I’ve mentioned before that I have a Stone Age village in my head, and I use its imaginary shape to play compare-and-contrast games with modern life. In the imaginary village, people live in a community where they are, to at least some degree, known to each other. Reputation is important. When there is conflict, the honour and usual truthfulness of those involved would be easily considered. In my imaginary village, there is a culture of honesty and people would feel ashamed to speak in a misleading way for personal gain. (In my authoring life, I write fantasy some of the time, I have a wild imagination.)
We tend to live in far larger groups than this. Get into disagreement or conflict and the odds are that either those involved, or those arbitrating, have no idea who you are. Your reputation will probably not have reached them. They won’t know if you are habitually honest, or shifty, whether you have a history of excellence, or ineptitude. More often than not, that context is vital. Anyone can accuse anyone else, of anything. Much of the law includes ideas about whether it was deliberate or not. There is a world of legal difference between things done by accident or mistake, and things done deliberately. But without anyone knowing who you are and how you usually behave, how is anyone to judge?
As we live so remotely from each other, we need the law to be distant and impartial. But in that distance, we lose a great deal.
In the Stone Age village in my head, there are of course proto-druids, wise folk who make the hard decisions and who are trusted to find the way through. I wonder sometimes how we, as modern druids, would fare if asked to hold the same kind of responsibility? Would we be able, willing or capable of making life and death decisions for other people? I feel uneasy about that as an idea. I think I could work for reconciliation and peace, but I do not imagine I would be comfortable if I had to judge people. Especially not where that judgement would bring significant consequences.
So many problems in this world are caused by accidents and mistakes rather than malice. So many of these accidents and mistakes are underpinned by lack of understanding. There are, for example, a significant subset of domestic abusers who have no idea they are doing anything wrong. They’ve grown up in a culture of male dominance, they believe women want to be pushed around and told what to do. They know that earning the money means they should rightfully have all the power, and so forth. The last thing such a person needs is punishing. It’s probably not even their fault they think this way. What they need is educating. So too do all the women who think it’s ok for their men to hit them if they are ‘bad’ and that their sons should be raised as indulged and petted princes who will go on to expect the same from their wives in turn.
Punishment seldom fixes anything. The Stone Age village in my head cannot afford to lock people up. Prisoners are expensive, you have to keep an eye on them and feed them, it doesn’t work. There is death, exile or restoration, and these are the only options. It is better for everyone if the person who messed up can be taught to do better. Your village is stronger for this process.
Prison costs a frightening amount of money. It clearly does not work as a deterrent. Nor does it reliably turn offenders into better adjusted people. Often the reverse. Education is a whole other issue. Where interventions like the Freedom Program for domestic abusers are allowed to step in, there are significant success rates. Reliably, they catch the people who got there out of ignorance, mistakes, lack of understanding and all those other things that are not malice but make trouble. In just the same way that driving courses which explain to people the cost of accidents, the probability of causing death by speeding, and all the facts around dangerous driving, often have an impact that mere punishment never could.
It comes down to whether we want to fix things, or whether we want a system that takes an eye for an eye. Education is not punishment. If you do get the wrong person, it’s not a disaster and they too might learn something they can use. We can’t, in the current social structures we have, know each other well enough to really make fair judgements. But if the consequence of gross error, negligence or malice, is training, that might be less of a problem. It would probably cost less, and do more good. After all, if someone hurts you, one of the most helpful things they can express is an intention not to do it again. There’s a justice in preventing repeats, and a hopefulness inherent in trying to do better.