(First published on Urban Times on 4th May 2012)
I told him everyone had the right to do as they pleased. In civilized societies no one ought to be suppressed. ‘What about criminals then?’ he asked. I said that those who break the law lose certain rights. ‘It’s all down to the legislators then,’ he said. ‘Crime is defined by those who write the law. Justice is not blind. It is relative.’ He was right. But I didn’t agree with him, because it would send the wrong signals. I called him a manipulator, an upstart, an anarchist, and stormed out.
Justice is a tricky topic. It is elusive and subject to interpretation. Basic principles aside (the protection of individuals and groups from harm; and the establishment of a body of authority to oversee this process) it is in practical terms, in real life, as relative as Einstein’s theory of relativity. The only constant in it is the lightning speed with which people rush to oppose, resist and strike down any notion that they deem unjust.
Some of the times, and in crude terms, this happens when something new comes along. When something contrary to someone’s culture and tradition is introduced to the formula.
It usually happens through an ‘us/them’ setup. The innovators and reformers are deemed outsiders, upstarts, their ideas and measures considered alien, dangerous, seditious, treacherous, blasphemous. At odds with the basic principles already in place. Thus they are castigated for them, maybe even singled out for punishment, suppression, or rehabilitation.
Foreigners are particularly vulnerable to such notions, for they are outsiders by default.
In a world of multiple viewpoints, this presents us with a fact: justice is a relative and interactive process. It is continually molded and shaped to fit with the changing times. It is derived from the interaction of cultures of various backgrounds.
Having said that, as things stand, some justices are distinct from others. Justice according to modern secular principles is in rough terms based on the classical Greco-Roman notions of jurisprudence and polity combined with modern notions of ownership of property, free trade and individual worth. On the other hand, justice according to generic religious principles is based on spiritual harmony, devotion to divine beings and accountability to rules based on scriptures. Clearly, there is a division between secular and religious order.
This is where things get interesting. One can clearly see that what we regarded as an undivided, uncontested notion of right and wrong suddenly has at least two platforms, two branches, two ways of looking at things. They don’t always overlap. In fact, they are at great odds much of the time.
When seeking out to define human rights and justice, this division becomes very relevant. The world has been on a path of secularization, deeming it the way to go, the best way to make the world fairer. But the world’s population is still religious to an overwhelming extent, and this presents us with a conflict of interests. Secular justice may not be ideal to religious people and they may not accept it in its totality. They may not feel that it points to the way ahead. They may regard it as something that has overshot its purpose, something which needs to be reigned in, allowing for the reintroduction of divine order to the proceedings.
Similarly, secularists may think that religion has done enough damage over the millennia and that it ought to be kept out of state affairs for good. In their minds, separation of church and state (by church I mean any religious institution) is tantamount to a just and civilized society.
The contradictions and conflicts of interest become even more intriguing when looking at the interaction of various political beliefs across the board. Tolerant forms of governance allow all belief systems to operate within their framework, except for those behaving intolerantly to others. But as the world becomes more convoluted and complicated, this distinction becomes blurry. What was once a legitimate point of view gradually becomes something that could be deemed offensive and unacceptable. In the name of tolerance, certain things become less tolerated, and open societies begin to clamp down on certain attitudes in order to preserve their openness. It’s a catch-22.