Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Dispensing with Justice

When Tori was four years old she had a favorite plate. It was a small china plate, with gilt-work around the rim and little pictures on it. I liked it too. Any child's thing that is neither garish nor plastic is a blessing.

We had guests to dinner, four-year-old Devon, a newish friend of Tori's from daycare, and her parents. They all sat at the kitchen table while I finished up dinner. Unthinkingly, I set plates around -- all the same plain plates except for Tori's beautiful one, gleaming with gold. Devon looked at that plate with large eyes, and I knew I had blundered.

"Oh," I said brightly, "Tori, since Devon's our guest, would you like her to have the special plate just for tonight?" There was a faint chance that the pleasure of dispensing benefits, as a lordly host, might appeal to her.

It didn't. Somberly, she shook her head. It was her plate. "Since you get to use it all the time..." I suggested. Devon was beginning to scowl as the injustice of it came home to her. Tori got to eat off that pretty plate all the time, and she couldn't have it even once?

Meanwhile, Tori's head had bowed forward, an all-too-familiar signal of mulish determination, like a stag lowering its antlers. It was her plate. "Maybe we could take turns," I said desperately, "when Devon's here. You could have it one night and she could have it the next." Devon, sensing that she might be rooked out of a once-in-a-lifetime chance to use the pretty plate by getting handed that "next turn" that never materializes, was beginning to look downright dangerous.

"We could flip a coin?" I suggested weakly. This wasn't dignified with a response. I had a fleeting vision of throwing the plate to the floor and smashing it -- a gratifying momentary fantasy. Something plainly had to be done fast, or the evening was going to be a dead loss. I scooped the plate up swiftly. "Well, I'm sorry we couldn't come to an agreement," I said. "I guess nobody gets it tonight." And I stuck it back on the shelf.

It was touch and go, but I got away with it, by hurrying some food quick in front of the girls. Devon's mother came through with some other distraction, and the crisis was averted. Never again would I bring down Tori's special plate when we had company.

It was, I think, a just decision. Which illustrates why I dislike justice. Nobody got to use the plate.

In retrospect I can see that I set up the problem, by casting the situation in terms of ownership and fairness. It's our automatic response to a problem. Whose rights take precedence? What's the fair solution?

But is it a good response? Even in the issue of who gets a dinner plate, these can be terribly complicated problems. How important is the courtesy due to a guest, as opposed to the right to dispose of one's most beloved property? Is turnabout really fair play, when one was given the plate and another was not? Even on this scale -- probably about as simple as such a problem gets -- the answers could be argued interminably. It brings immense complexity to the problem, for the whole history of the plate, and its significance as a gift, become pertinent issues. Suddenly, things that were done two years ago have a critical bearing on tonight's problem. Did Grandma really give the plate to Tori, or to the family? Surely the rights of usage, the fact that Tori has always had prior claim to the plate, is a matter of some importance? How about, on the other hand, the "natural" justice of everybody getting a turn? By that reckoning, Devon was owed about four hundred plate-nights.

At this point any sensible person has to start wondering "am I really on the right track? Can this really be the best method for handling such conflicts? An observant newspaper-reader will also recognize the contours of any number of current conflicts in the world.

At some point, after I'd been a practicing Buddhist for a couple years, I gave up on justice altogether. I don't believe in it any more. I don't believe in its religious and philosophical underpinnings; I don't believe in its emotional good faith, and I don't believe (as a matter of empirical observation) that concocting solutions according to the principles of justice is effective, or even, ultimately, intelligible.

Justice is essentially a theistic concept. It assumes an outside arbiter who can see the situation clearly and assess blame fairly -- God, in a word. And the process of justice is supposed to be the process of human understanding approaching the understanding of God. Since the understanding of God is One, the closer we get to justice, the closer our understandings should converge. So we would expect those who care most about justice, and promote it the most, to be closest to the understanding of God, and therefore to each other's understandings.

In fact we find the opposite. The more passionately people care about justice, the more divergent their assessments of a situation seem to be. Even on a homely dinner-plate level, the project of establishing convergent justice is one I've never seen succeed. Ever. I have never seen two people with varying views of the justice of a situation come to have exactly the same view of it. I have only rarely seen them even move toward each other: usually the movement is in the opposite direction. People come to a modus vivendi when they decide to make concessions even though the other guy is wrong.

So I try live without justice, now. And living without it is an excellent way to understand what it is. My fleeting vision of smashing the plate is what justice really is, in me. It's anger. It's vengeance. It's the desire to make people suffer in proportion as I and mine suffer. The further behind I leave it, the more clearly I can see what it really is. There is nothing good or holy about my desire for justice.

I had the concepts of justice and compassion deeply tangled, so that I was frightened at first at the idea of abandoning justice. Would I no longer care about, say, the Sudanese refugees, if I no longer blamed the so-called militias? Would I become indifferent?

I have not become indifferent. I care more than ever, I think. But I will admit that it troubles me less. I can care about them without that canker gnawing in my stomach, without that red haze obscuring my vision. Part of being able to drop justice, I think, was coming to really believe in my own goodness. I am no longer desperate to vindicate my goodness, or prove it by differentiating myself from other people. I don't have to protect my own compassion by holding anyone in contempt. My compassion -- even mine, even my sickly meager version of the Buddha's compassion -- is deeper and stronger and more permanent than I am. It could lose me -- hopefully it will, someday -- but I could not possibly lose it.

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