ko ko thett is the co-editor of Picking Off New Shoots Will Not Stop the Spring, a new collection of “witness essays and poems from Burma/Myanmar 1988-2021.”
Justice and Its Image
The companions died in turn,
with lowered eyes. Their oars
mark the place where they sleep on the shore.
No one remembers them. Justice.
GEORGE SEFERIS, Mythistorima
The most difficult thing for a writer has been and continues to be to control his emotion of anger. If we leave aside all that is included in an undisputed masterpiece such as Flaubert's Education Sentimentale, we shall see that such is, in reality, the central theme of this overwhelming novel: maturity, the coming-of-age of emotion, the blunting, in the end, of the sharpness of experience which makes it possible to see life retrospectively. With resentment? With nostalgia? With everything entailed in the inevitability of assumptions? Wherever it is we arrive at, nevertheless, there is a single conclusion: the emotion of anger, wherever, however and if it makes its appearance, is due to an absence of justice, which appears more marked at moments of historical tension.
For that reason every transgression involves the element of deprivation, a stolen truth whose consequences for the emotions we hardly ever understand. 'My brain was clouded', says the perpetrator of the crime of passion. And this is reminiscent of Milton: the brain is calmed when the emotions become inert, when a man enters upon that phase of ageing of the spirit when the only image he sees before him clearly is the exit, the gate of the grave.
Man is born with a sense of injustice, since an awareness of death stigmatises his life indelibly. In any event, it is for this reason that great art is that which monumentalises the sense of the eternal and the sacred. The religious content of these concepts, however, covers only a small part of their semantic field. Eternity is the great ocean of the memory, as that is immortalised in Homer's Odyssey, where the return of Odysseus is none other than the setting right of a longstanding injustice (of ten years' duration). By extension - and as this is given expression in the texts of the world's peoples - when there is an injustice, the balance of the universe is disturbed, the societies of this world collapse and are followed by ashes, disasters and ruin, allowing us then to go immediately to catharsis, which will open up a window on the future. This is why the symbol of justice in Greek poetry, and in religious texts, is light, the triumph of the visible, the end of interminable night.
Justice, however, is not a decision. It is an act, or, otherwise, the execution of a decision; it is complete, that is, only when it is administered. In its pure form, it cannot be dragged behind the chariot of political power, which it checks, and, if necessary, represses. Consequently, the executive power in democratic societies serves as an extension of justice. In other words, justice is under an obligation to control political power, because it is only by controlling it that it judges its own omissions, acts or weaknesses, and is then able to correct them.
The safeguarding of the independence of justice, which in modern societies is an acquis of the Enlightenment, is the only effective way of controlling political power - or power more generally. There have been more than a few occasions when independent judges have saved the honour of democracy, as was the case a few years ago in Italy, or in the 1960s in Greece, when a young examining magistrate, Christos Sartzetakis, did not hesitate to bring to trial the leadership of the Thessaloniki police for the murder of the deputy Grigoris Lambrakis by agents of the para-state.
The sense of justice is directly bound up with the desire for a better world that will not find its balance through doctrines of power but rather through the rendering unto each of that which he deserves for his acts, and his omissions. Thus the penalty in the legal system goes beyond the meaning of punishment pure and simple, bringing about the making good of the damage caused by the criminal, not only to others, but also to himself. Whether the penalty then functions in many cases not as a corrective act but to fuel crime and injustice is a different issue. In any event, crime begins where people overstep limits. Crime is the secular version of the ancient hubris - but this applies only in those countries where democracy operates. When under tyrannies men rise up, the resort to force is an explosion of oppressed sensitivity, giving expression in its extreme form to a sense of injustice. This is no more than opposition to the fact that some suck out the life of others and deprive them of the air they breathe.
In the ancient world, the sense of the sacred was the only thing which could legitimate man's secular expressions of himself. Justice was a goddess, she was a person, a living presence even in the courts of law, where behind the judges and the jury the shadows of the gods rose up. The court was not anonymous and vast as it is in Kafka's Trial, where it includes the whole of society.
Any lack of justice is, nevertheless, expressed today as a trauma of the individual and of a society as a whole, and may lead to an uprising against injustice which is an impersonal state of affairs, a polymorphous - or, rather, amorphous - totality of acts, omissions and quasi-ideologies. Thus justice, judgment, and the Last Judgment, as these find expression in Christian doctrine, express as a rule an inability to deal with the cosmic monster of injustice which dominates the greater part of the planet.
However, society's inability to reward, or acknowledge, what is just because of its various social and political inflexibilities is made good by popular wisdom, which supplies its own answers. 'Everything here has its price', the people of Greece say when, by coincidence, disaster falls upon someone who has blatantly done wrong and has not been punished. 'Divine Justice' we say at other times, echoing a memory which comes from ancient times.
