Justice and Empathy: Revisiting Antigone

Sotomayor ConfirmationSonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” remark, in a speech made in 2001– “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life”–undoubtedly set the tone for her confirmation hearings this month. But her retraction of the same remark in the face of sustained grilling from the Republican camp has merely preserved the status quo on the subject of justice and empathy.

Admittedly,  it was another sound bite that got the controversy going in the first place. Barack Obama in 2005, at the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts, was quoted as having said that in a certain percentage of judicial decisions, “the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart.” His choice of Sonia Sotomayor as Souter’s replacement on the Supreme Court has been viewed by many as a reflection of that belief; and his candidate, by extension, as a vehicle of that idea.

Sotomayor effectively rebutted the suggestion that she would allow subjectivity to color her judgments and argued beyond a reasonable doubt that her rulings would be governed by the law rather than her heart, and that they always have been. There is little doubt that she will be confirmed in August. And justifiably so. She is cuts an impressive figure and has a sound track record. But the issues surrounding her hearings leave an important question unanswered: is there no place for empathy and “heart” in matters of law?

This is a question that is at least 2000 years old. It is the legal and ethical question that forms the basis of Sophocles’ Antigone, and it is one that Sophocles does not answer unequivocally. In Antigone, the eponymous heroine’s brother, Polyneices, has been denied burial rites by their uncle and King of Thebes, Creon, who has declared Polyneices a traitor and enemy of the state. Creon has declared an edict forbidding anyone from burying his nephew’s body on pain of death. Antigone defies the edict and buries her brother.  For it wasn’t Zeus who declared the edict; and “Nor did that Justice, dwelling with the gods/ beneath the earth, ordain such laws for men.” Creon’s adamant stance is that she has defied the law of the state and must be punished, even if she is his flesh and blood: “Sister’s child or closer in blood/Than all my family clustered at my altar/worshiping Guardian Zeus/She’ll never escape . . . the most barbaric death.”

Sophocles offers up the suggestion that Creon’s laws are flawed because they do not permit the emotions any place in deliberations over justice. From the law’s perspective, that Polyneices was a traitor to Thebes was enough justification to deny himimages burial rights; but from Antigone’s perspective, the perspective of the heart, of emotion, of empathy, the law was ironically doing a great injustice to a beloved family member and so had to be flouted in the interests of a higher form of justice: “. . . if I had allowed,” she says, “my own mother’s son to rot, an unburied corpse—/That would have been an agony!”

In other words, law, to Sophocles, is not as cut and dried as  the honorable American senators would have it. From the perspective of Greek tragedy, there can be situations in which the law falls short and when the heart must take over. This is one of literature’s dangerous lessons, and no doubt the very reason why Plato wanted to banish the poets from his ideal republic. But the issue appears to be far from resolved, even with the possibility of a wise Latina one day sitting in the Supreme Court.

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In the Margins

I liked Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation tremendously and was delighted to chance upon another book by her at a 0140145494.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_used bookstore in Bangalore some years ago. Finding a used copy of  Exit into History, Hoffman’s memoir of travel through “the new Eastern Europe,”  struck me as an unlikely coincidence — Jewish American autobiography is not something you expect to find other people reading over on this side of the world, but perhaps it had been left behind by a foreign sojourner in India’s IT capital. The copy I picked up had some intrusive underlining and marginal commentary, but the most interesting comment was the one I found around the following passage in the book’s section on Czechoslovakia:

“In one of the most famous essays of his dissident days, Havel asked his countrymen to live “as if” they were free — that is, to act in the spirit of internal freedom, despite their external constraints. But the regime practiced a grotesque inversion of this injunction: the citizens of Czechoslovakia were required to believe and pretend they were free, when they were effectively enslaved; that is, they were supposed to live a lie — and an imperative to live a lie sucks sense out of all activity.”

The previous owner of the book had marked a vertical line against this passage in the margin and had scrawled “my marriage.”

