Justice in an Age of Unreason

Does the responsibility of government imply a duty ‘not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation’, as Michael Oakeshott described in his 1962 essay On Being Conservative: ‘not to stoke the fires of desire but to damp them down’?

Oxford Dictionaries has selected ‘post-truth’ as its 2016 international word of the year: ‘an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals’. Inflaming execrable passions, politicians in the USA, the UK and Europe have promoted offensive views on minorities, immigrants, and women. Previously unacceptable racist and misogynist discourse has been legitimised and even aggrandised. Hate speech and the rejection of difference is justified as breaking the shackles of political correctness.

The attraction of plain speaking, a metaphor here for vilification and persecution, marginalises balanced and rational input from informed ‘experts’. People who work with evidence are pilloried as meddling technocrats, any compassion in their approach disparaged as out of touch with the exigencies of real life. The ignorance of this popular revolution is celebrated. ‘Some of the richest people in this country’, says President-Elect Trump, ‘are people who can’t even read or write… but they’re a lot smarter than the guys coming out of Harvard, let me tell you’.

The structural shocks of advanced global capitalism have coalesced with toxic debates on borders and bodies, bringing attacks on those perceived to threaten the values, practices and opportunities of a way of life seen as increasingly precarious. Criminal justice policy has become fused with issues of national security, and previously open countries are turning towards isolationism and xenophobia, acting out routines that are part swagger, part paranoia. Trump has promised to eliminate Isis by ‘bombing the shit out of them’, and to build a border wall to keep Mexicans out. He considers it alright to talk about grabbing women by the pussy, so long as the conversation is in the locker room. Fundamental liberal democratic values of tolerance, equality, freedom from oppression, and even the rule of law, are threatened. The idea of social justice is under more extreme pressure than ever, while human rights are perceived to be red-taped fetters on the doing of real justice.

Where does New Zealand figure in all this, and where do we go from here? For a country so popular with British and North American citizens looking to escape the madness back home, we harbour a variety of confronting criminal justice and wider social policy realities: a very high imprisonment rate; a criminal justice system that has long disproportionately affected Maori; a culture that allows the creation of justice policy on the basis of extreme, aberrant cases; the normalisation of violence against children and women. To what extent do facts like these challenge the assumption that New Zealand is surely fair, inclusive and respectful enough at its core to be able to resist the tenebrous prejudices that seem to be consuming other countries?

If you are interested in these issues and would like to discuss them, the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington is hosting a one-day ‘public criminology’ symposium on 17th February 2017. We will question the role of academic research in light of recent global political events. The symposium is free and open to all.

Please register to attend on Eventbrite.

The NZ Postgraduate ‘Public Criminology’ Symposium will be held on 16th February 2017. Register attendance for this event here

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