Thursday, July 12, 2012

Philosophical Ramblings: Thoughts on justice, redemption, and defeat

I usually save this kind of rambling until I'm drunk, but I'll make an exception. I'll try not to wander too deeply into metaphysics. Instead, you can expect many references to literature and movies.

Certain moments have power. By power I mean it is more likely in these moments that something fundamental will change. They are forks in fate, maybe not your fate, but someone's. Sometimes that's due to rarity - a solar eclipse or certain weather phenomenon. Sometimes its because of the emotions involved - right before a first kiss or a sporting competition. There are lots of these and some resonate more strongly with certain people. If you read this and think of your own moments, I would love to read about them on other blogs. Seriously. Mercedes Lackey does a great job describing the energy that builds up ahead of these moments in her Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series.

Anyway, I am obsessed with one such type of moment that centers around the idea of justice.

When someone commits a crime, ideally, justice is waiting for them somewhere. The obsession for me is not when justice gets there or even how... My first concern is the mind of the criminal.

Do they realize that they are being punished for their crime?

Do they feel fear? If they fear, is it because they were caught or because they realized the magnitude of what they have done? A really good example of this is the fight between Eragon and Galbatorix at the end of the Inheritance series. Eragon breaks Galbatorix by forcing him to understand.

I spent too many moments of my childhood contemplating how to make people actually FEEL the weight of their crimes. This is unhealthy. Take that scene in Children of the Mind where Jane (in the body of Valentine) literally freaks out over Quera (the little snot - easily my least liked character of any novel anywhere).... it is way too much stress for human circuits. And I used to feel that way ALL THE TIME. Makes my blood boil just to think about that scene.

This is why my favorite books as a kid were by Roald Dahl - that man had an excellent sense of little kid justice. Very satisfying. Another good example is Professor Umbridge in the Harry Potter series. Even though you KNOW Harry made his own situation worse through his own stubbornness, you still wait patiently for Umbridge to get what's coming to her. And it does! Peace at last. I have called this justice-porn. If you think too deeply it has all kinds of problems, but on the surface it provides a few cheap moments of pleasure as Umbridge suffers.

This is bad, of course. There's a word for this: schadenfreude and it has little to do with justice. An eye for an eye is very unenlightened justice. I have moved on. I am now more interested with that one moment when you see how a person reacts. It doesn't matter anyway - justice can happen even if you have no remorse whatsoever. Professor Umbridge remained blissfully unaware of her own sinisterness. That bitch.

My point here is that there is power in that moment when a person is faced with something really horrible and pauses just for a moment to see if they can connect it back to some wrong they've committed. It matters if it's fear or if it is the beginning of redemption. In the Lion King when Simba pins Scar, he never feels remorse, he just tries to get out alive. Redemption is more interesting, more emotionally appealing in literature, and more important to my own sense of justice.

There's a second, related, set of moments. Replace the cut and dry villain of the earlier references with two people who are simply on different sides of an epic struggle. When two warriors on opposite sides of a holy war meet, what happens? If one side vastly overpowers the other how does that translate into a superior moral position?

What will someone do when faced with overwhelming force? That person can choose to fight until completely overwhelmed (in many stories they often die in the process) or they can surrender. Often fighting to the end is considered honorable. See The Last Samurai, or my favorite: Asuka's Last Stand at the end of Evangelion. To confront the inevitable takes grit. However, I believe there is just as much power in the alternative. To acknowledge defeat and submit to it is also interesting. Take this quote from a simple interpretation of the pagan legend of the Holly and Oak Kings.

"I yield. I am defeated. But I ask of you, my brother, that you spare me." The king was defeated with or without the speech, but acknowledging it gives the moment more power. It is difficult to deny a legitimate surrender. Fate forks.

The Thri-kreen race of Dungeons and Dragons is described as being intolerant of untested leaders. They will attempt to establish dominance, but if defeated they are loyal to the victor. If every battle was a fight to the death nothing would get done - surrender is an acknowledgement of standing, a variation of an oath of fealty. Combat -> Defeat -> Submission seems more interesting to me as a source of loyalty than all the ties of honor and fancy words that often serve in the sci-fi/fantasy genre but it requires a bit more honesty than I can usually credit to humanity. If someone recites an oath with malicious intent at least no one loses any eyes.

Are you still reading this or did you just skip to the end to see how long it would take me to stop rambling? Anyway, I don't care if you skipped all the crap in the middle, I just wrote it because it was on my mind all day.

1 comment:

  1. Hey! I had to come check out your blog after reading your post on JJF. Voila, we are destined to chat-- I am a death penalty prosecutor. (I have an execution scheduled in one of my cases tomorrow night!)

    If you ever want to talk about criminal justice and punishment and related issues, I'm game! Email me!