[OPINION] Bullying and the forgotten virtue of justice
At the end of 2018, Merriam-Webster chose its word of the year: justice. The choice was made at a time when Filipinos seem to have all but forgotten about this virtue.
Put most simply, justice is giving people what is due them. It is considered one of the “hard” virtues because it involves keeping your compassion and empathy in check to keep right order, as opposed to the countervailing “soft” virtue of mercy, which is – let’s be honest – much easier to practice for most people (except perhaps for those with anger management issues). Anyone who’s had to discipline a beloved child, or even a pet dog, knows this.
Our most crucial organizing institutions and practices necessarily reflect both justice and mercy, though if one steps back, it is obvious which one is more important to keeping a society functional. This country couldn’t exist for a week without the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Not to put down any of the great work they do, but the Philippines could exist indefinitely without the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
I suspect that our strong, almost unidimensional bias for mercy – and lack of insistence on justice – stems from our Catholic faith. This bears some explanation: On cursory reading, the New Testament surely feels like its emphasis is on mercy, even though Jesus Christ talked about hell more than anyone else in the Holy Bible.
For reasons unknown, Flipinos usually interpret Jesus' crucifixion as purely an act of mercy. It's obviously not just that: someone had to pay for mankind’s sins, and God had to send His Son to do pay the ultimate price. Being perfect justice, He couldn’t simply write off mankind’s transgressions. Moreover, Christ and His Church both teach one has to accept this gift of redemption in word and deed by following Christ’s teachings, for it would be unjust to benefit from a gift you don’t accept.
How then are we as a society supposed to balance two contradictory but necessary principles like mercy and justice? The plain answer is: as best we can as mere mortals. God can be both infinite mercy and perfect justice, but we can only scratch our heads and plod along, keeping both these virtues in mind.
Understanding forms of forgiveness
Perhaps our cultural unilateralism towards mercy may be tempered if we understand that there are 3 kinds of forgiveness:
Exoneration or absolution. This is what we Filipinos are most familiar with – complete forgiveness – simply because this is what we (wrongly) usually assume is automatically given to us Catholics after the sacrament of confession. What people often forget is that such absolution comes with serious prerequisites of true penitence, admission of guilt and apology, and finally, penance. Therefore, the usual notion we hear that we should forgive all as we are forgiven as well by God is not accurate at all. Absent those 3 conditions, even an all-loving God will not give complete absolution to a person because He is also all-just, and you should act in the same manner by extension.
Forbearance. This applies to a partial apology (made disingenuously, lightly, or with an attempt to share the blame), or when an invalid excuse is given or full restitution is not made, but there is reason enough to maintain a relationship with, or a position for the person. The proper approach here would be more akin to “forgive but don’t forget,” or the Russian adage of “trust but verify.” The previous state of affairs need not be restored, but further punishment or restitution is no longer sought. For instance, in many jurisdictions, a released felon who has served time or has been granted clemency is not allowed to hold public elected office nor certain sensitive jobs (e.g. stock broker). More mundanely, under this precept, one would be allowed not to invite an offending relative to all your parties, even though you may choose to still keep in touch in other ways.
Release. If no sufficient reason exists to maintain the relationship with the people concerned – they are unrepentant and have not made any restitution – releasing them is the proper course of action, or severing the relationship altogether. Since this is a form of forgiveness, one no longer seeks revenge or harbor ill will for the offending party. The reason is not related to justice, but merely practical: harboring a grudge or anger is not healthy for anyone. But it does not preclude application of justice – for example, one may testify in court about a crime in the name of justice, not revenge.
In our cultural context, we tend to mix all 3 into the first category, thus, the myriad Filipino expressions for forgiveness – kaawaan, pagpasensiyahan, pagbigyan, kalimutan, pabayaan, patawarin, etc – which do not give any distinction to the different forms. There are no corresponding Filipino words for forbearance and release in the context of foregiveness. Moreover, how many times have you heard someone admonish another person for not speaking with an offending party, without any context, as if the act of severing tied is itself automatically an offense? Or how many times have you seen fellow Filipinos give a pass to a friend or relative who did a grave moral wrong like stealing large sums of money, and continue inviting them to parties after a “cooling off” period for the sake mercy, when none was requested?
At a national level, it’s hard to parse out what is due to defects in our judicial system and what stems from our cultural indifference to pursuing justice. But doesn’t it seem we seldom punish the gravest of crimes in a timely, final, or permanent manner? It appears we are mostly content when the offending party is simply taken out of office so no further harm can be done. And no matter what your political alliance, bias, or perspective, doesn’t it seem that all around, there are prominent private persons or government officials who have most demonstrably committed serious crimes but are not being punished?
