because they did something you thought was dumb…you cannot destroy or steal another’s stuff because they treated you badly…you cannot hurt someone because you’re mad at them.”
This is not a cry for punishment, but an insistence on establishing and maintain high standards because it’s the best thing for people. High standards help people during very emotional moments to choose the better way. Instead of giving in to the heat of the moment, they may exert restraint due to the fact that only certain behaviors are accepted.
“We don’t do that here,” is a great personal motto and high standard as is “You’re responsible for your actions and your response to the actions of others.”
When we place a high expectation on appropriate behavior we get good behaviors. When we place the same high premium on making an appropriate response, especially during bad situations, we condition our people to be better able to endure bad moments without making them worse.
For the sake of everyone, set high standards.
2) Get Involved.
Kids wrongly believe that a public humiliation requires a public and greater retaliation. If you see or hear something degrading that has been committed against a student, act on it immediately. Don’t let it sit. The longer these things go without being addressed, the worse they usually become. Get out in front of it and defuse it.
Most people, whether they’re willing to admit it or not, want someone to intervene—they’re begging for it. They want you to make it better, lessen the hurt, and have it go away. Too often, they just don’t know how to properly restore what they feel as a loss in dignity so they give as good as they got or better, thinking that payback will rectify the situation. It won’t.
Get involved. So many of our problems could be nipped in the bud if someone just got involved early enough, in the very beginning, and redirect the situation towards a non-violent conclusion.
Be that leader.
People have never needed a reminder to get even. People do that quite naturally on their own. However, people have always needed help in controlling their emotions and appropriately measuring their response when they’ve suffered a real or perceived injustice. That’s why the ‘eye for an eye’ law was created and it reminds us how little human behavior has really changed over the centuries.
We know that most people don’t want to hurt others. We also know that most people, if given positive guidance backed up by high standards and a helpful hand, will choose the better way. It’s what people really want and that’s a positive human behavior and it should give us hope.