On drinking hemlock: Is there a better way?

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Readers who are familiar with the account of how Socrates ended his life may appreciate how strange that story seems. Socrates faced a trial that many saw driven by trumped-up charges. (The Trial of Socrates, 2013) What Socrates chose to do was met with puzzlement by his friends. For modern readers that sense of puzzlement may be even stronger – Socrates had decided to drink hemlock (a poison) and end his life. He clearly believed Greek civilization was parent to everything else, if it made mistakes, then it was simply part of the overall grand story, and through dialogue and time the good and the truth would come out. Society would become better, more ethical, all that was needed was to be a good citizen and to be loyal to those who ruled you.

We live in a different world, for us no civilization can call itself a parent, all societies and cultures are human communities, no culture has a privileged place. Privilege is an illusion when it comes to human values, no justice system in our time can claim to be absolute. (McDowell & Webb, 2006).

So, how are we to interpret the situation where a person facing sex abuse charges before a New Zealand court decides to move to another country to live? Is there room to think of leaving? Is the New Zealand justice system so flawed, so brutal, so unjust, that to leave (rather than drinking hemlock) is a valid move? This blog piece will not ask how is Socrates to be understood from our stand point, rather the question will be put the other way around. If Socrates was us, lived in our time, finding himself accused of sexual misconduct with a youth or child, would he just get on a plane and leave?

Recently a New Zealand citizen did just that, he left. The New Zealand Herald reported “the 42-year-old man from Christchurch was supposed to face court in Greymouth this week on charges he sexually abused his daughter over an eight-month period”. He changed his name, cut the electronic bracelet attached to his leg, and left for Australia. The New Zealand Herald article focused on how those steps could be done, and what was in place to ensure this man’s return home.( Koubaridis, 2013)

In this case the interest is very different. There is no wish to move straight to the position where we have a bad citizen, nor do we assume his guilt regarding the charges he was required to face before the Greymouth court. The question here is what does this story contribute to our view of the New Zealand justice system? When dealing with the issue of allegations of sexual assault, is our legal system seen to be behaving dysfunctionally? Socrates might ask, did this man act reasonably given our legal system? How does this action by the man to leave position New Zealand as a country, as a collection of cultures, and as a civilization?

A reader might argue that what is offered here is self-serving, that what is unfolding in New Zealand courtrooms and elsewhere is cowardice – child-abusers who have attacked children and now must pay. The men, and it is generally men, are afraid and perhaps with good reason. It is not simply about serving time. In our current social climate the concern about harsh or excessive consequences that very likely fills these men’s thoughts goes beyond the courtroom. These men have good reason to view their futures pessimistically. As things now stand in New Zealand 2013 the person’s life looks like it is over. Talk of civil detention is in the air for New Zealand and a person’s life is very likely to include a long list of unjust outcomes. (Dudding, 2012) A smarter view regarding New Zealand law courts and what is happening is to acknowledge the situation is complex rather than simple.

A minor attracted person standing before a court is able to offer a view that goes beyond simple self-interest. (Henley, 2013) To portray this Christchurch man as fleeing justice – and that was clearly what the New Zealand Herald was doing – may very well over-simplify how the situation is configured. (Kirby, 1997) To position this man as ‘merely fleeing justice’ ignores the important question, is the justice system that calls on him to appear before it a fair one? Is he free to walk away where fairness has emerged socially and culturally to be an issue? Make careful note, even if he is found guilty, this point stands. “The man is probably guilty, do to him whatever you want” is precisely the cry being resisted here.

Were Socrates amongst us, and required to put aside his old view of one privileged parent society and culture (Greek), whose notions of justice are absolute, then might he consider a move to a safer place as reasonable? If we go even further – reach beyond what is reasonable – one might even ask, is it wise?