The Psychology of a Decent Society

by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

All societies are full of emotions…Martha Nussbaum, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice

( September 26, 2016, Montreal , Sri Lanka Guardian) Basil Fernando’s au fait essay Sri Lanka: Fundamental Failure of the State in this journal’s issue of 25 September struck me as both relevant and topical. In his article on police brutality perpetrated on people who are less privileged in Sri Lanka, Mr. Fernando brings out a fundamental fact that has resonated in other parts of the world as well and brings to bear the compelling need for the recognition of human dignity. Two paragraphs are particularly important: “Thus, the kind of relationship which looks like that of a predator and prey is mostly in cases handled at the police stations, and also quite often regarding persons who are generally referred to as the ordinary folk. The way many police officers seem to understand the ‘ordinary folk’, is in seeing them as ‘nobodies’. There is a kind of perception that these nobodies should be treated roughly and with no show of kindness. A civilized treatment of suspects seems almost regarded as being counterproductive.

It is this mentality, exercised mainly towards the common folk, that should receive careful examination, sociologically, psychologically, and also from the perspective of what the proper behavior of public institutions towards all citizens should be. It is in that regard, that the role of the police hierarchy in moulding the behavior of officers who work for their institutions need to be clearly examined. When there is a general practice of such improper behavior towards persons who should in fact be treated with special consideration, due to the obligation of protection, it is justified to conclude that there are serious failures on the part of those in charge of such institutions”.

The concept of “nobodies” or “ordinary Folk” has been adeptly addressed by many writers in the United States, particularly in the context of the spate of shootings of unarmed black men over the years by police officers. Nicholas Kristoff writes in the New York Times: “If you’re white, your interactions with police are more likely to have been professional and respectful, leaving you trustful. If you’re black, your encounters with cops may leave you dubious and distrustful”. The consensus among writers on this subject is that there is a mindset in The United States that black people are “second class citizens”. Some have said that even though the people elected an African American as President, The United States as a nation has still to escape the delusion that black people are inferior and a threat to the wellbeing of society. A website called claims that police in the United States killed at least 102 unarmed black people in 2015, nearly twice each week. Nearly 1 in 3 black people are killed by police in 2015 were identified as unarmed, though the actual number is likely higher due to underreporting; 37% of unarmed people killed by police were black in 2015 despite black people being only 13% of the U.S. population; unarmed black people were killed at 5x the rate of unarmed whites in 2015; only 10 of the 102 cases in 2015 where an unarmed black person was killed by police resulted in officer(s) being charged with a crime, and only 2 of these deaths resulted in convictions of officers involved.

Martha Nussbaum, in her book which is quoted in this article, posits that cultivation of emotions that support justice as found in literature, song, political rhetoric and even the design of public parks serve as a catalyst to the administration of justice which should be based on love, understanding and empathy and should embody an entire society through the implementation of a system of laws that are founded upon love for fellow beings. Professor Nussbaum quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, in the words of the author says: “a good society, in order to remain stable and to motivate projects involving sacrifice…needs a “civil religion” consisting of sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible to be a good citizen or faithful subject”.

Most humans (if not all) are primarily self-centric and self-serving. They consider family; their jobs and wealth and ways and means to become wealthier as their priorities. John Rawls, a distinguished Harvard product states in his book A Theory of Justice that these interests can be directed at the principles of a just society. Nussbaum writes: “love is what gives respect for humanity its life…making it more than a shell”.

The author of this article believes that the executive of a country (in this case represented by its police and armed forces) must start when performing their functions with a love for their country which should be extended to its people, of which they a are part. For now, we as Homo Sapiens, seem to have made a complete mess of it. As Yuval Noah Harari says in his book Sapiens:A Brief History of Humankind: “The deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. The state and the market disagree about their mutual rights and obligations, and individuals complain that both demand too much and provide too little. In many cases individuals are exploited by markets, and states employ their armies, police forces and bureaucracies to persecute individuals instead of defending them. Yet it is amazing that this deal works at all – however imperfectly. For it breaches countless generations of human social arrangements. Millions of years have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals…”.

President Sirisena, addressing The United Nations General Assembly on 22 September said of “Yahapalanaya: “The world today is full of hate, violence and fear. We must free our people from such hatred and fear and establish a society with moral values. The government is totally committed to reconciliation process to establish lasting peace… Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, where Theravada Buddhism is practiced. There are solutions in Buddhist teachings to most of the problems faced by the people in this world. Similarly, those who follow other religions like Hinduism, Islam and Christianity too can find answers to these problems by these great religious philosophies”.

These principles should definitely be inculcated in the executive of the country.

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