Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Feminism and the philosophy of justice: random reflections from someone who really knows nothing about the topic

Greater minds than mine - and there are plenty of those - have written interesting and useful things on the topic of justice. Sadly, I haven't read them. Still, I've got concerns about the way we as feminists approach issues of justice, particularly when abuse and violence against women are involved. These concerns have been nagging away at me as I follow the Tony Veitch case and others involving violence against women, and watch the debate simmer away in the blogosphere and elsewhere.

My essential problem with the existing justice system is this: punishing people is dumb. It presupposes that you can use an unpleasant consequence to scare people into behaving in a particular way. When I teach my children about right and wrong, I do it by asking them to consider the consequences of their actions in relation to others. For example, I'll say, 'Don't say mean things to other people because you will hurt their feelings'; not 'Don't say mean things to other people because I told you not to and I call the shots and I'm bigger than you and will punish you if you don't do what I say'. Behaviour carried out (or not) to avoid punishment isn't meaningful moral behaviour: it's Pavlov's dog behaviour. I want to live in a society in which people don't commit crimes because they don't want to, not because they're scared of the consequences if they get caught.

This is all lovely and idealistic and nice. In the real world, measures to combat social factors which increase the likelihood of crime, such as poverty, may be imperfect or non-existent. Some people are a danger to others. We need a response to such people, although I feel it needn't be rooted in a philosophy of punishment. I have no problem at all with the idea that the harmful actions of one person should be limited to guarantee the welfare and safety of others - this seems more ethically defensible to me than simply punishing someone. And I believe that rehabilitation - trying to put a person in a position that they can, and want to, take a meaningful and productive role in society - should be the basis of any sentencing decision.

That, in a nutshell, is my rather liberal approach to issues of justice. But my own liberal tendencies are strained when I hear some crimes reported: domestic violence, sexual violence, abuse of children, even certain white-collar crimes. These make me furious, and I get a glimpse of how those hard-line advocates of punitive sentencing - Garth McVicar, for example - view justice. I'm not the only feminist who holds slightly contradictory views on justice: liberal on one hand, but wanting to throw the book at certain offenders on the other. I think this is because the crimes that bother us deeply have traditionally been treated with flippancy by society. Feminists have worked - and still work - incredibly hard to get domestic violence and sexual assault taken seriously by the Police and courts, and the community more broadly. ALAC ads, the English rugby team, Tony Veitch's half-arsed apology - all these remind us that the mistreatment of women remains accepted, if not sponsored, by elements in our society more powerful than ourselves. And when people misuse their power to victimise others, it's pretty hard to cut them some slack.

I think feminists, like everyone else, need to ask ourselves what exactly it is we want from the justice system, and how we define justice more generally, since the justice system is not the only institution in our society which applies sanctions. I think it's right and important that feminists continue to rage about violence against women, its prevalence and the amount of tolerance it receives; but I'm not so much interested in punishing individual perpetrators. I don't particularly care that TVNZ has dumped Tony Veitch, temporarily at least, because this is not about punishing Veitch so much as the state making a necessary public stand against domestic violence. However, I wouldn't get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing Tony Veitch go to prison. I don't even get much joy from seeing the general public sink the boot into him.

I see these as punitive responses: if we make Veitch's life unpleasant enough, he'll learn to stop beating women and everything will be OK. We might get some sort of Pavlov's dog afraid to reveal or act on his anti-woman attitudes, while not actually challenging them. The only thing that would make me feel better about the Veitch situation is knowing that the guy is no longer a danger to women. This presupposes an attitude change - one which I can't see arising because Veitch faces the remote possibility of a jail sentence, or because Matthew Ridge denounced him, or because the public hates him. The fact that Veitch's response to public vilification was 'I'm sorry, but...' should tell us something. It's a Pavlov's dog scenario. Veitch seems to be thinking, 'Everyone hates me, that's unpleasant, I've got fix this', and is coming out with a bunch of spurious excuses for domestic violence simply to get the public off his back. That's just an attempt to avoid an unpleasant consequence, not a meaningful change. I'm far from sure that the experience of being hated induces a person to make an attitudinal change. If we want a person to take a positive part in society and be respectful of others, does it make sense to shun him from society?

It's for these reasons that I feel the urge to punish - whether through the justice system, or through other forms of social sanction - is ultimately counter-productive, even when it's entirely understandable. If Veitch had gone immediately to the Police after the assault and turned himself in, I would have appreciated his courage, but taken no pleasure in whatever punishment had ensued. Because if he'd reached the point where he'd truly changed his attitudes and behaviour towards women, punishment would have no purpose. If he hasn't reached that point - and I'm pretty sure he hasn't - punishment won't change that either.


Julie said...

Fantastic post Anna, thanks so much for contributing it, despite your busy time at the moment!

Danielle said...

I think perhaps the problem with violent people is not a 'lack of control' but lack of empathy: they can't imagine themselves as the victims of violence, and are too self-centred to try to put themselves in the mental and emotional place of their victim. I think empathy, rather than fear of punishment, is what really needs teaching. But I'm not sure how you do that.

Anna McM said...

I strongly agree with that, Danielle. The 'lack of control' thing is a crock - violent people seldom abuse people with the potential to fight back and harm them in return. They're pretty strategic about who they victimise. And no, I don't have the recipe for teaching empathy either...