Featured image is The Angel of Mercy, by Joseph Highmore, c. 1746.
A deeply political knowledge of the world does not lead to a creation of an enemy. Indeed, to create monsters unexplained by circumstance is to forget the political vision which above all explains behavior as emanating from circumstance, a vision which believes in a capacity born to all human beings for creation, joys, and kindness, in a human nature which, under the right circumstances, can bloom.
Susan Griffin, The Way of All Ideology
The solution, in tangible terms, is community care and a great deal of awareness of how most of us did not get our needs met at key developmental stages, which means we did not move out of those stages and must do so now. Collective healing is possible. We can heal when we can finally be our whole, unguarded selves, in human community, without shields or guards, and be liked, accepted, seen, held. This is systemic change, spiritual change, at the core levels of our culture, lived each day.
Nora Somaran, The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture
Justice, equity, and mercy
In her essay, Equity and Mercy, Martha Nussbaum contrasts three concepts of moral and legal adjudication: strict justice, equity, and mercy. Strict justice observes that a crime has happened, and demands it be balanced with some proportional retribution. Details of personal history, environment, even ignorance of relevant knowledge have no bearing on strict justice.
The world of epieikeia or equity, by contrast, is a world of imperfect human efforts and of complex obstacles to doing well, a world in which humans sometimes deliberately do wrong, but sometimes also get tripped up by ignorance, passion, poverty, bad education, or circumstantial constraints of various sort. […] Epieikeia is a gentle art of particular perception, a temper of mind that refuses to demand retribution without understanding the whole story […].
Nussbaum argues that equity doesn’t really work against justice; instead justice should be seen as a set of general guidelines with gaps. Equity fills in the gaps with the details of a particular case. Equity completes justice. “The point of the rule of law is to bring us as close as possible to what equity would discern in a variety of cases, given the dangers of carelessness, bias, and arbitrariness endemic to any totally discretionary procedure.”
Equity gives us a finer grain classification of wrongdoing, but once actual, appropriate guilt is determined after incorporating personal and situational details, there is nothing more to be said. Punishment must still be exacted; the proportionality of that punishment is just understood better after considerations of equity have been taken into account.
Following the Roman Stoic Seneca, Nussbaum goes beyond equity. Mercy asks us to be open to forgiving even deliberate wrongdoers on the theory that all human beings are formed amid wicked social influences. Nussbaum summarizes Seneca:
People who do bad things—even when they act from bad motives—are not, [Seneca] insists, simply making a foolish and easily corrigible error. They are yielding to pressures—many of them social—that lie deep in the fabric of human life. Before a child is capable of the critical exercise of reason, he or she has internalized a socially taught scheme of values that is in many ways diseased, giving rise to similarly diseased passions: the excessive love of money and honor, angers connected with slights to one’s honor, excessive attachment to sex … anger and violence connected with sexual jealousy; the list goes on and on.
Of course I would add to Seneca’s list our modern diseased values of sexism, racism, and other forms of conscious and unconscious bigotry. Focusing on punishing the offender does nothing to make victims whole and does nothing to combat the diseased norms and other pernicious environmental effects (poverty and so on) that contribute to or facilitate evil. Punishment, while it may have legitimate deterrent effects, fundamentally looks backward to evening scores rather than forward to making the world better.
Retributive social justice
As someone who has been participating in feminist discussions for some time, it’s easy to find retributive anger. I’ll do myself no favors by beginning with an example of a rather monstrous offense, with really nothing in the way of mitigating circumstances.
Brock Turner was earlier this year convicted on three felony sexual assault charges for his rape of an unconscious woman on Stanford campus. Outrage erupted when the judge sentenced Turner to “only” six months in county jail with felony probation. This outrage came in two forms, often in conjunction. The first is outrage that this white male clearly hailing from privilege was getting a lighter sentence than would, say, a poor black kid who committed the same crime. This outrage is perfectly reasonable and it goes hand in hand with criticisms of America’s mass incarceration problem and the way it exacerbates a plethora of social ills.
But the second kind of outrage is at the sentence itself, that Turner is “getting off light” and deserves a harsher punishment. “Rape victims don’t exactly get off easy from all of this…. Why should the rapist have an easy time of things?” sums up the anger. It’s the idea that there is a cosmic balance that must be righted when a crime happens. The victim is irreversibly injured; therefore, the perpetrator must suffer comparably in turn. The anger quickly materialized as a petition to get the person responsible for sentencing, Judge Persky, removed from his position.
One San Jose public defender argued that the sentence was “exactly what I would want for a public defender client of mine under similar circumstances … the sentence we would want for our brothers, our sons, and our friends if they were convicted of crimes, even sexual assault, for the first time.” I posted the public defender’s blog post to a relatively non-dogmatic feminist discussion forum. The forum reaction, almost unanimously, was that this was “apologist garbage.”
Criticism of the sentencing often turned to the public letter written by the assailant’s father, who naturally tried to humanize his son. And the father’s letter was outrageous, as he minimized his son’s crime as merely “20 minutes of action,” the “unfortunate result” of “binge drinking.” He even seemed to deny that his son’s actions even qualified as violent. But there’s some irony in condemning the father’s letter while demanding retributive punishment for the son. If this is the dazzlingly oblivious privilege and textbook rape culture that Turner grew up with, it’s easy to see how Turner would even now fail to understand his wrongdoing. To be clear, Turner was guilty of rape. The authorities have every right to constrain his liberties and compel him to community service or whatever might be useful. But to the extent possible this compulsion should focus on reeducating and rehabilitating him. Throwing him into a cage for a decade to languish or become victimized himself forgets that he is also a human being. There is systemic injustice in how individuals from less privileged backgrounds face harsher punishments for lesser crimes. But we should extend Turner’s treatment to these unlucky souls, and not expand miserable treatment.
