A year ago, a post (September Eleven) on this blog used the story of Coalhouse Walker in E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, to argue that humiliation and injustice were powerful motivators for vengeance that can border on insanity. The post triggered an extended conversation that extracted the following central observation for further discussion:
It is not enough to give historical/sociological/political explanations for vengeful responses to acts of humiliation. These are important but one also has to ask simple questions like: If A insults B, is the best course of action for B to insult A or simply to kill A? What leads B to make a choice? In other words, one has to be analytic and moral as well.
I wish to explore this proposition in this post. My starting point is to assert that in an ideal world, the best course for B in response to an insult by A is neither to insult nor to kill A. Rather, the ideal response is to ignore A. The ideal response has a very old history and a very distinguished pedigree. Before his execution in Athens in 399 BC, Socrates is reported to have spoken as follows to Crito: “One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.”
The reason why we don’t see the ideal response more often, or ever, is best given by Machiavelli:
“The gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than self-preservation. The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.”
This suggests that the simple question posed in the observation is too simple. It is too simple because it ignores the context in which the action and the reaction are supposed to take place. What happens when A insults B? What happens when B ignores the insult by A? Is A held accountable in the first case? Is B insulted even more in the second?
Almost everything depends on the nature of the context. And this is perhaps the reason that two seemingly contradictory sayings attributed to Christ both find a place in the Bible: ‘turning the other cheek’ and ‘an eye for an eye.’
‘An eye for an eye’ does not imply that B should insult A if A has insulted B. On the contrary, it points to a principle of retributive or compensatory justice. It suggests that if A insults B, he/she should be held accountable and liable to compensation equivalent to the damage inflicted by the insult. If the context enshrines such a principle of justice, then B can afford to ‘turn the other cheek.’ If the context does not enshrine such a principle, then ‘turning the other cheek’ would only leave B open to further humiliation.
The key inference is that one needs to ensure a context in which personal vengeance is unnecessary and therefore not tolerated. B needs neither to insult nor kill A because a system of justice, not B as an individual, would deal with A’s provocation. When Gandhi warned, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” it was a warning against a situation in which personal vengeance became the rule because an impersonal and fair system of justice was not there to protect the aggrieved.
The conclusion of this analysis is that morality without justice is not enough. This was Doctorow’s message when he showed how Coalhouse Walker exhausted all means of obtaining justice within the system before he snapped and entered the “mirror universe, with laws of logic and principles of reason the opposite of civilization’s.” A fair hearing at any point in his tortured journey would have averted the 9/11 of the fictional account.
We can concretize this with reference to a very familiar phenomenon, the schoolyard bully. No parents would advise their child to turn the other cheek to the bully. Either the school would need to take care of the situation or the bully would need to be stopped by other means. Giving in to a school bully is often a stop on the way to a breakdown or a suicide.
Morality without justice is a recipe for the weak and the powerless to be stripped of their most fundamental possession – their dignity – as happened to Coalhouse Walker. This is a sacrifice that can be asked of no human being. Nor should it ever be. Recourse to personal vengeance is wrong but it will be eliminated only when it is made unnecessary.