Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

How Do the Weak Find Justice?

“How do the weak leverage justice against the powerful?” This is a short snippet of a Locke quote we need to dive deeper on. Some initial thoughts here:

  • Black Panther: where we found the quote in the first place. Both protagonist (the Black Panther) and antagonist (the People) believe justice is not being executed. They are the weak party and must bring justice to the other, through physical force. Why not via different means? This sentiment is well captured here:

  • Lucifer: the train of thought that inspires this all. Free will. Personal sovereignty. Being the second most powerful being in existence is nothing when the most powerful being’s mere presence calls the concept of free will into question. Lucifer understands his station and seeks to escape it at all costs. For him, freedom from control is justice. Not revenge or vengeance.

  • The Wicked and the Divine: a rogue but perhaps the most fruitful exercise. Woden realizes he is weak, and responds by joining the powerful. For him, this is a personal form of justice. He isn’t concerned about the greater good. He cannot achieve justice, so he plunders the world as the next best option. Luci, similar to Lucifer (above), also seeks freedom, and pays the ultimate price for it. Persephone tries to find justice via passive knowledge acquisition, but in response to overwhelming force, must too go down a bloody path. The Wicked and the Divine, issue #7 captures Woden’s point of view well, but this single snippet sums it up:

There is something more fundamental afoot here: the question of free will. Without will, nothing else can arise. One cannot pursue justice if one cannot act, or even think, of their own volition. Again, this is the central theme of Lucifer: he must be free from God’s plan to be able to truly live. Yet this struggle is also part of the Plan: God needs Lucifer to learn this lesson “on his own”, so God has engineered existence itself for Lucifer to play in.

This intermingling of will and justice is also evident in East of West. Death’s son, Babylon, is foretold to be the Great Beast who will bring about the Apocalypse, so a training program is devised to brainwash him into taking on this role. But Ezra realizes that this must be something Babylon chooses for himself. It cannot be forced upon him, and although Ezra is fine with contriving situations that nudge Babylon into becoming what they want him to be, it still ultimately must be Babylon’s choice to do this.

But why the tie between will and justice? Or rather, why tie will to any higher-order values at all? The answer is that of responsibility. I’ll illustrate with an example. In the U.S. justice system (that is, the courts), one can be found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity. So while it is known that the person committed a crime, they cannot be punished for it / held responsible because they lack will / the capacity to control their actions. Therefore, a precondition for exercising justice is that all parties have free will.

This sentiment is slightly inaccurate, though. Justice is still considered to be served in the above example, even though not all parties had free will. So the corrected version of this is something subtly but vastly different: at least one party must have will, so that it may pursue justice. This also makes justice a personal aim, as opposed to an absolute one (subjective instead of objective). The closest thing we have to an impersonal Justice is the justice system of our society (that is, removed one level but still steeped in our personal culture).

This train of thought appears to be a long-winded distraction, yet is the answer to our question. How do the weak find justice? It is simple – any way they can. Since justice is personal, anything they consider to be justice solves the problem, even if we consider it to be revenge, vengeance, or anything that is a cousin-but-not-quite-Justice. This also cheapens the question itself, perhaps, since I have cut the Gordian Knot and said “nothing matters, all is permitted.” But I think not, for two reasons.

The first reason is that no one entity can be trusted to perfectly dispense justice, so we must add value to the system ourselves by fulfilling an implicit responsibility to speak our voice / act just. This is a dense sentiment, so let’s break it down. In Western culture we typically defer matters of justice to the courts / government / “the justice system”. And in general, we should continue to do so as long as that system works “well enough”. It is a system comprised of people, so it is not perfect, and can be corrupted by the actions of others. The system should improve itself over time – as imperfections are discovered, the system should be amended to correct course. But the problem is that the system in charge of this is, no surprise, composed of humans, so it too can be corrupted. So it begs the question: should there be another system, removed from the normal layer of checks and balances, whose function is only oversight of the system itself? This is not a novel idea, and falls prey to the exact same problem – it would again by composed of people, who again are corruptible. One thought I’ve given much thought to is to solve the problem here by making this agent not human, namely an artificial intelligence. I’ve talked about the promise and problems there, but the short version is, because a human/humans will construct this AI, there are a lot of obvious and not-obvious ways it can go terribly wrong. A totally different avenue that is the more well-trodden path is that we already do have the entity I discussed earlier: it’s the media. And this problem has repeated itself there too. It would be delusional to say that the media was perfect until my generation and now it’s suddenly terrible. But it’s passed the point where it’s “good enough”, and the people’s response to this was simple: if the media won’t report about this, I will report it myself. Citizen journalism in some ways corrects this problem, but again, adds new ones.

This solution is the second reason why personal justice matters: because we make it matter. This “argument” is not much of one, since it is a tautology, and we are assuming our conclusion to be true. But I hope it underlies a deeper sentiment, that justice is, at its core, just an idea. It has as much or as little weight as we give it, and the specific ways we do so change our very perception of it. Yet this means it, or really, any idea, must be personal. Certainly we can share ideas, but as communication today is an imperfect transmission mechanism, it will be mutated/permuted/altered along the way. Because of this, it is amazing that we can find some common ground, but it also means there cannot be a singular objective Justice, since there cannot be a singular objective anything.

But this in itself is a good thing. A common theme in Jonathan Hickman’s books, but especially in Transhuman, is that humanity must either evolve or stagnate (and die), and same for our very ideas. If everything is homogeneous (objective), this is stagnation. Nothing new is being learned. The old ways as well as the new must be closely examined, challenged, and discarded as is appropriate. What was “just” hundreds of years ago is considered barbaric now, and this must continue for humanity to make progress. Hickman’s runs on Avengers/New Avengers/Secret Wars/SHIELD underlie this point: if the world you have is not the one you want, don’t you have a responsibility to burn it down and raise a new one up? You have the choice to do just that (evolve, improve the world, serve justice) or simply accept the world as it is (stagnate, fail to improve the world, be complicit in its crimes).