Just what?

Harry Drabik

Burning of the great library of Alexandria

As I do, you likely feel sympathy and agreement with aggrieved parties calling for justice. Our systemically failed culture and nation has left us with a belief in Liberty and Justice for All. I’d hope for critics to give us of the U.S. credit for that much at least. But I fear I’m too optimistic in that as justice proponents holding signs, waving banners, and chanting slogans calling for justice like as not have little regard for justice. Calling for justice sounds good so they say it. Denying calls for justice makes us feel and look bad, so there we are giving ground for justice that is not just.

You’re right to ask why I’d question justice as a goal. What’s wrong with me? Well here’s the point and explanation. Are people talking about justice as a process or as an outcome? That’s the distinction to keep in mind. It is also a far-far larger distinction than my few words imply, and that’s exactly why we have a deuce of a time dealing with it.

An example many of us will recall of justice as a process can be seen in the OJ trial. Whether or not you weigh race issues and the actions of prosecution and defense favorably or not a process of justice was followed and a verdict reached. As importantly, the verdict was accepted without a single riot as I recall it, but maybe I missed that or conveniently forgot mobs calling for justice at the end of a rope.

That’s the other (most common I might suggest) way justice is often seen, namely as an ensuing punishment or result. When justice is handled as a result or outcome it might more accurately be called revenge or retribution. It’s an eye-for-an-eye form of justice. Along lines of justice as a social issue imagine an argument that it’s not fair (just) that you’re a better guitar player than me so one of your fingers should be smashed to even the field. It’s a tricky thing this area of justice, and don’t for a moment take your mind from the realization that many calls for justice represent something quite other than justice or fair treatment. Indeed, might be just the opposite; outcome justice having a long history of enjoying blood whether of evil doers or political opponents no matter: blood. Ah, how far we’ve come and how far we’ll yet go reforming justice to fit the ends made in advance.

Many won’t agree, but justice as an imperfect process is less horrific to society than justice done as a vengeful end. If justice means killing the unjust it’s not long before the unjust are defined as those killed in the name of justice. The proposition is a neat one unless you’re on its wrong side. A proposition’s neatness may be among the best clues we’ll get regarding its value. Prolonged, messy, frustrating are better marks of justice than swift and convenient. “Off with their heads” is authoritarian justice where the side of the blade you’re on determines what’s just. I suspect an individual’s approval of “swift justice” depends on how likely that standard might be applied to them. In general we prefer speedy settlements over strung out arguing. Our human natures don’t like uncertainty. We prefer knowing “one way or the other” don’t we?

There are many examples and a long history of civilizations and cultures have gone quite far on the admirable efficiency of prescribed justice. I could say the practice is the hallmark of some groups (interestingly both some politics and some religions share faith in the one-way, one-size, universal answer for everything). A convenient example is book burning, the intellectual version of ethnic cleansing. There’s hardly a better summary than that behind the final destruction of the great library of Alexandria. Here’s how, I must say brilliantly, it worked. The Caliph agreed the library had to be burned. If its contents agreed with if the teachings he followed then they were not needed. If they disagreed should be destroyed. See, very neat and tidy with not so much messy middle ground to befuddle followers into considering anything but the orthodox view.

A thing I believe bears keeping in mind is whether a goal attempts a fair process or requires a particular result. Minnesota saw one enactment of justice when Officer Noor shot a woman of a different color in an alley and another depiction in the Floyd case. Is justice a process or a specific end? If it’s the second then that “process” (if we’d call it that) becomes more about punishment than guilt. In science or law starting with a conclusion leads to problems and is apt to create problems because defending foregone conclusions often means ignoring or trampling any contradictory view or evidence. Remember how it works when “If it agrees or disagrees we don’t need it” is your operational guide. Inquiry and development are rather quashed when upholding conclusions is given rein.

Holding what a person believes a noble aim or conclusion is ennobling and a pitfall. I say so because the world doesn’t stand still or behave according to what we say or think. I know I’ve a history of odd argument. That’s because I’ve never found things as simple-easy as I was told or talked myself into believing. We’re all on that same pathway aren’t we? I call it the route of going green by doing the un-green --- organic grapes flown in from the other side of the planet. A fine intent, such as housing for addicts, can have ill results. Sure a roof over an addicts head is better for the addict, but how about anyone else under that roof, and who is taking care of that roof while the addict stays out of the rain? Whether justice or addiction, a long and daunting process is involved on a case by case basis that doesn’t do well (might be worse) wholesale. I appreciate the merchandising motive of shoe and insurance companies touting better worlds. But please stop. Don’t try fixing the world. Make a good shoe and be happy with that. We might instead consider bettering our own lives and actions as our best shot at helping the world.