Through the study, this term of the central text, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and related texts, films Rabbit-Proof Fence by Phillip Noyce and In the Name of the Father by Jim Sheridan, my understanding of the concept of justice, or what constitutes justice, has altered considerably. We all think we know what justice is, or what it should be. In Australian colloquial terms, it is the principle of a “fair go” for everyone. In a perfect world, everyone is treated fairly. No-one is subjected to discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, sex or disability. But the reality is that the world we inhabit is far from perfect, human beings are by their very natures incapable of perfection, which is why we have strict laws governing political, social and criminal justice.
These laws are to protect us from others who wish to see us disadvantaged and to ensure that justice is done. What I have learnt from the study of this concept, however, is that justice (or the carrying out of justice) is entirely relative to time and place; that is, an individual’s perception of this concept will largely be determined by the political and social context in which s/he lives.
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To Kill a Mockingbird, although fiction, is very much a reflection of the attitudes and values (the social and political context) of southern American life in the 1930s. Harper Lee writes from her own experiences growing up in a southern American town very similar to the novel’s Maycomb. Embedded deeply within To Kill a Mockingbird are aspects of the political, social and criminal injustices inherent in the American South which she despised. Deeply troubled by the failure of the human race to live together in peace and friendship, Lee wanted to analyse the forces dividing man from man. A key phrase summing up her concern is provided by Mr Dolphus Raymond who, speaking to Dill and Scout outside the courtroom where Tom Robinson is being tried for rape, speaks of, “the simple hell people give other people – without even thinking.” He tells the children to, “Cry about the hell white people give coloured folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people too.” (p. 205) This is poignant coming from a white man who is himself a pariah in Maycomb.
Tom Robinson was very much a victim of this society which considered the black man inferior, intellectually, socially and morally. There existed only one other class of people who were lower in this strictly socially stratified society – the black woman. At Tom Robinson’s trial, Atticus Finch tries to appeal to an already biased jury’s sense of justice and decency.
The witnesses for the state, with the exception of the sheriff of Macomb County, have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption – the evil assumption – that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associate with minds of their calibre. (p. 208)
Atticus’ appeal, however, falls on deaf ears; the “kangaroo court”, so typical of the social and political context in which it existed, had already decided on its verdict – Tom Robinson was guilty of the rape of Mayella Ewell not because he had committed the crime, the evidence was to the contrary, but because he was black and she, white. In addition, the fact that he, a black man, admitted feeling sorry for a white woman was outrageous to Maycomb society. That Mayella had, “broken a rigid and time-honoured code of (Southern American) society,” (p. 208) was the determining factor in her false accusations. She must rid herself of Tom, whatever the cost, in order to appease her own guilt. The fact that the court knew that Tom Robinson was innocent and that Bob Ewell had assaulted his own daughter was irrelevant. The fact that Tom Robinson was a Negro, albeit an innocent one, automatically indicted him. For him, like many other real-life Negroes in American history, the principles underpinning political, social and criminal justice failed. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus’ belief that “in our courts, all men are created equal,” ( p. 209) makes a complete mockery of the judicial system.
The recent Australian film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, similarly condemns the social, political and cultural mores of colonial and post-colonial Australia in relation to its past treatment of indigenous Australians. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, it too is set in the 1930s and reflects similar attitudes and values whites have to black people. The film is a true story based on the book by Doris Pilkington Garimara, the daughter of one of the half-caste children in the film who, together with two other Aboriginal girls, was forcibly removed from her family in Jigalong, Western Australia. These children form part of what is now known as the “Stolen Generation”. They, like many others who lived in the first part of the 20th century, were the victims of the official government assimilationist policy which decreed that half-caste children should be taken from their families and their land in order to be made “white”. The policy was definitely aimed at “breeding out” Aboriginality because only half and quarter caste children were taken.
Like Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, the three girls, Molly, Daisy and Gracie are wrongfully imprisoned, discriminated against because of their race and considered socially and morally inferior to the white man. Like Tom, they are also powerless against a political system that does not even consider them as citizens.
Although the girls were removed to an institution designed to train them as domestic servants (for white people), the Moore River Native Settlement in Western Australia was an alien environment where the girls were denied their language and their freedom. In addition to the loss of their families, such an environment where they were watched every minute, was very much a prison. The girls escaped, but their freedom was brief. Of the three, Daisy was the only one who managed to stay with her tribe at Jigalong.
Mr A.O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines (the appointed legal guardian of every Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal child under 16 in Western Australia from 1915-1936) uses many words and phrases in the film to justify taking the girls away. Some of these phrases include “unwanted third race”; “advance to white status”; “in spite of himself, the native must be helped,” and “they are our special responsibility”. Although Neville’s attitudes reflect the dominant values of his society at the time, these attitudes prevailed well into the 1960s and early ’70s. While Australia still has a long way to go in rectifying the terrible injustices suffered in the past by Aboriginal Australians.
Jim Sheridan’s film, In the Name of the Father, is based on the autobiographical memoirs of Gerry Conlon who, along with friends and family members, was falsely convicted by the British Government in 1975 for the terrorist bombing of two pubs in Guildford, a small town outside London. Imprisoned for fifteen years, the “Guildford Four” finally won their freedom. The “monstrous injustice” (Sheridan’s words) of this story is a heavy indictment on the British legal system which, intent on hiding its corruption and stupidity, was prepared to sacrifice the lives of innocent people to protect itself from public scrutiny.
Being in the wrong place at the wrong time made Gerry Conlon and his friends an easy target for the British authorities who, under extreme pressure to arrest someone for the IRA terrorist attacks, seized their hapless victims under the then powerful new Prevention of Terrorism Act. Conlon and his friend Paul Hill were brutally interrogated for days and forced to confess for a crime they did not commit. The investigation became a witch hunt as Scotland Yard detectives began rounding up so-called accomplices. This included Conlon’s aunt and his father, Giuseppe. Despite the lack of corroborating evidence, they were all sent to jail. Giuseppe died while in prison.
Conlon, his friends and family were victims not only of a corrupt section of the legal system but also of discrimination (because they were Irish) and because they were working class. Like Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird and the three Aboriginal girls in Rabbit-Proof Fence, they were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and therefore powerless. The British Crown’s long-standing involvement in Ireland is also called into question too and this incident is yet another display of patriarchal English power. Conlon has understandably disillusioned with the British idea of justice and for many years of his imprisonment felt that fighting against such a system was futile. It was only after the tireless investigations by Conlon’s lawyer, Gareth Peirce, that the suppressed evidence needed to free the Guildford Four, was discovered. Unfortunately, it was too late for Conlon’s father.
In summary, the concept of justice to me remains elusive and ambiguous, bound within the confines of the social, political and cultural contexts of the world we inhabit. In the words of Conlon to Peirce, “Justice, mercy, clemency – I don’t know what those words mean.” (In the Name of the Father) We all like to think that justice will automatically be done whenever and wherever the need arises. Yet the reality is that, throughout history, injustice has prevailed. The above texts represent only three of the many thousands of examples that could be cited. Justice then remains as an ideal for imperfect human beings to try and achieve.
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