My son recently asked me the meaning of “justice,” after running across it in a book where “justice” had a law-and-order meaning, where bad men were brought to justice. As the poor kid often finds, Dad can’t answer a simple question without acknowledging all the shades of meaning and nuances and possible contexts. Justice here meant retaliation, I told him, as it often does, but it has a bigger and greater meaning than punishing wrongdoers. There is a justice that we are all responsible for, that is made of respect for others, of mercy, of fairness, of self-correction, the totality of small acts. His eyes glazed over.
I understand that the first kind of justice has a more compelling narrative. It is the justice of superheroes and revenge fantasies, the justice that is often dealt with a righteous blow. It is the justice where we can enjoy that flicker of final recognition in the villain’s eyes before he is swept off of the cliff.
I suppose small children are empowered by these fairy tales of justice, their innate sense of rightness and wrongness affirmed, and themselves placed at the center of goodness. The positive justice that requires sacrifice and patience for incremental change is harder to turn into a compelling story.
So my mind spun long after the boy has fallen asleep. I had been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and wondering how I myself could be a more active agent for justice. I thought about the symbol of justice: the blindfolded woman with the scale, who I visualize with festering eyes beneath the blindfold due to an image from a poem. What image would I replace this with? What metaphor would serve us better? I fell asleep as I pondered this.
And then it was a rough week for justice. We saw two men killed brutally and senselessly by those who are supposed to deal justice. People gathered to demand immediate justice, understandably frustrated that such justice is never swift and rarely sure. And then, in what seems like the kind of retaliatory “justice” I tried to caution my son about, other police officers were killed brutally and senselessly in revenge. It was a week of grief and outrage, hopelessness and cynicism.
And so for him, and for myself, I may turn to those reassuring stories where justice is in the hands of the strong, and see the strong prevail.