This piece was first published in SR in 2006
The December issue of Amnesty
magazine has on its cover a drawing of a woman's face and across it is written, 'Imagine a world without violence against women'. It seems a very simple thought, yet it encompasses many of the issues embedded in the question of justice. Amnesty is using this idea to set up an exhibition of film, sculpture, painting, photography and performance art to reinforce the thought that by using our imagination we can create a more just and honourable world rather than one which too often uses women as creatures without human rights to respect, dignity or justice.
Each of us has this marvellous capacity to use our imagination to consider the kind of world we would like to live in and equally the capacity to contribute to creating it. I would suggest that to have a dream is not enough in itself – we have to learn how to convert it to reality. But we will come to that later – first let me quickly run over the background that has led us to where justice is today in our world. It is often assumed that in the past there was only ignorance and that our history has been one of triumphant improvement on all fronts. This is not always the case. We can sometimes learn from ways of life that we have chosen to abandon and whose practices we have dismissed.
The notion of justice as socially desirable is rooted in the earliest days of written commentary. The prophet Micah commented that what was required of us was 'to do justly, and to love mercy'. In the first century BC, Horace in his Satires
was saying, rather more dryly, that 'if you study the history and records of the world you must admit that the source of justice was the fear of injustice'. He may have meant injustice to oneself or simply chaos within the society as people sought to enforce their own 'justice'.
Every society has to find ways of settling disputes which occur between its members. Conflict is inevitable in any community. It is neither good nor bad. It is a part of living. What is important is how we deal with it along with the recognition that how we deal with it is also a matter of how we live together. In very small societies, which live apparently simply, but in some ways using quite sophisticated skills, these disputes may be settled without intervention from any other than the participants in the dispute, their families, and possibly their neighbours. In the main, the aim was to achieve negotiation, restitution and reconciliation, sometimes by the paying of compensation to the injured party. Offences were private or community affairs without written laws to be consulted. There was in their place a sense of tradition and custom.
There were, and still are in some communities, senior members of the group, or the tribe as it may be, who can be called on to give an opinion, even a judgement, which is seen to offer a just solution to the problem. A 'just' solution in this context is likely to mean one that all the parties can accept and live with – even if reluctantly. There are advantages in not having police and prisons: it makes people work harder to find solutions that will prevent the disruption of their society.
Injustice can be a source of great suffering. The notion of injustice appears to be hardwired into the human psyche and must be treated with respect. Very young children can be heard to complain, 'It's not fair!' Where negotiation has failed, a surviving relative may demand the punishment of the killer, using an ancient demand of 'a life for a life'. This is the point where justice appears to have failed; the sense of an injustice not recognised moves into revenge to achieve justice. This response has stayed with us through the centuries. We still hear it today. Equally the families of victims have a need to be morally vindicated as a mark of respect. They ask for public acknowledgement by an offender of their responsibility for the harm done.
Private and community justice with its emphasis on negotiation, restitution and reconciliation has been replaced over time by public and state justice based partly on Roman law and partly on Christian theology. It is situated in courts which seem to require a whole cluster of supporting structures on which they depend. These are in the main legal chambers employing lawyers, who in turn depend on a police force and prisons where the law seems to require punishment. One American criminologist (Jerold S Auerbach) has said: 'Law is our national religion; lawyers constitute our priesthood; the courtroom is our cathedral, where contemporary passion plays are enacted'. Indeed the whole process is built on an adversarial drama. Someone has to win; someone has to lose.
This adversarial nature of our courts seems every day to offer material for newspapers and television. We seem to be obsessed with crimes, not only on the evening news seeing offenders leaving court with a jacket over their head to hide their face, but being given gory details the next day in our newspaper. It is a drama in which we play no part except to express our horror. We are offered no thoughtful explanation of the possible causes of this criminal behaviour nor any sense that we can contribute in any way to the processes involved.