The social justice warrior and the social justice cleric
A similar dynamic plays out in social justice discourse. The following exchange took place in the same forum over this article about the Red Pill community. Red Pill is a forum well known for men’s rights activists (MRAs) and quite a lot of misogyny. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think there’s something slightly culpable about visiting Red Pill in earnest (as opposed to having ironic or journalistic intentions). By analogy think of earnestly attending a KKK rally. You know they are devoted to white supremacy, and there’s nothing to be gained by immersing yourself in that hateful rhetoric. Still, Red Pill exists, and it’s surely worthwhile to learn why men may go to such a place in order to understand how they view and discuss their problems, and to stand a chance of learning what might get them to reconsider their misogyny. I’ve anonymized the interlocutors, both women incidentally.
It’s important to understand that SJW is right. The man in question is culpable for projecting his problems onto women in the workforce and other triumphs of feminism. SJW is also correct that many women face far more serious problems qua women than what Mr Hapless has to deal with. It is no one’s (certainly no woman’s) responsibility to gently, patiently listen to his bullshit and guide him back to reality. And yet our Social Justice Cleric sees him as a human being, and even seems to be able to help him ease back from the misogynistic ledge. She effectively deploys Seneca’s “merciful attitude,” which “asks the judge to imagine what it was like to have been that particular offender, facing those particular obstacles with the resources of that history.”
Simple justice requires nothing more of us than to leave men like this to their diseased ideas and poisoned environments. It is, after all, not anyone else’s fault, and it’s his responsibility to pull himself together. But simple justice alone does nothing to directly address toxic masculinity, gendered expectations, oppressive relations, outright racism and racial bias, rape threats and harassment, white and male fragility, and the just world bias that makes it hard for the lucky ones to even believe any of these problems exist. Not to mention poverty, institutional oppression, and their legacy effects. These are the social and spiritual ailments that afflict not only their traditional victims, but their host bodies as well. They require patient, holistic attention to cure. There is good in the merciful approach, and even if it’s somehow supererogatory, it may be nonetheless necessary to achieve a world we can all thrive in.
The paradox of mercy
It’s past time I acknowledge the obvious objection to all this. I’m a comfortable white man urging a patient, merciful attitude toward other straight white men who, frankly, often don’t deserve the kid gloves. Guilty as charged. My only defense is that I see a whole population of people who are losing their privilege at a rapid clip but they still have enough social power and are infested with enough angry inner demons that they could destroy us. But they don’t even know they’re possessed by these demons. Without a doubt, men like me have to play a more significant role in this mercy and healing than others. Women already perform a disproportionate amount of emotional labor. But ultimately mercy is for everyone.
Will Wilkinson struggles with the same sticky paradox in a facebook post (shared with permission, emphases mine).
Social justice really has been and still is to a large extent about reducing the status and power of white guys relative to everybody else. This is a real loss and especially bitter to poorer white guys who don’t have other easy accessible sources of status. Imposing this loss is totally necessary, but it’s been badly done. Some of the most difficult and frankly distasteful work in moving toward justice is allowing a sort of face-saving accommodation for those who have (justly) lost power and status. There’s an ugly formless and dangerous rage out there among downwardly mobile white dudes … and it’s ridiculous to think it ought to be catered to. But I do worry that it has been rendered even more dangerous by a failure of prudent restraint in the expression of exasperation and contempt at white dude blindness to privilege. … It really is too much to ask for that restraint, especially from those who remain worse off in absolute terms, and for whom the progress of social equality means a rising sense of empowerment and effective voice. I mean, you’re supposed to use that voice to say, “Really, really super-sorry you’ve lost your power to bully me?” No. It’s too much to ask. When we’ve been fucked over, we want straight-up revenge—to put the [boot] to the people who put the boot to us. And it seems like it’s restraint enough, more than big enough of us, not to seek that. Still, at the same, if we don’t want the wounded animals to wound us, it does seem like it might be wise not to keep poking at them, even if you can’t summon the Christlike will to hold a cool cloth to the big babies’ fevered foreheads. It totally is above and beyond to say “I’m sorry that this is happening to you,” when you’re totally not. … This seems like an impossible subject. It seems safer, socially, not to bring it up. I think that’s part of our problem.
May the Force be with us all
But we do need to talk about it. Not only because white males have the power to hurt us in various ways, but because—remember—they too are human beings who, just by being human, deserve to be healed, to be able to live and love as healthy, whole souls. But beyond this, if we don’t embrace mercy we risk our own souls and cannibalize one another. Nussbaum again summarizes the ancient Jedi Master,
Given the omnipresence of aggression and wrongdoing, [Seneca] now argues, if we look at the lives of others with the attitudes typical of the retributive tradition of justice—even in its modified particularist form—if, that is, we are determined to fix a penalty precisely proportionate to the nature of the particular wrongdoing, then we will never cease to be retributive and to inflict punishment, for everything we see will upset us. But this retributive attitude, even when in some sense justified, is not without its consequences for the human spirit. A person who notes and reacts to every injustice, and who becomes preoccupied with assigning just punishments, becomes, in the end, oddly similar to the raging ungentle people against whom he reacts. Retributive anger hardens the spirit, turning it against the humanity it sees. And in turning against humanity, in evincing the rage and hardness of the angry, one then becomes perilously close to the callous wrongdoers who arouse rage in the first place.