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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


Have you ever taken note of how young children, even those of tremendously varied background and upbringing express a sense of what I can only describe as moral outrage when they feel they have been treated unjustly? That feeling extends as well to their friends, classmates, and sometimes total strangers. Where does this emotion come from and why is it that for some of us that feeling which springs from deep within becomes silent or muted as we age?

Please do not mistake this for a sweeping statement about the innocence of children or the innate goodness of humanity. I wish that were so but I have seen too many examples that suggest we are not all born with kindness, compassion or a sense of justice in our hearts. On the other hand few of us are born to hate—born to treat others with prejudice and anger. That is a learned behavior—learned from those around us—either directly or by their influence. We are social creatures—we want to fit in and to be accepted. If we lack a strong self awareness and moral compass to guide us we adapt solely to what we experience.

None of this should come as a surprise and yet we shake our heads at the cruelty, bigotry, and worse we see displayed every day. It infuses almost everything we do, our working environment, relationships, our sports, and most definitely our political environment. Too often we lay the blame for this on everyone but ourselves—we are in the right after all and all those who disagree with us are, well, just wrong. A recent national survey suggested that as many as 40% of so-called conservatives--a group that claims to hold respect for human life above all else, believes that physical violence is justified if their views are not upheld.

One of the worst byproducts of our civic discourse in the past few decades has been a widespread acceptance of the view that those with whom we disagree are universally corrupt, inhuman, and unworthy of justice. There are those who have fallen so far over the edge that their sense of right and wrong, their hatred and bigotry is well beyond the rhetorical.

By-in-large these are not the Facebook and Twitter warriors that post angry, bizarre, or provocative memes and statements. In fact, most of those folks if confronted in the real world and not the safe anonymity of social media are playing out a role. It is not one that they would convert to action on their own, without the cover of like minded individuals. But as we have seen, caught up in the moment--in a group setting anything can and too often does happen. That is a compelling reason why a mechanism to lower the temperature, to put real faces and real voices together is so vital. It is also why our current platforms contribute to our divisions. We come armed with our pre-conceived vision of the other guy—and he is more often than not the enemy.

I am sick and saddened at the state of our country and the larger world in which we live. I’ve tried, honestly to engage in conversation, listening to opinions that differ from my own. Even in cases where our opinions were widely divergent I can still recognize a mutual desire for that ephemeral thing we call justice. What I will never understand is the idea that justice demands violence. There must be acknowledgement of harm done or harm contemplated, but any attempt to seek justice by causing harm is retribution and nothing more.

It is essential we teach our children how to recognize right from wrong but also to understand that justice is not reciprocal injustice. We can teach them to call out unjust behavior and refuse to accept it. We can show them that the pursuit of justice requires courage and may be a lonely position, but it is always the right thing to do. It is our right and responsibility to teach our children to defend themselves from those who do not know restraint. But it our deepest obligation to teach them that it is not their responsibility to mete out justice.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth are too often cited simplistically to justify retribution. These are vestigial references to a time when physical might conferred ethical right. Delve a little deeper and they reveal a different truth. Reciprocal punishment neither staunches a wound nor prevents its recurrence. There is no evidence as a practical matter that retribution ever succeeds—even as a deterrent. So why do it—if it perpetuates the continuation of behavior we abhor? Humanity conceived the rule of law as a means for the majority of people to seek justice without resorting to reciprocal violence. But our justice system has been reduced to the administration of confinement, monetary fines or death. We shake our heads at the recidivism this system causes but continue to employ it--at great cost to all.

While this approach to justice removes harm doers from the rest of us it also removes those who caused harm only to themselves, and metes out punishment that is all too often disproportionate to the harm done. We must acknowledge that there are those who are so far beyond our ability to restrain from causing harm that they need to be kept apart, perhaps forever. But for the overwhelming majority the only solution that has ever shown promise is restitution. Isn’t that what we wanted when we were seeking justice as a child, for those who hurt us to know what we felt, to know our pain? Hurt people, hurt people. Only we can break that cycle.

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