We also learn horror stories about the prison system which is the end point the adversarial system has to use when other milder solutions seem socially unacceptable. Yet it is widely recognised that overcrowding, bullying and intimidation among prisoners, lack of educational facilities (a high proportion of prisoners are illiterate) do nothing to help reintegration into the wider society. But the majority of offenders are not hardened criminals; they are poorly educated, unemployed drifters through our streets and their own lives. They are our failures. We, and the institutions we have created, have failed them. Prisons will reinforce that failure. We need to seek other ways of living in community with them.
As societies grow larger and more complex, conflicts may be seen to threaten the stability of the wider community. (We are seeing an example of that in current public affairs.) Where no attempt is made to offer community involvement in the form of a fair hearing and emotional support, disputes arising from the conflicts can arouse great anger, feelings of revenge and acts of aggression. We see some examples of this acted out night after night in the darkened streets of our city by those who not only feel alienated from structures of justice, but for whom justice itself has lost meaning.
Such citizens are likely to be members of a group described by Tania Burchardt in her important paper on Happiness and Social Policy
. In this paper, she discusses the correlation between income and subjective well-being. She reminds us that living in an unequal society, as we do, has consequences for those living in a situation of significant material disadvantage. Lacking hope, confidence or belief in their ability to control their own fate, they are unlikely to believe that the structures of justice I have described have anything to offer their own lives. What can we do?
One possibility is to support the new discussions taking place around the question of justice as a restorative rather than retributive and punishing procedure. Howard Zehr, an academic and a member of the Mennonite faith, is best known for examining assumptions about 'retributive' justice and finding alternatives in history, biblical tradition and common practice. For him justice involves the victim, the offender and the community in a search for solutions which promote repair, reconciliation and reassurance.
He believes in a vision of how people ought to live together in a state of 'right relationship', which crimes and all forms of oppression damage. Restorative justice helps to repair that damage. Central to restorative justice is the notion of confessing error, expressing contrition and making atonement. This can be seen as a pre-Reformation pattern which may arouse suspicion but it does meet the criteria of the moral vindication of the families of the victim. The question of atonement is one for every individual crime or offence, but we have to learn here to abandon the concept of the scapegoat by excluding the offender from the community. We must learn to be includers rather than excluders. We have also to create opportunities for atonement, opportunities which have some meaning both for the offender and for the community.
There is a growing movement which is advocating a significant change in the way in which we are used to administering justice arising from a sense of failure in the present system. It is, however, not yet actively suggesting that there are better ways of living together in community, though that may be one side effect. Let us look back at the earliest kinds of community and see what they have to offer us. Take the words negotiation, restitution, reconciliation. Is there any way such concepts can find a place in our current world? Interestingly, this is already happening.
In this country, and also overseas, a movement called Mediation is growing which is working to resolve conflict situations at a local level. Marian Liebmann, a pioneer in this field, in editing a book called Mediation in Context
writes that this is a very exciting time for mediation, especially in the UK. She goes on to say that: 'The dissatisfaction with litigation and the good experiences from mediation so far have combined to push mediation from the margins to the mainstream of many organisations and processes'.
Instead of a rush to litigation, mediation is being practised in settings like schools, neighbourhood disputes between families where accusations and counter-accusations are made, within business organisations and between victims and offenders which result in avoiding court involvement. This work takes place within the supervision and protection of a number of national mediation organisations which also organise training of their workers.
Scottish Mediation has moved to a programme of restorative justice with offenders under 16. They are referred from the reporter and their staff work with the victims to achieve a resolution. Meetings arranged are called conferences and the process called conferencing. In an offence where there is no obvious victim, e.g. breach of the peace, the police will give the restorative warning. If there is a victim who agrees, a meeting will be arranged between them, the victim and offender, and along with the staff member may come up with a restorative solution that satisfies the victim. This may be something as simple as an apology but there is also the possibility that the restorative contribution may be something practical that makes a public contribution. Examples of this are helping to paint murals on the walls of a nursery or making flower baskets for hanging in public places. A very important aspect is that the victims have an opportunity to present their point of view about everything that has happened and what they now want to see happening.