In the cause of justice and freedom, we Greeks have shed our blood innumerable times. If there is no justice, the dead do not rest easy, our tradition tells us. Hubris always has to be paid for, otherwise all concepts lose their significance. In the fifth century BC, the Athenian Democracy, before laying Melos waste, asked the Melians to surrender unconditionally. The Melians replied that the gods did not want this injustice. The Athenians responded that the gods always take the side of the strong, and wiped out Melos. A little later, the Athenian fleet was destroyed by the Spartans at Aegospotami, and this meant the end of the Athenian democracy and its hegemony. The speeches of the Athenians and the Melians, as recorded by Thucydides in his History, are among the most astonishing and most political texts ever to have been written on justice and injustice, presented as a narrative of power’s arrogance and of the punishment that always falls upon the arrogant, left with a heavy price to pay.
Justice is blind: here is another definition of eternity, where all are equal before the law because apart from human time there is universal time--the Latins though of it as horror vacui-- and in which no distinctions are made. Justice is, according to Elytis, a notional sun which sheds light into dark corners of History, and of conscience.
For the artist and the intellectual, however, the sense of justice always precedes its actual occurrence, beyond and above its institution, because it determines our sensitivity and our attitude not only towards organized society but towards life itself. In order to create a society it is necessary to legislate, to set limits to individual behaviour - but the starting-point for any form of institution, for any legislation is freedom. This is what the charter texts of the world's peoples, the declarations of the rights of man and of the citizen - everything that provides the foundations for today's democratic societies - take first and foremost into account.
How many centuries have had to pass for us to progress from the right of the strong to equality of all before the law? The transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and from there to the Enlightenment took place in leaps. From then on, it could reasonably be said, no substantive moral or political progress has been made. The right of the stronger continues to determine events in very many regions of the planet - and it is no accident at all that it is applied in countries where there is no democracy, while refuted by the societies of the West. When the latter do apply it outside their own societies by adopting the 'logic' of war, they violate every principle of justice and, circumventing the charter principles of their own societies, become agents of hubris in our own time.
Insofar as this logic continues to prevail in contemporary politics, civilisation is imbued with the poison of contradiction. We refer constantly to human societies, and regard justice as their connective tissue, yet in spite of this we do not cease to maintain mechanisms of external violence. These mechanisms exist, of course, and are reproduced because their chief property is the negation of the other, derived from our inability to accept as a factor for cohesion that which differentiates us, or else accept those things which we are fundamentally unwilling to cede to political authorities.
To live in an organised society entails ceding a percentage of one's individual freedom for the good of the whole. But what you cede you must receive back in another form many times over - and, in any case, the gesture of giving up must not be the result of imposition but of consensus. Every time the freedom of even one individual is ceded, or filched, without society’s reaction, injustice sits enthroned, giving the tyrant the right to mock his unfortunate subjects - if not to send them to prison, into exile, or in front of the firing-squad.
In 1958, Isaiah Berlin, gave his first lecture as Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, in essence talking about justice. The lecture was entitled Two Concepts of Liberty, and defined these concepts as positive and negative liberty. How is it that what for one person is just, is unjust for another--and how does the extension of the individual liberty of one person rob his neighbour of a percentage of the air which he breathes? The principles of the Enlightenment, the separation of powers and the safeguarding of the rights of man and of the citizen are all supposed to have supplied answers to these questions. We are unfortunately forced to use the adverb 'supposed', because the experiences of the twentieth century have been far from encouraging. We believed, for example, that the extension of the gains of the Enlightenment at the social level would correct the injustices created by unequal distribution of wealth. The result was exactly the opposite: not only were these injustices not eliminated, but in the name of setting them right vast masses of human beings were deprived of their individual rights, millions were sent to jail, hundreds of thousands faced the firing-squad, and innumerable others found themselves in forced labour camps.
We are frequently surprised by the iniquitous paths followed by the human mind - that fairy transformed into a Minotaur, adapting every now and then the logic of war and force. What happens when man, though knowing what is good, does evil? What is it that makes us fail to see the self-evident? At a mature age, Arthur Koestler, following paths of parapsychology, arrived at the conclusion that some mistake occurred in the first stage of the creation of the world - hence all our tribulations. And so, since the seed of evil is latent in civilisation, society, culture, and individual behaviour will continue to be Manichaean. In any event, almost all our systems, even down to the binary logic by which the computer functions (0-1), can be seen to be Manichaean.
