I’ve seen two types of judges while covering courts. Which one bore judgment on the recent teachers’ strike?
One judge checks her ego outside the courtroom. She puts all her energy into absorbing affidavits, thoughtfully probing lawyers and clients, meticulously weighing evidence, and rendering judgments sensitively and creatively. If challenged in her authority, she politely explains she’s only trying to help resolve the conflict.
An experienced judge of this type is impressive to witness.
The other judge’s robes are puffed up with self-importance, and his overpowering sense of moral rectitude make him curt and dismissive of complex arguments. He shows disdain for anything particularly time-consuming, and delivers decisions packaged inside paternalistic lectures and salted with insults. If challenged, he menacingly warns about maintaining “respect for the court”.
During the strike, I for one saw too much of that second judge.
Though the government had simply invented a law declaring the teachers’ strike illegal, for example, many people instantly launched into insulting tirades. The next day “respect for the law” became the dominant public refrain, as if the huffy phrase had some universally-trumping moral rank, like a meta-political gavel hammering the final sentence.
“The law is the very foundation of a civil society,” our Premier proclaimed.
“The very day the union respects the court and returns to work, we will sit down and talk,” insisted Labour Minister Mike de Jong. Ad nauseam.
A lawyer’s op-ed, even while criticizing government, stated “rule of law is critical to a democratic society; without law, there would be anarchy.”
One letter-writer among many affirmed “respect for the law as the fundamental principle of democracy”.
And the presiding judge, stripping the now “outlaw” teachers of many of their basic rights to control their own money or even communicate with each other, parroted this view: “Each and every one of us derives the security and freedom which we enjoy in this country from the rule of law.”
This is all ridiculous.
Respect for the law might be considered the foundation for good downtown traffic management. At a stretch. (Though even that’s debatable, according to Dutch experiments removing traffic lights.) But the foundation of civilized society? The basis for all our security and freedom? The only thing standing between us and widespread random pillaging and plundering?
Let’s get something straight. Do you refrain from murdering your neighbour and stealing his lawnmower merely because you respect the law?
Do you refrain from driving 180 km/hr downtown mainly because you respect the law?
Do you follow through on your commitments only because someone might sue?
Or just maybe, do you do these things because you have a few grains of compassion, decency, responsibility and good sense?
After all, if merely 10% of us decide tomorrow we’ll drive at 180 km/hr, or plunder and pillage, the legal system will be helpless. That’s tens of thousands of people rampaging through the south island’s streets alone. There aren’t enough police, judges or jails to slow that trainwreck.
What’s my point? The foundation of civilized society is not respect for the law. It’s mass action: large numbers of people agreeing on basic behaviours that seem sensible, and voluntarily abiding by them. Without THAT, there’s bedlam. Laws are technical add-ons.
In fact, far from being immutable democratic pillars, our fundamental laws are riddled with flimsily-defined terms like “reasonable” and “fair”, and most others tend to be transitory, malleable documents controlled by a tiny cabal whose moral authority arises from winning some feeble percentage of votes once. Few of us completely trust such people to manage our tax dollars, let alone our lives or the foundations of society.
Which is why, even more than laws or elections, mass protest and defiance have always been vital to democracy. Consider women’s suffrage, black civil rights movements, or local Aboriginal struggles for basic freedoms. Without mass action, what meaningful power do ordinary citizens have to temper government cabals? One vote every four years is not a powerful tool. Modern fascists like Iran’s Khamenei have learned elections can be allowed and rendered inconsequential, so long as key media, unions, and mass actions aimed at educating and empowering citizens or disrupting authority are illegalized.
Some bristle at such comparisons. BC isn’t Iran! These teachers aren’t Ghandi, Martin Luther King or Polish Solidarnosc!
Maybe so. But Campbell has effectively illegalized mass actions in numerous public and private sectors, including forestry, transportation, education, health care, and even law. What if an NDP government declared it illegal for the Chamber of Commerce to incite business protests against “essential” tax increases?
Still, many have an over-riding conceit that makes them believe they can always distinguish just protests from unreasonable ones. Are we really so much wiser than our parents, many of whom failed to recognize even King’s honorableness?
We also frequently fail to appreciate the difficulty of rallying people. I’ve tried—even ten’s a task! If 38,000 forego paycheques for chilly rains and public humiliations, chances are they’ve got good reasons. Mass protests are valuable social barometers.
In this case, it demonstrates how difficult teaching has become, and how dire the circumstances for our children must be. It tells us we have to pay attention and find solutions. An entire generation of children needs us.
That’s why I’ve started to wonder if the next Martin Luther King is indeed among us.
Maybe she’s a child suffering in school.
Let’s hope she soon gets a better judge.
Originally published in Focus, December 2005.