Justice, the Rule of Law, Terry Pratchett- and Batman

The rule of law is an important aspect of justice and fairness. It recognises that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, so when left to the whims of individual people, power can do a lot of harm.

The solution is rule of law- where that power is governed by impartial principles that pay no heed to individual whims or biases.

Justice, Fairness, Rule of Law
Justice, Fairness, Rule of Law

But in a fallen world, can rule of law really work?

As a quote by a postmodernist I found during university studies says:

“The rule of law, once considered to shield humanity from the exercise of naked power, is eventually unable to perform this task. It ends up reproducing earlier power configurations, while masking this precisely by presenting itself as value neutral. It’s name not withstanding, the rule of law remains the rule of humanity, privileging some while oppressing others.”

The rule of law is meant to protect us from the biased use of power. But those laws were written by biased people, so the power abuse simply moves from the actual use of power, to the system that governs it.

So is rule of law a joke? Is it actually impossible to control power by use of principle?

Thud, by Terry Pratchett
Thud, by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett, in his wonderful book Thud disagrees. In Thud an extremely law-abiding policeman who, faced with extremely dangerous criminals, becomes increasingly tempted to take the law into his own hands, leading to this fascinating piece of internal dialogue between good and evil:

“The darkness lunged, and met resistance. “Think of the deaths they have caused! Who are you to stop me?”
“He created me.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Who watches the watchmen? Me. I watch him. Always. You will not force him to murder for you.”
“What kind of human creates his own policeman?”
“One who fears the dark.”

Pratchett refuses to accept that the rule of law that governs our use of power is simply a man-made construct. Instead, he believes that they are moral absolutes which humans must, and can, through their own conscience or “watchman”, obey. As his policeman confesses, “You just don’t kill the helpless. You just don’t.”

I’ve quoted a post-modernist and Terry Pratchett, but this blog post would be incomplete without Batman. I love Batman. There are many reasons I love Batman, and I can’t go into all of them now, but one reason is because “given enough time and preparation, Batman can defeat anyone.” That’s right- anyone. Even overpowered good guys like Superman, Wonderwoman or the Green Lantern.

I realised the other day that the most fascinating part of this isn’t that Batman, a non-powered human, is smart enough to make plans capable of defeating these superheroes, but that he’d want to.

Batman believes in justice and moral absolutes just as much as Pratchett. He’s just less optimistic about our conscience’s ability to overcome power’s corrupting influence.

Batman, giving Superman a hang-over
Batman, giving Superman a hang-over

That’s why he created plans to defeat every member of the Justice League, in case they turned evil. He even distrusts himself. In one storyline, Superman has turned into a completely evil supervillain, and Batman builds a machine which can defeat him. But he designs it so it can only be used with the consent of three other superheroes, because he does not trust himself with that much power. He really understands that power corrupts even the best principles.

Rule of law is based upon moral absolutes or universal principles. In that sense, Pratchett’s idealism is justified. To the Christian at least, the ideal is really true. But sin tempts us to bend those rules. That’s what sin is. So I guess the postmodernist was right- not that this is the way things should be, but that’s the way things are, until Christ returns. In a world torn between the justice that should be and the sin that distorts it, I think you need a heavy dose of Batman’s distrust for how power can corrupt principle.

In seeking to use power justly, we need Pratchett’s idealism, the postmodernist’s cynicism and Batman’s precautions. That’s the reality of seeking justice in a fallen world.

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The Message of a Story: Think About It

Why do you watch a movie?

Why do you read a book?

Sure, we read adventure stories to enjoy an exciting story; we read fantasy stories to stretch our imaginations, we read detective stories to solve a puzzle; we watch a rom-com to have a laugh.

But there is a fundamental reason that lies underneath all these reasons. A reason that all other reasons have in common.

This reason is that we are human.

Stories spin us a message about what the world is like, what is good and what isn’t, what is admirable and desirable, and maybe what we should become. There is nothing more important than knowing these things. Grappling with this is part of being human.

Every story, in film or on page, tells a vision of what is good and what is bad, what is desirable and what should repulse us. They spin a version of reality, a literal reality or a substitute one, which wants to capture our imaginations and inspire us with this same picture of what is, and what should be.

Stories wouldn’t make any sense if they were incompatible with our experiences of what the world is like, and they wouldn’t be interesting if they weren’t casting a vision of what is real or good or bad.

