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Too Much Justice?

2010 September 7

Last week, Alan Jacobs posted an article, The Online State of Nature, on the Big Questions Online website. In the article he addressed the question, “Why has Internet discourse devolved into a “war of every man against every man”?”. I generally like most things Dr. Jacobs (who was my favorite college professor after all) has to say, and I feel a bit weird offering a critique of an article that asks why there is too much mean spirited critique online, but I wanted to explore his conception of justice in the modern world.

After describing some of the hostilities he’s encountered on online Anglican boards, Jacobs writes –

I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.

Late modernity’s sense of itself is built upon achievements in justice. This is especially true of Americans. When we look back over the past century, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women, the defeat of fascism, Brown vs. Board of Education, civil rights and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one side of the political spectrum, you might add the demise of the Soviet empire; if you’re on the other side, you might add the expansion of rights for gays and lesbians. (Or you might add both.) The key point is that all of these are achievements in justice.

I’ll admit to contributing at times to uncharitable discourse online – my desire to be right outweighing common human decency and a respect for truth. The level of discourse in many areas of our society has seemingly plummeted to new lows (or, at least, that discourse is simply more public now). Either way, I share Jacobs’ concern for a return to humility and truth based discourse. I get that. Where I am having a hard time is the blaming of this sort of vicious dialogue on a modern overinflated sense of justice.

My first issue with that is that from a historical perspective there truly is nothing new about such vicious pursuits of so-called justice. Yes, late modernity’s self of sense is based on achievements in justice, but the same could be said of any number of historical periods. The tales we claim as shapers of our cultural identity and heritage are all rooted in the intense pursuit of what was believe to be just and right. To avenge the kidnapping of Helen the Greeks launched a war against Troy that spanned a decade. The much loved tale of Hamlet would be nothing if he chose not to right the wrong of his father’s untimely death. Without the pursuit of liberty, equality, and fraternity the French Revolution would never have occurred. Nor would have the American Revolution without the response to the injustice of taxation without representation. For that matter one merely has to open scripture to see this particular sense of justice manifest. From Samson’s burning the Philistines’ crops after he discovered that his (presumed abandoned) wife had been given to another man, to the Israelites’ slaughter of the Benjaminites in response to the rape and murder of the Levite’s concubine; or from Simeon and Levi’s murder of the recently circumcised Shechemites in retaliation for their sisters Dinah’s rape, to Absalom’s murder of his half-brother Ammon for the rape of his sister Tamar – we can clearly see that violence for the sake of a just cause is nothing new. Such actions have defined cultural identity since the beginning of recorded history.

What bothers me though is that in suggesting that modern justice is disconnected from humility and charity without acknowledging similar historical instances of the same, Jacobs promotes our culture’s incomplete understanding of justice. As the examples above illustrate we all too often simply reduce justice to its retributive aspects – sometimes even using the term when we actually mean revenge. Tales of justice often celebrate its violent manifestations (because, let’s face it, that makes for better stories). There is nothing new about conceptions of justice that are devoid of charity or humility, history is full of such tales. But instead of ascribing our modern cultural problems to this particular sense of justice sans charity, I believe it would have been more helpful to acknowledge that throughout history there have been those who hold to an inaccurate sense of what justice is all about which has often led to a lack of charity. In our culture today (and in ages past) we have lost a biblical sense of justice and have sadly assumed that the pursuit of rightness must involve violence of some sort. But trying to fix a broken world through just acts of revenge and violence has nothing to do with true justice. In this sense fighting amongst ourselves in order to seek what we know to be good and right in this world has less to do with an overinflated sense of justice and more to do with a misunderstood sense of justice.

Justice is not about using force (physical or verbal) to establish righteousness. Justice itself is righteousness – or right living. True justice is rooted in charity and humility – it is the extension of love and mercy to all. As Derrida suggests, justice (which is love) cannot be deconstructed or codified, it simply must be lived in an ever unfolding and changing world. When we codify it and turn it into simply a way to make demands of others through threats of violent retribution, then what we have is not a hypertrophied sense of justice at the expense of charity and humility, but a lack of all three. If we were to care about biblical justice, a justice that places that very charity at its core, then it would be nonsensical to speak of an inflated sense of justice. For how can we ever say that we have too much love or mercy?

Justice that seeks righteousness for the world does so through the very virtues that Jacobs claims have been lost. I agree with his call to reclaim such virtues, but am wary of language that sacrifices another mush needed virtue simply because of the ways it has been misunderstood over the centuries. Our culture has its issues and desperately needs to return to a respect for truth and love, but as I see it, throwing justice under the bus isn’t exactly the best way to achieve those ends.


5 Responses leave one →
  1. September 7, 2010

    I think your post about Al Gore warrants a public apology, given the facts about his accuser, detailed when the police dropped the investigation.

  2. September 7, 2010

    I think you might have missed the point of that post if you read it as an attack on Al Gore. Yes, I admitted my stereotypes, which can be unfair and I do apologize for that, but as I mentioned in the post what Gore did or didn’t do wasn’t my point. The point was the way people confuse the message with the messenger allowing truth to be obscured by prejudice.

  3. September 7, 2010

    You know, I think really the issue is less about justice and more about human behavior when we think we are anonymous (or just slightly hidden).

    The Hebrew exegesis exam for the Presbyterians this time was the book of Amos. So I spent a ton of time reading about Amos and justice. One writer Carolyn Sharp wrote something along the lines of “The book of Amos is about Israel rejecting God’s gift of justice. The people of God become the enemy of God.” What really got me was “in the eyes of the Lord, a country that ignores justice no longer deserves to exist.” I don’t know if I completely agree with that, but it is the theme of Amos.

    I think you have it right “Justice itself is righteousness – or right living.” The problem is that there is little “right living” on the internet.

  4. September 7, 2010

    I am sure Prof. Jacobs is proud to name you as one of his students given this well written critique of his essay. Still, I didn’t get a sense that he was suggesting that justice get ‘thrown under the bus’ only that it needs to be balanced with ‘other virtues.’ I also grew weary of the ‘Anglican Wars,’ which have continued unabated (consider John Milbanks bazaar critique of Williams and suggestion that Christians should posse-up with atheists against the Muslims ). I think Jacobs is resonating with Judith Butler’s understanding of Derrida’s thesis that: “justice was a concept that was yet to come. This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in another life. He was clear that there was no other life. It means only that, as an ideal, it is that towards which we strive, without end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realized would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the second is dogmatism (which he opposed). Derrida kept us alive to the practice of criticism, understanding that social and political transformation was an incessant project, one that could not be relinquished, one that was coextensive with the becoming of life and the encounter with the Other, one that required a reading of the rules by means of which a polity constitutes itself through exclusion or effacement. How is justice done? What justice do we owe others? And what does it mean to act in the name of justice? These were questions that had to be asked regardless of the consequences, and this meant that they were often questions asked when established authorities wished that they were not.” I think prof. Jacobs, like Derrida is offering a caution about the nihilism and dogmatism that accompany so much discourse on justice and urges that we rather pursue the ‘becoming of life and the encounter with the Other,’ that Derrida learned from Levinas. obliged.

  5. September 11, 2010

    “Justice itself is righteousness” — I love how this ties in with the Hebrew word “tzedek” ( In the Hebrew (and OT) mind, justice and righteousness are one in the same — they are the same word. I don’t know if you knew that, Julie, but you are obviously dead on target. We need to keep these two intimately entwined with each other.

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