Nietzsche wrote a whole book, Beyond Good and Evil, to decry the bipolar nature of a civilisation which he most profoundly abhorred and which he denounced from the heights of his passion - but a way out of this civilisation is not meaningful, nor does it exist. A mediocre society can destroy a man of genius, particularly when in his work its conventions and ordinances are reduced to their constituent atoms. A way out of conventions means a game with paranoia and death. All convention, however, entails suppression, and suppression means only one thing: deprivation of freedom. Just as in the jails of totalitarian regimes the prisoners do battle with the ghosts of freedom, so in our own societies we have to battle with the ghosts of injustice.
The battle is unequal - absurd, Camus might say. It is not possible for human nature to be interpreted and described convincingly because the phenomenon of death goes beyond the forms of understanding of the real that man has created. But it is worth the effort, because otherwise morality loses its meaning, as does civilisation, which is for the scrap heap unless it corrects the weaknesses of human nature, or at least makes this be one of its primary aims. In the present instance, the reiteration of a commonplace would not seem inappropriate: worthwhile creativity cannot be other than a constant quest for freedom through individual or collective expression. This alone has the power to bring us to a level beyond good and evil, that is, to a poetics of freedom.
The conviction that we can explain, shape, or even correct the imperfections of human nature and bridge the gap between individual objectives and the collective interest by means of compulsory social schemata leads inevitably to totalitarianism. Since we are mortal, it is not possible to eliminate from the life of society every imponderable factor; we cannot approach - still less achieve – happiness through voluntaristic structures.
Democracy has proved to be the best political system because it is based on the relativity of things and on the importance of equilibria emerging from the constant movement of ideas, individuals and groups, from the ceaseless interaction of the things the human spirit creates. To repeat another commonplace: creation is unthinkable without the existence of the human factor, but the latter's special quality in each historical time stems from its ability to constantly subvert these equilibria. Consequently, how, when and to whom the derivatives of civilisation are awarded - from material to non-material goods - has a close connection to freedom and justice. But it is the state in which the general population of any country finds itself that gives us the measure of the justice which its citizens enjoy, or else are deprived of. A just man is thus one who recognises the right of the other, even when - or particularly when - this right conflicts with his individual interest. And justice is a product of civilisation - it does not exist in nature, where the law of the stronger holds sway. The theory of evolution itself tells us that.
In human society, however, the strong and the weak must co-exist and enjoy the same rights. The genius and the mediocre, the creator and the performer, the visionary and the plodder. All contribute to a society remaining cohesive and so improving, so that each generation enjoys a better standard of living than the preceding one.
Faced with injustice, the creative artist has only one option: to stand with the victims and against those in power. In dictatorial regimes, no form of ideology can replace the major injustice: the deprivation of freedom. No promise for the future is of greater value than what the mechanisms of suppression take away from the present. In these cases, the imposition of silence is the greater form of injustice. Deprivation of speech is a negation of civilisation, because through discourse and expression man not only takes part in the social and historical process: he also - and above all - learns to think.
A free man is someone who does not negotiate his right to express himself and to judge, nor someone who-- regarding as a personal benefit what is no more than a shared and inalienable right--cedes this right in order to circulate in an environment controlled from above. Consequently, justice means refusal of force or resistance to it - and particularly when force takes on the forms of a regime. The acceptance of any violent or totalitarian regime means quite simply the ceding of rights, and a consent to injustice; and this monster feeds, of course, on toleration - which, when it is long-lasting-- inevitably ends in collusion.
In Western democracies, we consider much of this more or less self-evident, and thus talk all the time about ancillary issues in an effort to understand why the same view does not hold in the rest of the world. Yet with disturbing frequency this verb is used euphemistically. It is, in any event, fashionable to examine repressive societies in the Third World in the light of cultural particularities, so that we supply with an alibi those tyrants who use the 'tradition' of their country (a so-called 'tradition' whose real name is stagnation) as an ideological weapon in order to keep their citizens in a state of hypnosis and aphasia. The defence of democracy is interpreted - as a rule by those who enjoy its benefits in their own country - as an attempt at cultural and political manipulation.
In this way the old principle, which says that to understand another person does not mean to grant that he is right, is circumvented. Subjectivity is an endemic disease of post-modern thought, and interpretation the alibi for the formulation of various arbitrary theories and for speculations turned into doctrines. There can be no doubt that in confusing the subject with the object of the law, we serve only despots. And despots do not support societies of justice but rather those of penalties, which are established not as consequences of the implementation of law but for the opposite reason: laws come ex post facto to shore up a system of penalties based on strength, acting as a shell or an alibi for the system of punishments which maintains repressive societies. When cultural or religious beliefs are regarded as above the law, the sense of justice is constantly blunted; in the end we arrive at societies that are static, outdated and barbarous.
Manifested in one of its worst cultural forms, that of specialisation (which leads to the demise of a rounded education and of cultivation, something Robert Graves already discerned in his White Goddess), barbarism is far from extinct in our own time. There is a lot of ground left for us to cover before we emerge from prehistory.