We live in a justice-hungry age, and with good reason. Through the magical communications tool that is social media, injustices can be exposed to the world's critical eye for examination almost immediately after their happening. Whilst it is empowering to view the world without veneer, this comes with its own erosion of perspective. Where an individual's story might move the world to rally around a cause, engage with an issue, or simply become aware of an injustice to which they were otherwise ignorant, it also has the power to desensitise. Humans are fascinating in their engagement with world affairs - we are moved by that which shocks and horrifies us; we quickly become bored and lose compassion by that which does not.
In 2006, nine Australian citizens were arrested trying to smuggle 8.3kg of heroin into Indonesia, a country with strict drug penalties. Of the infamous "Bali Nine", comprised of misguided and vulnerable souls, seven people were sentenced to life imprisonment. The two ringleaders, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumuran, were sentenced to death by firing squad. This sentence sparked a series of lengthy appeals processes, humanitarian calls for clemency, and a boorish and completely insensitive attempt at intervention on behalf of then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott to the Indonesian Government, all in the name of sparing these men from a gruesome death. With the figurative guillotine hanging overhead for nine years, Chan and Sukumuran had little option but to continue to live their lives and pray that mercy would be bestowed upon them. And though the prison system so seldom yields rehabilitation, for these two men, such was the outcome. Such model prisoners that even the prison governor petitioned for them to be spared the death penalty, the pair engaged with others graciously and generously. Sukumuran taught English and computer design classes to other prisoners and became a trusted liaison between prisoners and prison authorities, Chan found love and married, provided spiritual counsel to other prisoners, and even privately coordinated the development of an orphanage - the latter of which was kept under wraps in order to sidestep any cynical accusations of currying local favour to avoid the death penalty. Both men found faith in prison, and undertook university degrees by distance education.
In 2015, after nine years of uncertainty, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumuran were executed by firing squad. In Australia, opinion was staunchly divided. Polling reflected my own experience, where half of the population related deeply to the plight of two men who had done all they could, over the course of a decade, to atone for their original sin, whilst the other half were not so sentimental. I scrolled my facebook news feed, horrified by the number of statuses posted by those who declared such a lonely and violent death "served them right" - not as justice, no, but as retribution. And such callous condemnations were spewed oftentimes from the mouths of those whom I knew personally to have quite merrily dabbled in illicit drugs themselves. To the minds of these cavalier individuals, a poor decision did not warrant equilibrium in the eyes of the law, but an additionally bloodthirsty revenge. As if in making a severely poor choice (or perhaps several in the lead-up to their arrests), these two men had forfeited their right to be seen as human altogether.
The Black Lives Matter cause similarly straddles such jarring moral piety. When an extrajudicial killing of a civilian at the hand of a law enforcement official is made, the general public immediately scrabble for information. Generally the questions posited do not follow the line of what the trigger-happy officer's thought process may have been, or why this unhappy scenario of a black body created under suspicious circumstances seems to occur often... So often, in fact, that all the names and stories have begun to blur together. Instead, we ask what minor offence the victim was committing when they were killed. We liken them to another, beforehand, who was more or less guilty or more or less likeable. We don't remember. We are too overwhelmed by their similarities to recall and when we are too overwhelmed, it's simply not possible to care as intensely each time without effort.
"Trayvon Martin was the one selling cigarettes, right?" someone asks.
"No, he was the one with the bag of Skittles." another replies.
"Oh." the first says.
There's not much else to add. When the differentials between these stories are so minuscule, it is no surprise that the average disengaged person begins to hear only white noise when Black Lives Matter rallies against another unfounded death.
In 2015, American police killed 1,134 young black men. Sure, some may have been armed, and others may have been aggressive, and others still may have been caught in the midst of a criminal act. But even so, what justifies such bloodthirst in us to ever presume that these 1,134 men received only as much force as was warranted, perhaps even that they perpetuated? How can we be so confident that these men "deserved it" at all? We have become so desensitised to the sheer number of black lives extinguished due to poor police processes, internalised racism, and insecurely masculinist trigger happiness that we hear "a life has been extinguished prematurely" and we think "well, it wasn't in the most appalling set of circumstances I've heard recently, ergo, who cares?"
When white people tell Black Lives Matter campaigners that they are approaching their agenda incorrectly - be it promoting their message "too aggressively", or interfering with the much-loved Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign to demand he pledge greater political support to their cause, or even the Baltimore riots, which were not incited by Black Lives Matter but a public response to another black death in police custody (later ruled homicide) - what they are effectively doing is neutering their message so as to better disregard it. Because if we are not horrified by these murders, we tell ourselves, then surely it is because they were just. What a dangerous supposition to make that in some circumstances, a petty crime (such as Eric Garner selling cigarettes, or Sandra Bland not using her indicator during a lane change, or Tamir Rice playing with a toy gun) justifies the taking of a civilian life. Regardless of what the legal system determines these instances, the court of public opinion is not beholden to such standards. We can and should empathise with lives taken prematurely with violence, through a racist or sexist or transphobic or wh*orephobic lens... or any other derivation of misplaced moral piety.
I'm not admonishing people for not sitting in front of the television watching twenty-four hour news programming whilst sobbing. There is too much tragedy in the world for anyone to feel profoundly and significantly regarding every instance. But that does not mean indifference. That does not mean passing an ego-based judgement. Instead, our focus should be on exercising greater compassion when these stories arise. Compassion is humanity's saving grace, even as it is devalued by contrast to "having an opinion" (read: judging others). It's funny that a bad attitude or grievous error on behalf of the victim seems justification to some for their murder.
When considering the chalk outlines tallied as reasons for Black Lives Matter to keep fighting, or the didactic lesson of drug smuggling in Southeast Asia, or any number of other victims who are just that tiny bit too human to make a hundred-percent-unproblematic protagonist, their post-mortem condemnation is an additional twist of the knife. Critical engagement is important means of interacting with the world around us, but when it comes to passing judgement versus seeking empathy, the Devil is his own advocate. He doesn't need any one individual to posit why, through a system of loopholes and circumstances and a non-simpatico "attitude", there are some circumstances in which extremely inhumane retributive violence can be justified.
It is possible to be both critical and empathic simultaneously. To feel an emotional understanding of a wrongdoer's situation does not immediately equivocate to advocacy for their wrongs; this lack of correlation is the basis of redemption. But like all else in the world, empathy requires practice. One must nurture a capacity for multi-layered processing of information, an ability to discern nuance, and nurture a fundamental core of empathy. In a world so riddled with injustice, a little compassion for a less-sympathetic victim can make an astounding difference. And it's not so hard as you'd think.
... After all, people seem to be able to do it effortlessly for white athlete rapists on college campuses.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.