Agnes Callard, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, observed in a Boston Review forum last year that anger resulting from harm done likewise has no obvious terminus. “Eventually we should move on, we are told, or let it go, or transmute our desire for revenge into a healthier or more respectable feeling,” Ms. Callard wrote. But when do we let go, when do we know it’s time to move on, and what does that mean when emotions — which should not be dismissed as irrelevant to politics — are in play? Or can these feelings issuing from echoing loss be transmuted — and if so, into what, by whom? How do we ever know when it’s time to stop seeking restoration for harm, and do we stop because it’s the right thing to do, or because after a point it’s no use searching for, longing for things that aren’t going to come?
One tragedy of the criminal justice system is that it ought to provide answers to some of those questions. Because eternal retribution all but guarantees perpetual conflict, we have agreed, as a society, that an impartial and (aspirationally) fair system will generate and enforce consequences that exhaust claims to retribution, and close these matters as they arise. That the system is infamously prone to bias and capriciousness undermines its capacity to serve its critical purpose.
But even if it were entirely successful, its punishments would still be arbitrarily chosen (why 10 years for manslaughter, rather than 11 or nine?) and restoration would still be beyond its powers. Still: Despite its deficiencies, we allow it to tell us when a case is closed. It’s all we can do. But what can be done with the harm that these recent reckonings have revealed — not on behalf of institutions or ideologies, but between individual people in daily life?
One consequence of the justice movements of the last several years is that we see things differently now. Difficult interactions appear in a new, unflattering light. We pause to consider the meaning of slights we may have ignored before: Is this (“No wonder they hired you! Look at you!”) a form of that (sexism), one might wonder, just in miniature? The answer is bound to be yes at least sometimes, and most likely often.
As we emerge from a string of calamities with the benefit of what we’ve learned, a question worth considering is what we can do about the fact of these interpersonal damages, the sort — a rude remark, a thoughtless comment in company, a revealing gesture — that can’t be adjudicated in court but aren’t meaningless, either; the kind we simply want never to have happened, and short of that, not to happen again. What can be done about all of that suffering?