What is Justice?

Last week I attended two great events on the theme of women and the justice system. By coincidence both were on the same day, one in Hamilton, the other in Glasgow. Their times overlapped so I missed a bit of each but think I got the gist of both.

One thing especially made an impact on me. I can’t remember the speaker but they said something along the following lines, echoing to some extent the narrative in the song made famous by Elvis Presley, In The Ghetto, a song whose original title was The Vicious Circle.

A child grows up in chaotic or troubled circumstances, perhaps involving violence at home, alcohol or drug use by their parents, various forms of abuse or neglect, and a home where culture, the arts and the things that make a human flourish are missing.

As a result that child is unruly at school or absent from it, turns to alcohol and drugs at an early age, creates trouble as a way of gaining status to fill the void of self-esteem in their heart, and eventually their behaviour cross over from the distracting and unpleasant to the criminal.

They are taken to court several times for different offences and are eventually jailed.

So following that dismal chain of cause and effect we can logically claim that we have punished a person because they were beaten, abused, neglected and prevented from learning how to enjoy a full life. We have jailed them for the harm caused to them by their early life.

None of this is to argue that dangerous people should not be prevented from hurting others, but it is an argument to say that punishment should not be part of the culture or thinking of our society because it ignores the very reasons why most people do harmful things.

Moreover it is an argument to say that we should drop words that have been soaked in judgemental and punitive terms for millennia, including the word justice itself.

Justice is an inherently subjective opinion hence it has no right in what should be an inherently objective exploration of what to do about someone who has caused harm.

Humanity is very belatedly learning as fact what many of our greatest thinkers have suggested through the ages. Jesus said Judge not that ye be not judged, and even more powerfully, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

The Buddha’s teachings on karma and the human mind is that absolutely everything is simply the result of cause and effect and that there is no separate self in a person who makes decisions. Everything and everyone is conditioned.

If you don’t believe this, ask yourself why you can read English. It’s conditioning by your parents or learning it at school or as a result of coming to Scotland.

Those conditions led you to know English as a language.

Some people, unlucky, unfortunate, learn the absence of love, the development of hate, the language of violence and fear as a way of being. They are victims, and don’t have the skillsets to combat these tendencies without some form of recalibration of their mind. Tragically many may have minds so twisted and skewed that they reject the very help offered to them. I’ve been in Barlinnie, Shotts, Greenock, Dumfries, Castle Huntly, and Low Moss prisons teaching mindfulness to prisoners. Some can get what I teach, other can’t, or at least, aren’t able to at that stage in their lives.

Yet hope really does spring eternal. People do change, dramatically, for the better, though it can take a very long time.

This way of thinking, or perpetrators as themselves victims, goes against the historical grain of our culture.

Many of our judges’ pronouncements in the past have seemed to emerge more from the harshness of the Old Testament, fire and brimstone, hell fire, and all that, rather than the New Testament’s Father forgive them for they know not what they do.

We don’t realise the sheer scale of our own conditioning, the centuries of a mindset of good versus evil, absolute free will, therefore absolute reasonableness of punishment, the desire for societal vengeance, a kind of justice as community lynching. That’s going, slowly, but it’s going.

For most of us this may be an academic matter only. Most people are not victims of major crimes nor have their loved ones incarcerated for committing crimes. Where this is directly relevant is in how we judge ourselves. We are often brutal in our self-criticism. We tell ourselves we are able to learn such and such a skill, people like us can’t go to university because we didn’t do well at school, we never forgive our own past wrongful actions and so we live with guilt and self-loathing for the rest of our lives.

We are wracked by this insane, poisonous and harmful state of mind, which is an identical but microscopic version of the societal mindset I have just described. It does no one any good at all. It only harms. Individuals cannot enjoy life fully because this junk weighs them down, and society cannot properly heal and recover and flourish because we are so dragged downwards by wrongly perceived and constructed notions of culpability and responsibility for our actions.

Start with yourself first. Notice your tendency to judge yourself. Notice your tendency to judge others. See how powerful and woeful it all is. Practice the difficult but doable skills of letting it go when it arises, or subtly deflecting it by switching your attention to the clearer and gentler sensations of your own breathing. Sounds too simple to work, doesn’t it?

Try it. You’ll be surprised.