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. Is that it?’ Yes it was, he was right, but I didn’t admit it – it would send the wrong signal. Instead I called him a manipulator, an upstart, an anarchist, and stormed out. ~ THE RIGHT (a flash fiction story)
Justice is a tricky topic. It’s 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’s 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 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 labeled seditious, blasphemous, dangerous, alien, treacherous, outrageous. An affront to all things decent. An assault on all things just.
Thus the innovators and reformers are castigated, maybe even singled out for punishment, suppression, or rehabilitation.
Being outsiders by default, foreigners are especially vulnerable to such notions.
In a world of multiple viewpoints, this presents us with a fact: justice is a relative and interactive process, continually molded and shaped to fit with the changing times. It’s derived from the interaction of cultures of various backgrounds, and keeps shifting and changing, according to interpretation.
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, the word of the deity. Clearly, there’s a division between secular and religious order.
This is where it gets interesting. What we regard 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’re at odds much of the time.
When seeking to define human rights and justice, this division becomes relevant. The world has been on the long path to secularization for centuries, shedding superstition and blind faith along the way, creating a sounder and more robust world in the process. 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 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 gets hazy. 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 clamp down on certain attitudes in order to preserve their openness. It’s a catch-22.
Part 2 to follow…