When mercy and jus­tice com­pete


RE­CENTLY, I was told that when I get be­hind the wheel, I be­come a per­son un­recog­nis­able. “I fear for my life!” a friend said, “And you jus­tify your­self when you are clearly in the wrong!” I pooh-poohed and said that it usu­ally is my right of way. His eyes just grew a lit­tle big­ger.

It is funny how and when the penny drops. Watch­ing the lo­cal pro­duc­tion of The Mer­chant of Venice by our lo­cal troop Shake­speare De­mys­ti­fied, Portia’s fa­mous speech in Act IV moved me to re­flect. She says, “Though jus­tice be thy plea, con­sider this: that in the course of jus­tice none of us should see sal­va­tion. We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to ren­der the deeds of mercy.”

In con­text for me, even though it is my right of way, de­fen­sive driv­ing would be kind of “mercy ren­dered” unto other mo­torists. So, like a good yoga prac­ti­tioner, I have been curb­ing my in­nate sense of “jus­tice”. Fun­nily enough, it is not just that I ren­der mercy. That ac­tu­ally sounds pa­tro­n­is­ing. I am at­tempt­ing to stop be­ing such a stub­born driver be­cause, as Portia says, “It (the giv­ing of mercy) is twice blest: It bles­seth him that gives and him that takes.” I do it for my­self too.

In a larger con­text, I won­der in our mod­ern sys­tem of liv­ing and gover­nance, how of­ten does mercy and jus­tice fight for preva­lence, and which ac­tu­ally takes prece­dence in re­al­ity. Some might say nei­ther, as the rich con­tinue to get richer, the poor con­tinue to get poorer, and in­jus­tices abound.

A sim­ple ex­am­ple is the dev­as­ta­tion caused to the en­vi­ron­ment and some­times also the loss of res­i­dents when new de­vel­op­ments and high­ways take place. For ex­am­ple, let’s take a look at the orang asli and log­gers stand­off in Gua Mu­sang. One as­sumes that the log­ging com­pa­nies have a valid con­tract for their ac­tiv­i­ties, so their in­sis­tence of en­force­ment of the con­tract is jus­tice. But the land is un­der­stood to be­long to the Temiar, the na­tive Malaysians who live in that for­est. In such a case, should there not be mercy?

Once upon a time, my sis­ter-in-law told me that com­pa­nies have no con­science. They aren’t liv­ing breath­ing con­scious be­ings. Her prag­ma­tism in the face of my ro­man­tic ideals made an im­pres­sion on me and I still re­mem­ber it to this day. Yet, a com­pany is run by hu­man be­ings. The cells of a com­pany are peo­ple. Do peo­ple have no con­science then?

That mo­ment while watch­ing the Mer­chant of Venice has been helpful these past few days. Look­ing at news and in­ci­dents and dis­cern­ing mercy and jus­tice. For ex­am­ple, the cou­ple who ha­rassed the me­ter maid for giv­ing them a ticket, so I guess the lat­ter didn’t show any mercy. But then the cou­ple didn’t show any mercy to her ei­ther, con­sid­er­ing she was do­ing their job. The tide of jus­tice pre­vailed over them.

Some­times, mercy and jus­tice come hand in hand. We can see this per­haps in the vi­o­lence tak­ing place in Myan­mar to­wards its eth­nic mi­nor­ity, the Ro­hingyas. The vi­o­lence was ap­par­ently sparked by armed civil­ians at­tack­ing po­lice and armed per­son­nel, ac­cord­ing to the state me­dia. In re­tal­i­a­tion, deaths and in­juries in­clud­ing to in­fants and chil­dren have taken place, as well as dis­place­ment of tens of thou­sands of peo­ple across the three states, ac­cord­ing to the UN.

This seems a lot like Shy­lock’s speech in Shake­speare’s play: “And if you wrong us, shall we not re­venge? If we are like you in the rest, we will re­sem­ble you in that.”

And that is the sad state of the world. Peo­ple are so hell­bent on ex­act­ing jus­tice that mercy is over­shad­owed. Iron­i­cally, it is Shy­lock who says the most poignant thing that I can think of in de­fence of the Ro­hingyas: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poi­son us, do we not die?”

Daniel free­lances in writ­ing and fit­ness train­ing. Com­ments: let­ters@the­sundaily. com

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