We are not our own Justice
Shortly before his death, I happened to ask my father why he had become such an inveterate fan of the Montreal Canadiens. His answer astonished me, as this was the first time he had spoken of it, not in all of the long past years of my childhood and youth when we religiously watched the Habs each Saturday evening. They had drafted him back in 1945. He never donned the famous jersey as the joyful, though also incomplete and sobered, hordes of young men were returning from Europe and the talent pool got big again very quickly. Not to say my father was not a very competent ‘triple A’ player who faced off against the likes of Gordie Howe. He last laced up his skates in his early seventies, not unlike Howe himself.
Now one doesn’t fact-check one’s own father nearing his death, if even such a thing could be checked. At this point one has earned the right to make certain claims, not that I have ever doubted this specific one. I make claims as well that hurt no one but myself perhaps – that I am Canada’s third leading social philosopher and ethicist behind Charles Taylor and Henri Giroux; that I am the leading thinker of my generation; that my 5000 page epic saga ‘Kristen-Seraphim’ is the story for our times and if one believes, as I do, that Jeshua ben Pantera, Saul of Tarsus, Prince Gautama, and Mohammed were all real people and thus the accounts of them and by them cannot be referred to as merely ‘stories’, then my epic is nothing less than the greatest story ever told – and in that I am no different from anyone else. But stories or no, the case becomes much different when we begin to make claims for others on their behalf.
And the case becomes not so much different again but much uglier when these claims are intended not only to wound the other but to ‘cancel’ him entirely. And this is what is occurring today in a similar circumstance as my father’s end-of-war experience. I wrote about the concept of justice in a democracy in my 2013 book, We other Nazis: how you and I are still like them. In it, I suggested that liberal societies were at risk for authoritarian gestures not so much from their governments but rather, and with a horrible irony, from their citizens. For in a democracy one of the cornerstones is freedom of expression with that of association the material manifestation of this first freedom. And so, one might well use such a freedom to express an opinion that in our digital age could carry far more weight about it than it otherwise would, or should. The ‘cancel culture’ that has become fashionable in our days seeks to declare this or that person to be a non-entity because of some real or imagined error of judgement committed by said person, mimicking authoritarian regimes of the old Soviet Bloc, for instance. (Romania, in 1948, declared composer Nicolae Bretan to be a ‘non-person’, and this was one of thousands of such incidents emanating from such governments that we both quite rightly fear and despise). But the source of the error is not what is ultimately at stake, for even a crime is a singular event in a life, and in a sober light related to that which bathed the veterans returning from the revealed horrors of 1945 Europe, no ethical person would hold to the idea of ‘one strike, yer out!’. Indeed, much of the ethical majesty of the three more recent Agrarian age religious systems, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, centers around forbearance or forgiveness, both of which seem sadly lacking in our present climes. It is almost as if certain citizens imagine that they really are ‘without sin’, and thus the stones that are cast can claim a kind of other-worldly righteousness. In fact, such stones are the primitive projectiles of mere self-righteousness, a base sensibility that has animated much of the history of authoritarian politics. And if we are at least used to politicians themselves masquerading as ethical beings – in a democracy, we can always get rid of them come next election and try again – then it is much more disconcerting that fellow citizens become rabidly righteous and more than this, seek to project this base and narrow righteousness into society at large. Politicians who leap on such ‘immoral panics’ should be far more than ashamed of themselves, especially when they themselves have amply demonstrated an utter disregard for professional and political ethics. Hitler himself knew how much Anti-Semitism existed in Europe; he didn’t have to create it but merely exploited its lengthy historical presence. Today’s ‘leaders’ are apt to do the same with what Max Scheler analyzed as ressentiment; malicious existential envy.
What then is the source of such envy? The very hype and glamor that surrounds those we imagine to be graced with god-like fortune. To be drafted by a legendary sports franchise, for example, to win the lottery, to be the one to whom millions flock in concert tours or film releases or yet even ‘religious’ revivals, God help us. All such hype tells us that these few people are the best of the best, are somehow worthier than we, and that we should serve them, even indirectly. And however embittered, begrudging, or not quite convinced we may be regarding such claims, we do. But the briefest glance at the recent history of tabloid media and more tells us that we are ever ready for any take-down, evidenced or no. That the once mighty fall and we in our ressentiment rejoice. This is a misinterpretation of second wave Agrarian era ethics, borne on the once revolutionary sense that the ‘first shall be last’. Instead of understanding these novel ethics as a potent critique of caste-based social organizations – it is important to recall that our much vaunted Greece and Rome were populated by at least forty percent slaves, for instance – we have personalized them on two fronts; one, they are wielded as a weapon of mere opinion or taste; and two, they target individuals and not social systems. They are the very stuff of inauthenticity, and Jesus, for one, knew that when he cautioned the stone-casting crowd to engage in a little self-reflection. Today, our democratic legal systems mostly recognize this caution by saying to the offender that though there has been an error, your life is not over, nor should it be. Indeed, the entire point of learning from one’s mistakes is to live on as a better human being, as a better citizen, as a better person.
Especially is this the case when the offender is young, barely an adult, committing an error that we would associate mostly with youth. But the self-righteous – who must have stoned themselves into some kind of unreflective stupor before picking up those same stones and directing them at others – would end such a person’s life and livelihood before it ever began. And that a national leader should agree and foment such a stoning. And that we live, so we claim, in a democracy of means, motives, and to a certain extent, materials as well. To this the ethicist, the philosopher, whatever his rank and standing and whether such a thing means little or nothing which is generally the case, must stand up and retort resoundingly, no and no again. Petty Hitlers aside, we are not our own justice. If a crime has been committed and the penalty paid, adjudicated in a formal and legal manner, then that must be an end of it. If one disagrees then it is the law that must be altered and not the life. And aren’t we fortunate to live in nations where such an alteration is so easily made, without need of revolution, civil war, the cavil and cant of politicians, the death camps. And who are those who would give up this good fortune? Ask yourself if you value your freedom of expression so little that you would use it as an unmerited weapon against those who have cast themselves down well before any stone has yet been thrown.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.