Fairly Just

03Apr07

I apologize for my first post straying significantly from my self-introduction. Since our project is somewhat of an experiment, it is necessary for each of us to address our feelings towards moving ideas into an online format. Just to be repetitive, I’ll push (and thank!) for responses. But now I will move into my area of interest.

 

Once upon a time, I was aggressively engaged in a conversation over why legally convicted persons are now referred to as offenders and not simply as criminals. Now, discussions over terminology can at times seem trivial and much coveted battlefields for the easily parodied PCers. But there is some truth in the search for sensitivity through politically correct terms as word usage (and the accompaniment of implicit connotations) reflects social meaning. Basically, words are a representation of our world and are neutral in suggestion only on occasion. Words carry with them power, knowledge, limitations, and possibilities. But most importantly, words carry with them implications.

 

So let’s take a brief look into how offenders and criminals are defined according to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law:

criminal: n 1. one who has committed a crime

2. a person who has been convicted of a crime

 

offender: n 1. one that commits an offense

 

To offend implies that a person is not necessarily wrong but against the norm; to commit a “crime” is to be socially categorized. Now using these definitions, I would like to imagine that the shift from using criminal to offender reflects a certain reverence to justice theorists, who enjoy breaking down beliefs in absolute rights and wrongs. Pretending this is true, this opens up the possibilities for analyzing and evaluating our current justice system; as a standard by which our world is ordered, it is a manifestation of organization which affects the social public. But people are not infallible and neither are our creations, social or otherwise. In his book entitled A Theory of Justice, John Rawls writes “The only thing that permits us to acquiesce in an erroneous theory is the lack of a better one: analogously, an injustice is tolerable only when it is necessary to avoid an even greater injustice. Being first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising.”

 

Ah yes, but we know truth and justice to be neither fact nor fiction, merely applications of ideas of the world. How then, can we assume justice represents fairness? Well because justice enforces truth as truth creates justice and without either we loose the ability to control chaos.

 

Oh my, a cyclone of cycles.

 

Through the creation of a social manner of being, humanity gained dependency. We established ways which ensured our connectivity in order to collectively better ourselves; one of these ways is the dictation (and normalization) of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. This is the old idea that the sacrifice of an individual for the progression of the greater good is necessary. Conflict seems inevitable as self-interest is inherent but we all strive for access to the benefits of assemblage without wanting to be saddled with the burdens of deviance.

 

But deviance and unjustness (or unfairness) are products of this ordering just as civic duties and justice are. Another quote from Rawls says “distrust and resentment corrode the ties of civility, and suspicion and hostility tempt men to act in ways they would otherwise avoid.” Where does distrust and resentment come from? Unfairness and inequality in the functioning of ordering social mechanisms.

 

I believe that the general attitude towards race is that racism is unfair and unjust. So we all pretend that we currently live in a world which is void of advantages based solely on race. To do this is to deny the legacy of racism and its violently cruel and unjust history. The same belief in justice as fairness existed in the days of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation, but it was administered quite differently. African Americans of the time logically suffered mistrust and suspicion as their lives were deemed only 3/5’s human. Did they find fairness in that “just” world? Do we find it now?

 

Again, Rawls: “The intuitive notion here is that this structure contains various social positions and that men born into different positions have different expectations of life determined, in part, by the political system as well as by economic and social circumstances.”

 

Is it just to deny the legacy and effects of racism? Do they not contribute to the different positions in society?

 

As I searched online to find decent statistics, I found outdated and nonspecific information (should anyone like to correct me here, PLEASE do), but I think this article carries some weighty info, especially on page 9, when race is analyzed. Thanks, Freedom of Information Act…

 

So back to terminology issues. Criminal, in adjective form, means possessing a nature of crime. When we apply this to the 586,700 African American males who were incarcerated in 2002, are we trying to say that there is an inherent trait of “criminality” within that race? Isn’t that racism? Are we enforcing justice based on racist principles…again?

 

Then again, if we look at the word offender, we must deal with the idea of “offense.” And in reference to this population (and its past) the real question is…who is offended structurally in society?

 

I will bow out with another quote, this one backtracking to Mr. David Graeber:

“Ultimately this should lead to a theory of the
relation of violence and the imagination. Why is it
that the folks on the bottom (the victims of structural
violence) are always imagining what it must be
like for the folks on top (the beneficiaries of structural
violence), but it almost never occurs to the
folks on top to wonder what it might be like to be
on the bottom? Human beings being the sympathetic
creatures that they are this tends to become
one of the main bastions of any system of
inequality—the downtrodden actually care about
their oppressors, at least, far more than their
oppressors care about them—but this seems itself
to be an effect of structural violence.”

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