Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Joy of Violent Movement Pulls You Under

Let us stop thinking so much about punishing, reproaching, and improving others! We rarely change an individual, and if we should succeed for once, something may also have been accomplished, unnoticed: we may have been changed by him. Let us rather see to it that our own influence on all that is yet to come balances and outweighs his influence. Let us not contend in a direct fight – and that is what all reproaching, punishing, and attempts to improve others amount to. Let us rather raise ourselves that much higher. Let us color our own example ever more brilliantly. Let our brilliance make them look dark. No, let us not become darker ourselves on their account, like all those who punish others and feel dissatisfied. Let us sooner step aside. Let us look away.

Nietzsche's not referring to issues of criminal justice per se; rather, in keeping with his recurring theme of resentment, the ways we concern ourselves with others' business more than our own, the ways we take revenge for petty slights, and most importantly, the ways in which that drive for revenge (or "justice", if you want to break out the linguistic cosmetic kit) warps us the longer we hold on to it. I had that beautiful passage in mind as I listened to some of the Inspector Javert-wannabes I know gloating over the news of OJ Simpson finally going to prison for a long time.

It's not the issue of whether he was guilty fourteen years ago or guilty now that concerns me. I just find it interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see people who have lived the last decade-plus paying little or no mind to the details of Simpson's life suddenly becoming giddy at the thought of him spending the rest of his life in jail, as if this had been some festering psychic wound that had been preventing them from getting a good night's sleep. I can understand the Browns and Goldmans feeling good about this, but everybody else - Jesus, seek some help.

I guess what bothers me is the thought that these are the kind of people that can tell themselves that this somehow makes things "right", and believe it. I'm certainly not arguing to abolish laws or concepts of criminal justice, merely pointing out what I thought was so jejune as to be common sense, needless to mention: you can't change the past and no amount of punishment will bring back the victims; you'll just create more grieving friends and relatives. I vaguely recall a passage from one translation of a Taoist text - the Hua Hu Ching, I think - that was referring specifically to war, but it applies here: something to the effect of it being an absolute last resort, of course, and the need to treat it as an occasion of mourning that it should have come to this, to take no joy in the prospect of violent action. Of course, this is a culture that breaks out the same sadistic jokes about prison rape every time a famous (or infamous) person goes to jail (I mean, fantasizing about Martha Stewart being sodomized in prison? Really?)

I'm just always wary of people who are absolutely certain what other people "deserve", whether positive or negative.


  1. Anonymous7:33 AM

    I'm just always wary of people who are absolutely certain what other people "deserve", whether positive or negative.

    That's quite a leap in the conclusion from the premise of OJ Simpson. People may feel something is fair, or deserved without "absolute certainty" about it. Who are these people you seem to know so well? Not to mention OJ has certainly stayed in the news for continuing strange behavior--so are you really saying that people should just not care about miscarriages of justice? What would be the appropriate attitude in this case? After all, the same anger-overload egomania is responsible for both crimes; his character is his fate and it has finally caught up with him.

  2. Yeah, I'm free-associating a bit, but I don't think I can add much more to what I already wrote. The OJ circus was the catalyst for my thinking, but his particular fate is really of no concern to me at all. Like I said, I find it bizarre to see people chortling with glee over the news, as if it affected them personally, but whatever gets them through the night, I suppose. Sure, it was a miscarriage of justice that he got away with murder, but by the same token, his life was never going to be the same again, he ended up paying millions to the victims' families through the wrongful-death suit, and everywhere he goes, I'm sure people call him a murderer, and he has to live with that burden. I'm much more concerned with real criminals like Bush and Cheney, who have gotten away with destroying millions of lives and will never suffer one little bit for any of it. OJ's just chump change, and not worth the thousands of hours of tv time he's gotten. Women get stalked, harassed and even killed by jealous control-freak ex-husbands all the time, but we apparently only care if the husband's a famous ex-athlete, which makes me wonder if it's really about "justice" or just the usual epicaricacy in watching someone take a swan dive off a pedestal.

    As for the "deserved" issue - it's the same as I said in my old Karma Curmudgeon post. I don't trust facile attempts to define what an action means to everyone involved, I don't see what kind of metric you can use to proclaim one instance of suffering or happiness to be "equal" to another. And of course, there has to be some sort of standard when it comes to issues of criminal justice, however imperfect, but that was neither here nor there for my purposes in this case. Just indulging in egghead hair-splitting.