Haven’t we all wanted to just once put on a cape and fight crime. I certainly have, but I may be weird and I ma be more susceptible to the media’s influence than you. In any case what I, and probably at least some of you were thinking of doing is called vigilantism. Vigilantism is”morally sanctimonious” behavior aimed at rectifying or remedying a perceived “structural flaw” in society”(brown 1975), the act of taking the law in your own hands when society fails you. Sometimes called “extra-judicial self-help”.
Though often equated with revenge vigilantism is not based on a personal vendetta and is “conservative” seeking to maintain the status-quo and fighting those who are outside the moral code of a society. All in all vigilantes seek to achieve justice by alternative means to the judiciary system. Vigilantism, though not expressively spoken of, is an omnipresent topic of our societies media. In the last year movies such as Kick-Ass, Superman,Spider man, Watchman, Taken, Standing Tall have reached the big screen and other such films have been pervasive in Hollywood since its origins.
What is even more important to note is the development of the concept of vigilantism in our modern society. Recently “human-flesh forums” have surfaced in China. In these forums people collectively work to expose adulterers and other moral sinners, hunting them down and harassing, humiliating them publicly. This type of communal vigilante action through the internet has been coined Internet vigilantism. Unlike in the justice system vigilantes do not try their victims and instead rely upon their own judgment and point of view to decide the perpetrator’s fate.
So is it possible to achieve a form of justice through vigilantism? Well the answer is going to depend on your point of view. First we must define and understand the idea of justice. Justice is a human concept that we use to describe a state of fairness. A just decision affects everyone equally. In this sense justice relies upon the equality of its components. However justice is also normative; it depends on the values and norms of a culture or of a point of view. In a similar fashion it is hard to universally aggree on what is a crime.
Like justice, what is considered a crime will change depending on the environment, beliefs and culture of the society in question. So lets imagine that a vigilante finds out from a source he thinks is credible that a man has commited murder. Shocked he hunts him down and kills him. So is justice achieved? Well it certainly is from the point of view of our vigilante. This man has committed a terrible crime and he’s been taken care of, he won’t kill anybody ever again. From this certainty the vigilante can justify his actions. But what about from a more detached point of view?
It is much harder to evaluate the situation. We must then ask ourselves if we trust this vigilante’s judgment and his capability to see the true nature of the accused man. Personally I find it quite scary that anyone could have this kind of certainty over anything. This vigilante is a product of his experiences, religion, his education, his culture and other factors which have molded him into the justice seeking avenger we have envisioned. Everything about his view of the world, from his thoughts to his emotions, to his sight and his hearing is entirely subjective.
In essence from one point of view we cannot make an informed decision about the true nature, guilty or innocent, of a human being. But now lets get back to justice. Lets assume that the vigilante got lucky and this man did indeed kill. Well how is the vigilante different? If anything we have the guarantee that the vigilante is going to kill many many many more people. This certainty is not present with the murderer. Therefore any vigilante is essential hypocritical. One might ask themselves if internet vigilantism, which we talked about earlier, is any better.
Well if we disect what’s happening we could say that since there are more people involved in this “justice” system it is more fair and more detached. In essence this would be taking the online community as one gigantic jury. Isn’t it essentially the same as having the entire society, with all its different perspectives and points of view, judge, defend, attack and condemn itself? I would say yes. But I would also say that this is the most dangerous form of vigilantism as it resembles a kind of cyber-lynch mob.
What we get instead of a mixing pot of worldviews is a very distinct tasting soup of like minded individuals. This is since their worldviews are what led them to these forums. They therefore have the single minded goal to impose their collective belief system on the rest of society. This creates inequality in the society as this group robs others in the society of their own belief systems by imposing their own without trial and usually without proof.. As we said earlier this cannot be considered justice from a detached point of view as there is not equality.
In both the case of the lone vigilante and the cyber-posse, vigilantism assumes the superiority of their own worldview and their own knowledge, thus undermining and demeaning the belief systems of others. Vigilantism is not justice, it is a form of social control. When we undertake vigilantism, we become our own enemies. As Pogo, Walt Kelly’s fictional character, once said: “We have met the enemy, and it is us”. In the regular judiciary system we try to find justice by including as many points of view in the final decision in the form of the jury.
Using this system it is not one point of view that performs the act of judge, jury and executor. In vigilantism this is not the case. One person takes up all these roles. For this reason the justice system provides a more real justice. Also the opportunity to defend oneself is not present in the vigilante’s world. I would therefore conclude that vigilantism of any kind fails to achieve true justice and is merely a crime against the values of the society that is attempts to maintain It undercuts justice by favoring the powerful and ignoring the weak.
I would view true justice as stemming from humanitarian principles. Justice is human not only in creation but in quality. As Bernard Williams said: “humanity is, of course, a name not merely for a species but for a quality” . From a practical point of view, wide spread vigilantism will in fact destroy a society as personal vendetta’s would become the object of this “justice”. Thus ignoring the moral and knowledge issues addressed previously in this oral, large scale vigilantism as a means of maintaining justice is simply not sustainable.
Naturally my point of view is also somewhat biased as I have never put on a mask and fought what I perceived as crime and I certainly don’t have the worldly eloquence to contribute to Chinese human flesh forums. A more serious source of personal bias is that I’ve never been in extensive contact with the justice system and I’ve not been one of the many unjustly accused of the justice system. All these factors might have influenced and shaped my point of view that vigilantism is a hypocritical, unsustainable and unjust perversion of justice.