Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

There Will Never Be Enough Justice

An important undercurrent in the #CancelColbert debate, I think, is that there is an inherent scarcity of justice in the world.  Or another way of putting it is that there is a gap between what people deserve and the costs that can reasonably be imposed on other people.  A good society deals with these issues in an equitable way, and if that isn't happening then the disfavored group deserves a hearing.  In my mind that is the best defense that you can mount of the #CancelColbert movement.

To put this another way, when make a determination that justice demands something, this implies both that someone deserves it and that someone else is obligated to bring it about.  Not all unfairness gives rise to a legitimate claim of injustice.  To give a trivial example, there's nothing fair about aging—it is a brutal thing.  But there's no way to avoid it, or even delay it much, at any reasonable cost, and so it is not a matter of justice.  (Of course access to healthcare is a matter of justice, but even the best healthcare won't protect you for long.)

So now consider Colbert's joke.  He said a bunch of very insensitive stuff about Asians, but the real target of his joke was Dan Snyder and the Washington, D.C. NFL team that he owns.  And so we have costs to be allocated here:  should Asians bear the cost of this joke?  Or should Colbert's show be deprived of a vivid way of making the point?

And this is a legitimate discussion, especially if, as has been plausibly claimed, Asians are disproportionately burdened by these kinds of racial jokes.  And especially if the subjective experience of watching Colbert mimic Asian stereotypes on TV is particularly hurtful.  (Note in this connection that it doesn't particularly matter whether this subjective experience is "logical" or "rational."  The point is that it exists and it deserves to be taken into account.  You can't respond to a claim for justice by telling someone how he should feel.  Anyway it is perfectly natural to be disgusted by stereotypes of this kind.)

In general I think there is not enough appreciation of just how hard these tradeoffs can be.  In all the shouting back and forth, a lot of people seemed to assume that of course you should be able to make any joke you want, however hurtful, as though we have some principle that people's feelings are strictly lower-priority than humorous point-scoring.  And on the other hand, a lot of people seemed to assume that of course if people have a legitimate feeling of being offended, then the show must be canceled.  This resulted in a lot of talking-past-each-other.  The truth is that there is probably no way to accommodate both impulses, and so where we draw the line is a legitimate and important discussion for a good society to have.  I don't think we had that discussion, on the whole, but maybe some real engagement came out of this.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll just note about ageing that although there is probably nothing that can be done in the long run, we could probably spend money on basic science research to make people live longer and be more healthy. A decent baseline is that if the marginal odds of being killed by an age related ailment in a given year is higher than the odds of being killed by a foreign power we could move money from defense to basic science research. The failure to do so is an injustice.

6:26 PM  

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