It’s not just preachy novels that are like this. Even the simplest stories do it.

Take Little Red Riding Hood. The story wouldn’t make sense unless we could relate to the idea that sometimes, the most innocent people can be deceived and harmed for no good reason. If we didn’t think that, the idea of Little Red Riding Hood happily going to her grandmas and getting eaten by a wolf in grandma’s clothing wouldn’t make sense to us. It’d fly right over our heads.

But it doesn’t. We can relate to it. We know innocence deceived, and we dream that the victims should be liberated from its bonds.

Or take the high-flying blockbuster stories, like The Avengers. Why do we enjoy a story of evil rising up, causing a lot of hurt and then being defeated by great and powerful individuals? Because we know that there is evil out there, and to stop it, good people have to resist it, even if it hurts. Or, how does the movie paint Captain America and Ironman, and how do those characters deal with the idea of sacrificing your life for someone else?

Have you ever thought about those things?

It’s important to. Stories capture our imagination; they describe the world in a way dry words and abstract philosophies never could. Something that powerful, something that important, needs to be understood.

Stories capture our imagination; they describe the world in a way dry words and abstract philosophies never could. Something that powerful, something that important, needs to be understood.

Stories spin us a message about what the world is like. There is nothing more important than knowing what the world is like, and what it should be. It’s part of being human.

It’s important to think about our stories. What’s it trying to say?

Do you ever think about these things?

Against the Genetic Aristocracy

So, racism. This could go several ways.

I could write a left-wing moan about how the unwashed bogan masses in the suburbs are so racist and how we’ve never really moved out of the 50s.

Or I could go for a right-wing diatribe about how the left paint us all as moral monsters when really Australia is a decent place and any issues we have are values-based, not racial (a la Andrew Bolt).

Or I could write that I am white, my entire family is white, nearly all my ancestors are white, I have a white circle of friends in a white-dominated country and so it’s not my place to talk about racism.

Or I could tell my story.

I was never a big fan of cars, as a boy. I was a big fan of books. So when it came for me to learn how to drive, I had no idea what I was doing. Dad, Mum and a friend all gave me good informal lessons, but I simply couldn’t pass the driving test. There were no professional instructors in the area. It’s rather embarrassing to admit but I failed it three times. Very unmanly of me I know.

I heard that a professional driving instructor was being brought up from Perth by an Aboriginal organisation so naturally I phoned up to book some much-needed help. I was willing to pay for it.  The poor man at the other end of the phone was very nice about it but he said, and I quote as accurately as memory allows:

“I know this is going to sound kind of racist but I can’t book you in because you are Caucasian.”

It wasn’t his fault. In fact, he had booked some Caucasian students (i.e. white) last time the instructor came up and got a slap on the wrist for it. The Aboriginal organisation (which is funded by the government) had paid for him to come up and teach Aboriginal people how to drive to help them get a job. I was happy to pay my own way. But no. No white people allowed.

I state emphatically that the problem was not that I was rejected. In fact, their basic idea was fantastic. If an organisation wants to pay a driving instructor to teach people from low socio-economic backgrounds how to drive so that it’s easier for them to get a job then they certainly wouldn’t accept me. And in my town most of their students would be Aboriginal. And I would be fine with that.

The problem was that that’s not what they actually did. What they were actually doing were accepting people based on race, based on the colour of their skin, based on who their forefathers were. This was the basis of their funding, this was the basis of access to the instructor. That’s apartheid, that’s a genetic aristocracy. And that’s wrong.

We should treat people based on their needs, not their race. It’s a fact so blindingly obvious I’m surprised I have to say it in the 21st century.

It’s so blindingly obvious because race is entirely arbitrary. The colour of our skin is simply a biological phenomenon involving the chemical composition of our skin cells determined by our genetic ancestry. Hardly a relevant criteria to determine suitability for driving lessons, welfare, seats on public buses and marriages.

Alternatively, our living situation, our culture, our lifestyle, our socio-economic status, our needs and abilities are relevant. Some people need help because they are sick, or poorly educated or abused. Some people need help because they cannot drive, and some need help because they can’t get a job. When we want to help, these are the factors we need to consider.

Granting money, social privilege or driving lessons based on your race is nothing less than a genetic aristocracy where you get the better slice of the pie because of who your ancestors were, and what colour their skin was. And that makes no sense.