Lack of justice produces some curious outcomes it seems, one is that even perfectly intelligent, benevolent, and docile people will say something like, “We should elect (insert his/her favorite strongman) to (an elected office), so that he can wipe out (insert his/her pet perpetrator of some malfeasance, from corruption to drug-dealing).” By wipe out, they mean kill of course – something these people wouldn’t contemplate doing themselves in their wildest dreams. It is an overreaction brought on by a severe shortage of justice they feel, just like a starving man can eat himself to death with his first meal.
The Ateneo experience
More banally, you see it in the reactions to the recent videos of bullying in Ateneo that made its rounds on social media. I understand that the perpetrator’s brother (no saint himself apparently), was beaten outside a bar as retribution, and that someone challenged the father of the offender to a fight, proposing that this was all the dad’s fault for not raising his child correctly. Never mind that the student is a teenager with his own free will. Never mind that there were many other Ateneans on the scene who were not courageous enough to intervene; their fathers and Ateneo didn’t do such a hot job with them either.
Although it is a matter of opinion, there are also many who took exception to Ateneo’s dismissal of the bully rather than expulsion. (The latter would make it nearly impossible for the bully to enter another school.) I disagree. I think dismissal is proper because from what I understand the bully expressed remorse, and he is still a minor after all. That was a proper balance of justice and mercy, a form of forbearance from the educational community.
What I take exception to is the tone of the letter from the Ateneo president promising assistance to both bully and victim, and carrying on in the last fourth of his letter about not fighting at all, especially in the spirit of Christmas. First, as a priest, I would fully expect him personally to try to help both parties, but speaking as the head of an institution, Ateneo should confine itself to helping its student who was victimized on its premises.
Second, the admonition to “summon the courage to stop fighting one another” is completely out of place. Precisely what was lacking here was the courage to intervene – and physically fight if need be – among all the bystanders whom I hope Ateneo will eventually transform into men. Finally, in invoking Christmas, perhaps Fr Villarin should contemplate how much fighting a great healer and teacher, indeed a perfect man, has to do to end up nailed on a cross after only 3 years of work.
A 'crazier' story
A crazier Ateneo story (I won’t mention names here for I don’t want to name and shame people who are long retired or dead): When I was in sixth grade, my science teacher came to me and told me that the grade level coordinator (or “GLC,” the person who manages teachers at that grade level) had unilaterally changed my grade for no reason, but that he couldn’t do anything about it.
I went to my homeroom teacher to ask for help but she said she couldn’t do anything about it either. I went to my mom, who then went to the assistant principal, who likewise did nothing about it. My mom then went to the then president of Ateneo, who told the gradeschool principal to address the issue. In front of my mom, the president summoned the GLC to ask him what happened. His response was that he thought he had the authority to change my grade, but couldn’t even give a reason why he did it. My grades were promptly reverted to what they were supposed to be. I still have my white out-corrected report card.
The GLC was not fired. He should have lost not only his job but his teaching credentials for altering academic records. In fact, he repeated the offense by not carrying over my merit scores to the seventh grade, a fact later discovered and corrected by the seventh grade GLC after I inquired about it. He asked me whether I wanted to file a complaint but I declined; I didn’t want the trouble. (So when I read these days about the absence of serious investigation and punishment for sexual misconduct by clergy, I understand but of course do not condone: my Church, like my country, is simply heavily biased towards mercy.)
Many years later, when it was my nephews’ turn to attend Ateneo Grade School, I discovered that the offending GLC was still there. I was tempted to bring my 5’11” bench-pressed, and lat-pulled frame to his office and say something like, “I demand an apology and an explanation for what you did to me when I was in Grade 6, or you’ll be going to the hospital today, old man.” But I decided not to because, well, I’m a Catholic and a Filipino, so am prone to say “forgive as you are forgiven” and tend not to understand the importance of justice. And justice is a hard virtue, in more ways than one. I should have done something in retrospect, as the man never apologized, never got punishment, and indeed repeated the offense, as people are wont to do when they’re not subject to justice.
As individuals and as a nation, I suspect we’ll always be confused and won't achieve the unity and progress we hope for unless we understand and apply the proper dollop of justice to balance our proclivity for mercy. And unless we accept the absolute necessity of justice, no matter how much it hurts, as Abraham Lincoln did during the US Civil War, the war that killed more Americans than all the other wars the US has fought combined.
In his second inaugural address, Lincoln said: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” – Rappler.com
Rafael Reyes is a graduate of Ateneo Grade School and High School, and received his BS and MS degrees from Stanford University. He was the Southeast Asian head for AIG Investments’ private equity operations for over a decade, and is now engaged in entrepreneurial activities involving real estate and internet applications.