Saturday, January 27, 2007

Raw Emotions and Good Ethics

Raw Emotions and Good Ethics

Quite recently there was a case reported widely in the Irish media about a family who were awarded a not insubstantial sum by the courts against the State when the local Garda Síochána were judged to have been wrong and unjust in informing people that a convicted rapist, who had served his term in prison, was living in their locality. The judge found that the family in question had been subjected to considerable abuse and intimidation which necessitated their eventual leaving of this rural area for Dublin. To make matters worse this family were in fact being considerate or “Christian” if you like in so far as they offered their nephew (the guilty party) a respite until he got his own accommodation. In fact the mother of the family in question was against accepting her nephew at all, but finally agreed after some debate. This family was only doing its best and acting very morally indeed – certainly in Christian terms.

However, what inspired these few lines here was the sheer emotional strength – almost of tornado or whirlwind variety – of the responses elicited among certain members of the listening public to Joe Duffy’s Live Line programme on RTE 1 recently. Some respondents had the poor host family demonised, not just the criminal himself!

Civilized and democratic societies have long believed in “due process” for these very obvious reasons. Raw emotions – hurt, anger and sheer hatred – don’t make good justice or good law. It is not all right to victimize and intimidate an innocent family. None of us is guilty by association. I have taught many thousands of children over my 27 years teaching, some of them have ended up criminals and indeed a very small number of them have been imprisoned for murder. I am sure there are many others of them who have come before the courts for one misdemeanour or another about which neither I nor my colleagues are aware nor should even wish to be aware. As an educator, I teach all those before me. It is the same for a doctor - he/she treats the patient in front of them and makes no moral judgement. I can make no moral judgement either. No teacher worth his or her salt would say, "that child is a son of a criminal or rapist or whatever, and I won't teach him." Or worst still no teacher worth his salt would say, "that child's father is a rapist, i'll treat him like shit!" What rational democrat would stand over such behaviour? That's why the raw hatred I heard on Joe Duffy's Live Line revolted and shook me not a little.

As a child I often remember looking at movies from the Old West about lynchings of innocent as well as guilty people. We have long been educated in the principles of justice and democracy. We have all been taught that we cannot take the law into our own hands. Why? Obviously, our gut reactions are just that, reactions from the gut only, reactions which have at no stage engaged the reasons of the brain or the considered judgements of the mind.

I understand anger. After living in this world for 49 years I appreciate that all our emotions – the whole gamut of them – must be given appropriate expression. The key word here is “appropriate”. It is good to be angry, but not good at all if in expressing that anger I injure another- be he or she guilty or innocent! That’s what I have been attempting for the past three weeks in my fifth year class – to attempt to come to grips with anger and with strategies for the appropriate expression of that anger. I was always taken with what I learned many years ago at college during psychology classes – emotions are neither good or bad, they just are. It’s their wrongful expression that can be bad. This is good psychology and indeed morality.

Raw emotions don’t make for good ethics or good morality. Raw emotions would lead to criminals being strung up from the lamp posts of our towns and cities. Couldn’t you just imagine it now – a corpse here and there with a cardboard sign around its neck with “rapist,” “paedophile”, “murderer” etc printed in red on it! Mob rule is no rule. Mob rule is anarchy. Due process is slow by its very nature as it gives to all, victim and criminal, a fair hearing and a fair trial. Needless to say, I’m not allowing here for the possible and distinct corruption of the police force, the stitching up of the accused, the possibly better equipped law teams of the likes of the OJ Simpsons of this world and the other inequities of our law system. Whatever the down side of our legal system may be, due process is a fairer and more equitable system than lynchings and mob rule.

In the end of the day I suppose the importance of shows like Live Line is that it affords people an avenue to express these raw emotions, and that hopefully in so doing they help dissipate the rawness of the reaction thereby allowing for a more rational consideration of the albeit disturbing case being discussed. If this is the role of such shows then they serve a good legitimate function. However, I also fear that such shows can whip up emotions rather than quell or calm them.

What we all need is space to be at peace. The above photograph is one I took in Summer 2003 in St Stephens Green Dublin. A lovely peaceful scene no?

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