This is a pilot study with a researcher attached from Edinburgh University. So far, the evaluations seem positive and the anecdotal evidence suggests that the programme is working. But we mustn't be sentimental about it. It appears that a disproportionate number of offenders come from areas of multiple deprivation. Any policy attempts to deal with criminal offences must also be engaged in policies for decent housing, educational opportunities and employment. Human beings are not one-dimensional.
There are times, when we read papers like The Guardian
, watch responsible programmes on BBC2 or Channel 4, or read the pleas for help that come in our mail that it seems as if the whole world is crying out for justice against poverty, hunger and its effects. We are also informed on a regular basis of various kinds of exploitation, such as those so vividly described in the Amnesty
magazine of human rights. Sometimes we may stuff a cheque into an envelope, almost shamefacedly, as if our helplessness in the face of injustice has been undermined by our comparatively small contribution. Could we do more? Is our dream of a just society just a chimera?
First, can I say we are not alone. All over the world the dream is being activated. I have talked about mediation which is interesting and important, but not something we are very likely to become involved in, but at a recent birthday I had two presents which gave me great encouragement. One was from two friends and was a planting of 50 trees in Africa for me. I was delighted but not greatly surprised knowing the kind of people they are and their ethical values. What surprised and gave me great hope was that my two grandchildren, whom I had never thought of as having any social conscience, gave me a card showing that they had paid for the clearance of a field of spent bomb shells as my birthday present. No-one gave me a goat but I gather that was one of the most popular presents Oxfam sold at Christmas.
We are beginning to recognise the power of small actions if enough people take part. There is currently a life and death struggle for the Prime Minister over the question of his Education Bill. His 'rebels' would not be rebelling so powerfully against the unjust selection of able school-children into 'good' schools unless they had been pressurised by the parents of children not given a place. That's how change begins, often in a small way. Fair trade began as an idea in one man's head. It is now a powerful weapon which achieved justice, first for the growers of coffee beans, later for other groups.
I wish we could find some way to do the same for the producers of the ridiculously cheap clothes which hang on rails in Tesco's and other outlets. Those who spin the cotton from which they are made, those who cut and sew the clothes, must be getting starvation wages. One difficulty for me is that I see them being bought by families, clearly living on a low income, who are grateful for these low prices. Who am I to intervene? How am I to intervene? Injustices meet halfway round the globe, both for the workers in foreign countries and for those reliant on the clothes they make. To begin with, we must bring them in to the light and talk about them.
I told you about my grandchildren. Another encouraging signal for the future is reflected in a campaign, I'm In, launched by Oxfam, which aims to sign up a million young people this year to get involved in its work. Their website is getting record results. Liz Leaver, Oxfam's youth coordinator, says that the Make Poverty History campaign put important issues in front of many young people, perhaps for the first time. 'More young people than ever want to take action, and are now looking for the best way to get involved.' One of the issues young people learned about in that campaign was the importance of creating a just society. They had an opportunity to imagine a different and better world. Some of us may not be so young but we are not too old to imagine and perhaps better equipped to try to convert imagination into reality.
I began by describing the front page of the Amnesty
magazine. Violence against women is a crime which is too often not reported. It is too often not reported because the victim lacks confidence in what we call the justice system. If through the use of restorative justice we offered these women respect and dignity in their role as victims, they might learn respect for themselves and gain a sense of dignity and cease to be victims of a brutal world. So let us use our imagination to create a better world for all of us, including ourselves, so that we need not be ashamed of living, as we do, in an unjust society.
Matthew Arnold wrote in his beautiful poem, Dover Beach
, asking us to love each other as a defence against ignorance. His plea is still relevant.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,
and we are here as on a darkling plain
swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
where ignorant armies clash by night.
Kay Carmichael died in 2009