Not too long ago, I heard a report on NPR about overcrowding in San Quentin Penitentiary describing the conditions of prisoners packed into a gymnasium because the cells were full. I was horrified by the barbarism of the scene, human beings treated like animals, turning them into animals. Most of them had never hurt anybody, had minor parole violations, mandatory drug sentences, were poor and unlucky. I wanted the Supreme Court to step in immediately, declare it unconstitutional, cruel and unusual punishment, and let them all out.
People don’t think of justice as a visual concept, yet justice is all about proportion. The metaphors of fairness, like “letting the punishment fit the crime” or “weighing the evidence” depend on our perception of proportionality. The weight (degree of seriousness), on each side of the scales should match. Images like the scales of justice underscore the centrality of the metaphor of balance. Balance is the goal in all systems, biological to ecological, an essential principle that guides movement. It is something we can see. What we see as cruel and unusual punishment depends on our perception of excess, of one side of the scales too heavy to match the other. A huge source of injustice is due to treating the law as more important than the person involved, treating all disobedience as equal. Jane Addams called this the “unpardonable sin”, to ignore the individual human context in favor of an abstract principle. Rather than enlarging our picture to arrive at a wiser judgment, massive injustice is rationalized as setting examples of what happens if you are found guilty of any disobedience. People are given jail time for lying to the court when the offence itself wouldn’t have required such harsh treatment. Once protectors of the people, the police become enforcers of the law.
The more we spell out the law the more the injustice grows. “Three strikes you’re out” ignores the particular human being in favor of the elevated slogan. The ancient Chinese book, I Ching, says that laws should not be codified because once they’re written down there will always be people who will find a way to get around them. Another passage in the I Ching emphasized that prisons should be temporary, never treated like places to live indefinitely. Their view of justice was based on the innate sense of proportion and the belief that people could understand what was right without having it spelled out in advance.
There are many areas of imbalance in our society that can be seen as unjust. The fact that some feel something is wrong in their gut is often slathered over by justifications that eclipse the larger picture but not that visceral sense of injustice. No verbal rationalization will shift our sense that a CEO making 400X what the lowest worker does is way out of proportion, or that a gym full of prisoners packed like sardines is cruel and unusual punishment.
“What’s wrong with this picture?” is a question that every human being can answer just by looking. Unfortunately, we’ve had to learn to live in a picture that’s unbalanced on many levels, built on a foundation that treats some people as less important than others and ignores our interconnectedness. Psychiatrist, James Hillman, felt that many of the people who came to him for therapy were not sick themselves, but were unable to adapt to a sick society. Intolerable contradictions depend on compartmentalization, from the level of society all the way into individual consciousness. It’s a technique to keep from seeing larger implications. Limiting vision cripples judgment, whereas the growth of the big picture adds to the scope of knowledge and increases the wisdom of our perception.