Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Justice: Individual or Group

I recently read a post urging that society treat the investigation and punishment of rape as seriously as murder. This strikes me as a good idea, given the grave evil of the crime and the personal devastation it causes, but it did bring to mind an interesting contrast.

There's a sort of mini industry, primarily coming from the left of center, of trying to prove that people who have been accused or convicted of murder are actually innocent. (See: Serial, big heavily researched stories for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, etc. The Innocence Project is potentially also an example, though it's worth noting that they do also work to prove the innocence of people convicted of rape when DNA evidence, etc. make it possible to do so.) Conservatives at times complain a bit that this represents the left siding with murderers over victims.

It's interesting that there's an extreme reversal of this dynamic when it comes to rape, with many on the left saying that any doubt that someone accused of rape is guilty represents acting as if it's not in fact a horrible crime that deserves to be punished. (Of course, this is in certain cases confirmed by reprehensible talk in certain quarters about how sexual assault might be "boyish hijinks".)

I'm thinking that perhaps the dynamic behind this is that there's a general tendency on the left to look out for those perceived as downtrodden by society. People accused of murder (especially if they happen to be poor or minorities or otherwise disadvantaged) seem to fit the downtrodden model, and there's thus a desire to see if perhaps they can be proved innocent or otherwise the victim of circumstances.

In the case of rape accusations, the tendency on the left is to see the accused as the representing a powerful group while the victim represents a historically oppressed group, thus in this case trying to show that the accused is innocent is seen as standing up for the powerful at the expense of the weak.

This contrast came into sharp focus during the last week as Rich Lowry of National Review and Jamelle Bouie writing at Slate crossed swords over what side of the Bret Kavanaugh affair it was more appropriate to imagine Atticus Finch taking.

Most succinctly, Lowry argued that in a world of #BelieveAllWomen the Atticus Finch who reduced Mayella Ewell to tears in the courtroom with a line of questioning that proved the accusation that Tom Robinson had raped her could not be true, could no longer be seen as a symbol of American legal integrity. Bouie, on the other hand, argued that what was notable about Atticus Finch was his willingness to stand up for an oppressed class that were habitually disbelieved, and thus that to walk in the tradition of Finch would be to support women who have been raped or abused. He concludes:
If you want to make the Atticus Finch analogy, you must understand the actual dynamic of the story in question. You can claim the mantle of Lee’s hero if you are standing in defense of the marginalized, giving voice to claims of innocence, or victimhood, that are otherwise ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed. You can claim Atticus if you fight for the powerless, for those who might truly lose everything from speaking out, who feel the weight of society against them. Looking at our society and the ubiquity of sexual violence—looking at the extent to which women are presumptively challenged and men presumptively exonerated—there are opportunities to deploy the Atticus Finch analogy for those who want to use it. It’s not in defense of Brett Kavanaugh.

To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those classic novels "everyone has read" that I somehow managed to miss reading in my youth. I read it for the first time a couple years ago, when Harper Lee's original novel (a rejected draft dealing with an adult Scout going home to the south and dealing with her memories, which memories an editor suggested she make the main subject of the novel instead) was published as Go Set A Watchman. The paroxysm of the moment was "new Harper Lee novel reveals Atticus Finch was a racist" and I was curious to go read the book which everyone else had read as a teenager.

What struck me reading Mockingbird was that Atticus Finch is not really any kind of an anti-racist. He's not out to overturn a system. Indeed, he insists on deference to system and to age, as when he makes Scout and her brother help out the (fairly nasty) old lady in town when they respond to her insults aimed at their family by destroying her flowers. We eventually find out that Atticus didn't even volunteer to defend Tom Robinson, he was assigned to do so and reluctantly agreed to take the assignment.

However, Atticus is someone who believes deeply in the integrity of the law and its process, and having been assigned to defend Tom, he investigates, becomes convinced that Tom is in fact innocent, and sets about proving it.

What makes Atticus admirable -- particularly in the context of the 1930s era South in which the story is set, and the 1960s America in which the book was published -- is that Atticus considers the fact that Tom is innocent far more important than the fact that he is Black. Atticus preaches a kind of humanism which involves taking people where they are at and understanding them, whether it's Tom the falsely accused black man or Mrs. Dubose the morphine-addicted, racist old lady who mocks his children because he's representing a black man.

In this sense, it seems to me that Atticus represents a vision of justice which is correct: a blind justice which is concerned only with the question of "Is the accused innocent or guilty?" It does not seem to me that he endorses a the view, common in the more identity-driven sectors of the left, that we should decide which side to support strictly on the basis of which identity group they belong to and not whether they are right or wrong.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

Sometimes "identity politics" is because of an understanding that some groups of people get actual justice while others do not. There are some groups of people who are more likely to be wrongfully convicted. When you see cases like this one, it's easy to see why some people feel that a conviction does not necessarily mean the person actually committed the crime:

Atticus represents the ideal of justice. Our justice system today has still not attained that standard.