When is justice violent?

“Justice isn’t justice. It just is.”- Shane Koyczan and the Short Story Long.

Who has the right to distribute punishment over others and how did they get this right? Is it even right that people should be able to distribute justice over others?

The concept of justice is an ancient one, based on ethics, rationality, law, fairness and equity. Over time it is taken on many forms and meanings depending on what one is talking about. Often we see justice as the response to crime– the punishment of those who would violate society’s rules that creates a position of relative “fairness” for those who have been violated. If this is the case, is this justice violent– and if so, is this violence justified?

When we think of the concept of justice, especially when it relates to the punishment of crime, many feel that retributive justice is needed. Retributive justice is the type of justice that says an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth– that the reciprocity should be equal to the wrong suffered. This type of justice is usually filled with angry emotion where the violated feel that the only way to right the wrong is to violate those who wronged them in the same manner as they were wronged.

In this case, violations are met with more violations often in violent ways– but a major deterrent to crime is set in place that can possibly reduce further incidences of direct violence. Changes in the behaviour of those in society to be less violent comes only out of fear of punishment and the deterrents are possibly structurally violent themselves.

Some believe that procedural justice- the use of a fair process to decide what punishment shall be distributed, is the most balanced way of justice. In North American society this amounts (more or less) to our court systems where a judge or jury decides the violator’s fate by comparing the crime and punishment to acceptable punishments of those who committed similar crimes in the past. The violator is still punished, society is still more or less safe, and depending on the punishment, less fear produced is less than in retributive justice (although sometimes these do coincide).

Some believe that the betrayed person or persons deserve restitution for their sufferings and to have justice means to have things put back as they should be (or at least as much as they can be). This is considered restorative justice. In some cases, the simplest form of restitution is an admission of guilt and a heartfelt apology for the violation committed. In some cases, payment is made to the betrayed party by the guilty in an act of contrition.

Sometimes this apology is not enough and the betrayed person will seek revenge so that they can get the satisfaction of seeing the guilty suffer. This is often an incredibly violent form of justice as the violated feel that they need to take justice into their own hands and hurt the violators (and possibly their family and friends) in a manner at least as severe as they themselves experienced.

Clearly, some of these forms of justice are more violent than others. The quest for justice is often explained as Nietzsche’s slave-morality of the weak, those in society who harbor resentment for the strong. Justice in this case, is only found in the conditions of the submission of one people over another. The master morality weighs actions on a scale of good (helpful) or bad (harmful) consequence, while the slave morality weighs actions on a scale of good or evil intentions. The slave morality villainizes its oppressors, the masters, who are seen as the creators of morality. Justice seeks to keep the noble man (the master) down and bring about more equality between them to the point where the submission is overcome.

Distributive justice works on this concept as it seeks to relocate the differences between people by means of re-allocation of things such as wealth, power, reward or respect. This type of justice works on balancing the differences between people. Human rights are based upon the ideal of distributive justice– bringing about balance in humanity by providing a distribution of basic human needs.

All of these forms of justice seem to have an obvious or underlying tone of violence (whether it be direct or structural).

So when is justice non-violent? When does one person have the right to distribute justice over another?

There is no easy answer to this. Justice is complicated. Justice becomes less violent when it uses non-violent strategies to distribute punishment, such as a court system (although I’m sure there’s many out there who would argue that there is extensive systematic structural violence that exists within the system that is prejudice against specific peoples). Justice is less violent when the violator and violated come together for a solution that is satisfactory to both. That leaves both in the least violent position possible.

Many conflict transformation strategies in extremely violent societies seek to bring together the violator with the violated. Often they must live side-by-side together after the violations, and therefore must learn to get along with each other and live with each other on a day to day basis. These strategies involve healing and justice processes that concentrate on having the community work together and come together in non-violence. In my opinion– this is the least violent form of justice because it recognizes the need to heal both the violator AND the violated and bring justice to them both.

The need for justice sometimes overshadows the truth behind a situation, that both the violator and violated may deserve justice. The violator might have been a product of extreme structural and social violence and cutting off their hands or throwing them in jail with no thought to reintegration or rehabilitation to society, in this case, would be extremely violent.

When we think of justice, we need to think of more than just making things right for the violated. We need to think much more holistically and look to the systems and situations that created the violations in the first place. Without regard to these, all we will wind up distributing is violent justice.

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