This  gave me pause. I found myself trying to imagine who this person was, whether a man or a woman, what had prompted him or her to made this connection between the citizens of a post-Communist regime and his or her marriage (a fascinating connection, I thought); I wondered whether this person was divorced or still in an oppressive marriage and “living a lie.” It was an intense moment, this unexpected revelation from an earlier reader of the very book I was holding in my hands. Used books draw me for that very reason: through them, you are in conversation not only with the book and its author, but also with the book’s earlier reader(s).

Teach India 2009

Today, on a sultry Saturday morning in New Delhi, I attended an induction session organized by the Times of India as part of its Teach India initiative. I was, I think, the first one to arrive. For quite a while,  I have been searching for a cause to align myself with, and helping to educate underprivileged children struck me as an endeavour worth my time. If nothing else, I looked forward to an avenue of escape from a life that had become supersaturated with corporate angst and urban self-preoccupation, and to channelling my energy towards something outside of myself.

Representatives from three of the many partner NGOs enlisted in Teach India ran the induction and described their organizations’ missions: Katha, Prayas, and Butterflies. The audience comprised about 60 to 80 attendees, all would-be volunteers. After the NGOs outlined their activities, we each had to decide which NGO we wanted to work with and then sign up with them.

There was one heckler in the audience who cross-questioned the representative from Butterflies, an NGO for street children, suggesting that the organization had nothing valuable to offer either children or volunteers and alleging that it was just exploiting educated people in the name of charity.  Her demeanour was loud and abrasive, but others in the room gallantly came to the NGO’s defence, including a former UNICEF staff member. The theme of the response seemed to be, “Ask not what your NGO can do for you, ask what you can do for your NGO.” That was a good moment.

It didn’t take me too long to decide that I wanted to sign up with Katha, which is also a respected non-profit publishing house known for its collections of Indian short stories translated from regional languages into English. Katha runs 96 schools for underprivileged children across Delhi as well as 50 early childhood development centres for children aged 2-8 that eventually mainstream the children into MCD schools and offer continuing support and remedial programs. At their Lab School in Govinpuri, they conduct not only reading programmes and IT courses for young children, but also house a social work institute that aims to create awareness on political, legal and social issues affecting children.  They also run a reading programme, vocational schools, and a “school on wheels” for street children.

Next on the agenda is an induction with Katha, at which time volunteers can explore the different programmes in more detail and decide which one they want to get involved with. Stay tuned.

Copyediting in India

Prestigious North American and British publishers have, over the last three decades, been outsourcing copyediting work to India. Newspapers have been among the more recent to jump onto the offshoring bandwagon, and controversy abounds. On one side of the debate is the view that “while Indian editors may be very good at what they do, copy editors need to be part of the local fabric of the community to do their jobs well.” Would an American be able to copy edit an Indian newspaper as well as an Indian copy editor? Some think not.

In a recent post to a LinkedIn discussion group, the debate surfaced again. Writes Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the popular newsletter Copyediting, “From my perspective, what people in India who want to copyedit need most is a reality check: I have yet to receive an error-free query or pitch from someone in India who is asking about copyediting opportunities or trying to sell copyediting services–and that is putting it kindly! The general skill level of editors themselves sorely needs attention.” Not taking this lying down, one manager with a Delhi BPO that offers copyediting services to an impressive range of international publishers offers this polite rejoinder: “Indian copyeditors have always been on par with and may be even better than their counterparts across the world.”

For an all-out virtual slugfest on this very subject, check out the comments section of this exchange at Poynter.org.

Silence, solitude, and writing

Writing is not a social act. I cannot imagine being able to compose anything while surrounded by people, with the television blaring in the background, or even with the radio on. I can’t imagine sitting down to write as long as other people are in the room with me. To write, you need to be alone in a room of your own. In this respect, writing is a lot like meditation, the difference being that you need to keep your eyes open. But it is an activity that demands the discipline and silence of meditation. Perhaps Cynthia Ozick puts it best when she says:

“Writers are what they genuinely are only when they are at work in the silent and instinctual cell of ghostly solitude, and never when they are out industriously chatting on the terrace.” — Cynthia Ozick in “Writers, Visible and Invisible”

Silence is a necessary element of the reflective life. As we try to crowd our days with activities and noise, we are in danger of losing touch with this very essential component of our imaginative and creative life.