Saturday, June 29, 2013

Two Views of Justice

There comes a moment in every liberal Philadelphian’s life, when an important decision must be made: “should I, or should I not, scroll down and read the comments at the bottom of this local news article?” I, for one, never learn from my mistakes. My thought process goes something like this: “There’s no way that anyone could think this austerity budget is good! Who could possibly support schools having no counselors, librarians, or assistant principals?” Every single time, I think that. And every single time, I see comments like the following:
Why doesn't the public school make the parents pay something toward the schools. My children and grand child all went to catholic school. I pay real estate taxes and get nothing but increases on them.
I think to myself, “OK, that’s just one libertarian curmudgeon. If I just keep reading, there have to be, like, a thousand people who disagree.” I keep reading. Things go from bad to worse, with comments such as:
That's a good idea. Maybe then the people on welfare would have to actually work and pay taxes to get their kids educated like the rest of us do!
At this point, I know that hours of my life are going to be lost. I’ll read a comment, and then think, “OK, at least maybe the next comment will be reasonable.” Then, I can’t pull myself away. It becomes sort of like rubber-necking at the scene of an accident. I think, “It can’t possibly be that bad… Let me take one more look. OK, it is that bad. But maybe if I take one more look…” I read comment after comment, looking for relief from the carnage. I don’t find that relief. I want to tear my horrified eyes away; I’m horrified, so I can’t tear my eyes away.
            I have a strict rule against getting into online arguments with random strangers. Sometimes I’ll write a comment and then immediately delete it, allowing it to vaporize into the intangible stratosphere of the Internet. Those little comments boxes couldn’t contain my rage, anyway.
            But I try to imagine sitting down at my West Philly kitchen table with one of these folks. I try to imagine pouring a glass of water for myself, and one for them. I try to imagine—if we were able to clear a clean and sunny space for such a human discourse—what I would actually say.
            I think it comes down to antithetical definitions of justice. I imagine a line, running down the kitchen table, delineating the two sides of this issue. The word justice runs the entire length of that line. Because justice means both “righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness” and “the administering of deserved punishment or reward.
            When people place their cursors in the comment box and write about things like “the people on welfare,” they must be convinced that they, themselves, are holy arbiters, “administering … deserved punishment or reward.” The “punishment” for “those people”—people from North Philly, say—is austerity, is an education that only vaguely resembles what we know education to be. Of course, the folks who ascribe to that definition believe that they, themselves, aren’t “those people.” They believe that they, themselves, could never be “those people.” If people thought they deserved punishment—or even that there was a possibility that they could be punished—they’d be less fervent in their support of this sort of justice.
According to this worldview, the impartial American meritocratic system has simply granted unto them their deserved portion of reward. They fed the appropriate raw materials into the system, and this reward was delivered to them—delivered automatically, and without any sort of bias or intent, as if on a conveyor belt. From this perspective, justice is a clean, gleaming machine, dispensing packages of punishment and reward. There is something appealing to that model of justice. It’s so modern, so industrial—a justice of gears and ballasts. This justice is impersonal, unarguable—half Calvinist God, half Darwinian natural selection. It seems to be automatic; its metallic works function without any human error.
 My own definition of justice—righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness”—has less of a hardened sheen, less of a stainless-steel efficiency to it. It’s not plated in the authority of objectivism. I might say that it is indeed “righteous, equitable and right” for my students—children of immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia, kids from poor South Philly families, kids who have absent or indifferent parents—to receive the same education that students in the uber-wealthy Lower Merion district, right outside the city, receive. However, as the comments section debacle illustrates, there are hordes of people who do not agree with me. There is no immediate formula for what righteousness, equitableness, and moral rightness” actually is. This justice cannot be created through empirical rules, or by flipping an “On” switch. This justice is a human justice, and, as such, it must be thought through, debated, written about, and slowly processed. Like all things human, this justice is muddled and disorganized and inefficient. It is multiple, rather than singular; it is diffuse, not centralized. It takes place in a conversation that is made from human voices.
This type of justice is only possible through a posture of receiving, a stance of humility. The word “deserved” has little place in the lexicon of this justice. For instance, I, myself, have never received welfare; however, just a few months before I met my husband, unemployment benefits saved him from losing his house. I know my husband didn’t deserve to lose his house, so how could I claim with certainty that my neighbors deserve to lose theirs? This justice does not roll out gates between “those people” and “us”; it recognizes that “those people” are “us,” and we are “those people.” This justice smashes down the chain-link between these binaries, and—again—leaves us with a glorious disorder, an energizing mess.
People who comment on articles regarding the austerity budget—people who write things like “there is NO such thing as a free ride!”—do so from a place of faith. They have faith in their own ability to “administer punishment and reward.” They have faith in their sparkling, no-hitches justice machine. They have faith in their hubris, in the pride that rivets them to their claims about “those people.”
If they were sitting at my kitchen table, I’d have to realize that the line between their justice and mine is entrenched, cleaved deep. But I have faith, too. I’m not sure whether anyone can be convinced that educating other people’s kids is the right thing to do. It certainly isn’t going to happen within the strictures of the “comments” section. It might take these folks being crushed in the works of their own justice, before they understand how oppressive it truly is. Or it might take the rest of us walking, unsteadily, down the fraught path of our commitment to righteousness, equitableness, and moral rightness. Whatever that looks like, it might take us going all the way.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that the Hebrew word for righteousness (or things being right) is the same word as justice. Things being right would be a world without bad places, bad situations, or underfunded schools.