Justice preoccupies child and philosopher alike. The
importance of fairness is evident in the meticulous manner in which
children demand that it be demonstrated in every detail. Fairness is
required in the pouring of drinks and the distribution of sweets.
It is demanded by the democracy of turn-taking. Everyone is entitled to
a turn, to fair and equal time playing with a designated toy, to
equivalent treats and to identical regard in the eyes of parents,
teachers and authority figures.
Parents must not have favourites, teachers must not have pets. The age
at which one is allowed privileges must be the age at which siblings
acquired these rights. Life does not have to be perfect: adversity is
acceptable provided it is equal. When fairness is flouted, the universe
is at risk. Injustice is always unacceptable.
In school, a group must not be punished for the wrongdoing of an
individual; unfair advantage must not be given to one student above
another; praise must be awarded on merit not on whim; and the
consistent, impartial application of rules must be seen to be adhered
to. Vigilantes with regard to the administration of justice by adults,
young people are quick to observe and abhor any arbitrariness or
prejudice in adult behaviour.
Injustice is unpalatable to all age groups. It confuses the child,
angers the adolescent, appals the adult and outrages those who have seen
its consequences too often. This is because they know the many human
systems in which injustice may locate itself and "justify" its lodging.
Some injustices are inequalities experienced by sections of society
because of the circumstances of their birth: their gender, skin
colour, mental capacity, physical ability, age, wealth and the
unwillingness of the surrounding society to challenge unequal treatment
based on these facts. Other injustices may arise randomly, by simply being in
the wrong place at the wrong time; by being unable to prove one's
victimhood; or by finding that there is no adequate legal redress for
what one has suffered in an unprovoked attack upon oneself or upon one's
Being the recipient of such an injustice is more than an emotion.
excruciatingly visceral. It invades the human psyche with the most
lancing cut. Depending on the severity of the injustice, life may ever
after be divided mentally between the time before and after the unjust
The experience of injustice alters the perception of oneself, of the
safety of the world, the security of life, and the belief that wrongs
inflicted will be put right. Injustice destroys justice because it
destroys belief in justice. It destroys the notion of justice as
something more than an activity or an act but as a powerful principle at
work in the universe.
For many, receiving justice within the legal system may seem to depend
on the capriciousness of circumstances, the existence of witnesses, the
admissibility of evidence, and the rigor, laxity, absence, provision or
revision of legislation to deal with that particular crime in the
jurisdiction in which a person becomes a victim of that crime.
For some, what is perceived as judicial injustice is a crime upon the
crime: a further defilement after rape and an insult that exceeds the
original assault. This structural injustice seems to seek to rationalise
the crime, construct victims as consensual or complicit in their
suffering and construe as inadmissible that which any rational person
would regard as relevant to the case.
In so doing it discredits the reality of victims and fails to redress
their hurt. For to go to court is to petition for justice. A case
dismissed is a person dismissed if justice is not served. When the rules
of law challenge excessively the right to justice, review of legal
structures is required.
People tend to believe in the power of justice until they have an
experience that refutes that belief. What makes injustice particularly
painful for those who experience it is not relinquishment of a belief in
fair redress, but that belief in fairness itself is lost.
Clinically, the emotions and behaviours consequent upon perception of
grave injustice are many. Injustice may bring a need to wail with
primitive, howling outrage. It may show itself in scorched receding eyes
that will not recount what has occurred. It may speak loudly, livid with
determination to redress the wrong. It may be barely audible, unable
to articulate the depth of the despair. Sometimes it will regress to
childlike questioning how such unfairness could occur or be allowed.
Sometimes it arms itself with anger to revenge what others will not
right. It is all action and immobility, all words and silence, all
reality and illusory.
Sometimes it chokes in indignation. Sometimes it sobs with frustration.
Sometimes it closes in upon itself, emerging in depression. Other times
it pretends it never happened or it is consumed with nothing else.
The psychological consequences of injustice usually present as
post-traumatic symptoms and with time and sensitive intervention
amenable to psychotherapy, and victims of crime should seek support.
* Marie Murray is director of psychology, St Vincent's