A recent case in SA raised some questions for me about justice and stigma, and how – in some cases, like HIV – the two can’t be easily separated. That they relate at all was surprising enough.
In my latest at Big Think, I try to outline some dimensions some might be overlooking in their need to see “justice done”.
It’s interesting to note how often people clamour for justice, for something to be done, when a situation arises and yet, how the demand for justice is its own downfall. Or rather unmitigated hysteria. For example, we know that criminalising sex work and drugs – at the very least marijuana – has little basis in reason, but plenty of basis in popularity. As Plato hinted at, laws in democracies are made to be popular not right.
But when justice becomes synonymous with revenge, with knee-jerk moralistic action – rather than thought-out, evidence-based approaches that will help everyone in the society, that will reduce suffering – then we’re no longer talking about justice. We’re talking about mob mentality.
I’m reminded of a powerful scene in The West Wing where – no spoilers – a character’s child is harmed in some way by bad people. The character trolls another in saying they should revise whether capital punishment should be nation-wide and mandatory (for certain crimes). The second character points out that what the other man will do as a father, versus what he should do as a servant of the people, are in conflict; the law is there to be the voice of the latter, for the benefit of all, not a tool to benefit the heightened emotions of a grief-stricken father. What use is law when its wielded by the loudest, the strongest, the most grief-stricken?
This is one of the reasons I consider capital punishment to be immoral – to some degree – since it has no retraction possibility; it’s always closing the door on backtracking our possible mistakes. This doesn’t mean I think capital punishment is the worst punishment – I think, along with John Stuart Mill, that (life) imprisonment can be “a living tomb”, especially as we know reports out of places like Guantanamo, as the incredible Molly Crabapple showed.
Anyway, justice as always is complicated and we mustn’t let our desire for it overshadow its actual purpose in being effective.