I just finished The Red Parts, by Maggie Nelson, which is a memoir that is mostly about her aunt’s death and the trial that occurs thirty years later. Nelson never knew her aunt, but her previous book, Jane, A Murder was on the same subject, albeit constructed as a documentary essay. There was a passage in the book about justice and how we as a society view it as something that we must wait for passively.
It’s always “rendered,” “served,” or “done.” It always swoops down from on high–from God, from the state–like a bolt of lightning, a flaming sword come to separate the righteous from the wicked in Earth’s final hour. It is not, apparently, something we can give to one other, something we can make happen, something we can create together down here in the muck” (Nelson 113).
The emphasis there is mine, because it is that line that began my own thought process regarding justice, equability, and fairness. “Fair is something you pay on a bus,” is what I’ve told my children since they were old enough to complain about it (and of course when it’s said aloud, the spelling of fair/fare doesn’t matter…) and I believe that to be true. It’s not possible for their to be absolute fairness–if there were, then the tenets of Utopia, 1984, Gulliver’s Travels, Anthem, and Brave New World would be plausible and although there are some interesting, even good ideas presented in those texts, there are also some very problematic concepts. (If I may as an aside point out that in Utopia, the only way a citizen can be banished from the country is to leave without permission or commit adultery. If the person who commits adultery does it again, he or she is immediately put to death…) That would be a tad severe, but would it be just? Who determines what is just or even moral? Are the platitudes of what we accept as a society fluid or static? Personally I believe that morality is fluid in many ways and dependent on time, place, culture, and what a society considers normative at the time, but because this is a blog post and not a dissertation, those ideas can stay where they are for now…
French Historian Michel Foucault said, “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”
Is that what justice is for? To point out to someone what they did and what what they did did? Foucault and I agree that there is no glory in punishment, and I believe that there is a great disconnect between those words. “The problem may also lie in the word itself, as for millennia ‘justice’ has meant both ‘retribution’ and ‘equality,’ as if a gaping chasm did not separate the two” (Nelson 113).
Retribution–punishment, penalty, one’s just deserts; revenge, reprisal, requital, retaliation, vengeance, an eye for an eye (and a tooth for a tooth), tit for tat, lex talionis.
Equality–fairness, parity, equilibrium, agreement, congruence, impartiality, equal opportunities, symmetry.
When they stand in definition, it is easy to see the gaping chasm that Nelson references. And to go back to the first quote, why is it that we must wait for justice to be served from above? Why can’t we as humans take the time to see what we did did and make amends on our own in whatever form seems the most helpful to the person who has been harmed? (Obviously, I am not talking about murder here, but rather the emotional harm that we do to one another…)
There are three steps to an apology:
- “I’m sorry…”
- “Please forgive me…”
- “What can I do to make it up to you?”
The third step is the one that is usually left out, and is probably the most important. I don’t believe that it’s purpose is for retribution, but rather reparation, and repair. If individuals took it upon themselves to, on their own, without placing the responsibility on God or the State or some other authority to render it and as Nelson suggests, make it something we give to one another, create, make happen, and create together, wouldn’t that be better for everyone?
Or is it just semantics?