Spelman v Superheroes: Defining Justice
When I hear the word “justice,” and perhaps it’s that 11 year old mentality I never really grew out of, but the first thing I think of are super heroes. Super heroes like Wonder Woman, Batman, Ironman, etc. are the epitome of justice personified. They fight bad guys, they climb buildings, and they form groups with other super people with titles such as “The Avengers” or quite literally “The Justice League.” They are the do-ers of good and their goal is to stop and catch bad guys while preventing innocent people from being hurt. But is what they do really justice centered?
In chapter 4 of her book Repair, Elizabeth Spelman discusses two types of justice: restorative and reparative justice. The first type of justice is traditional offender centered justice, focused on finding those guilty and affirming their guilt via evidence and procedural law. As Spelman explains it:
What is called the ‘criminal justice system’ in Western democracies broadly understood focuses on bringing such offenders to justice by identifying the people who commit crimes and then punishing them for breaking the law (53).
On the other hand there’s restorative justice which is victim centered, focused on restoring the well being of those negatively affected and what they need to recover. As Spelman says:
Restorative justice isn’t only about fixing the flaws and making up for the imperfections in existing legal institutions; it’s about putting the repair of victims, offenders and, the communities of which they are part at the center of justice (51).
While Spelman is successful in her depiction of the differences between retributive and restorative and their attributes she never explores the possibility of a merger between the two. She merely implies that justice can be served in one form or another. And while I’d agree that most forms of justice generally are one or the other I believe that there are a unique few exemptions, such as superheroes.
Admittedly, in terms of Spelman’s two types of justice I would initially place super heroes in the group of retributive justice, their goal and priority is to find those guilty, defeat them and bring them to the full extent of the law. Their approach is villain centered, focusing on how to bring those responsible “to justice” rather than providing justice for those who have been negatively affected by the villain. Batman doesn’t care about the wellbeing of those families that have suffered, Superman doesn’t care if your house was destroyed, Spiderman won’t help you to repair your car. The goal of every superhero such as Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc is foiling the nefarious plots of their respective wrong-doer, not those that have been harmed. Additionally, in most super hero movies the hero causes just as much damage if not more than the villain. Superman nonchalantly crashing into buildings, or pushing an enemy into a crowd of people cannot be considered productive repair, rather destruction for those they are supposed to serve.
This issue was recently addressed in the new Marvel movie, “Captain America, Civil War,” as the eccentric group of heroes, The Avengers, struggled to balance effectively delivering justice and the safety of the populous. When delivering justice means hurting those it’s aimed to defend is there really a point? This question was the sole focus of the movie, with the push for a more reparative style justice led by Ironman versus a more retributive style justice commanded by Captain America. The argument for this style of justice was based upon the concept that any destruction made in battle with the bad guy was necessary and inevitable. That this damage may be considered as preventative repair, in that the destruction caused in the battle is significantly less than what it would be had the villain succeeded. It can also be noted that to solely focus on the well being of the population may be considered extremely ineffective in situations such as crime fighting as it prevents rapid action, and in the world of crime fighting time is everything.
On the other hand super heroes can also act as pinnacles of restorative justice when you consider their benefits to the community in terms of their status as a hero. They are perceived by civilians to almost be god-like, they provide hope to those who have lost and remind them that good things still happen for good people. Civilians feel comfort in the idea that no matter harm is done to them their defender of good will be there to avenge them and find those responsible. Fictitious monuments are erected in their honor and the helpless little people of the little metropolis town can sleep well at night knowing that the good will always prevail and their protector is watching over, repairing any notion otherwise.
With that considered, superheroes fill a duality between restorative and retributive justice. They balance both victim and villain centered justice as they focus on the wrong-doer and bring them to the full extent of the law but they help to heal the community by acting as an emblem of hope and prosperity. They are as much a defender and protector as they are a public figure, worthy of admiration and respect by the many. The Avengers, without the ability to catch the bad guy are effectively pointless, however without the ability to raise moral and maintain public well being they are no better than those that they seek to capture. This duality between the retributive and restorative justices are what defines the role of a superhero. For Spelman to insist that justice can only take one of two forms, to solely focus on one type of justice, be it retributive or restorative, would effectively diminish their status as a super hero to something more along the lines of a beat cop or a political activist.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you see it, the world wasn’t written by Marvel or DC comics. We don’t live among theatrical villains who wear capes and plan elaborate schemes for mass destruction or super heroes with abilities of all varieties. For every 1000 cases of rape 994 perpetrators will not serve any jail time (RAINN), African American men are 6 times as likely to be incarcerated than their Caucasian counterparts (NAACP), one out of every 25 defendants sentenced to death are later proven innocent (Gross). In the real world our justice is far from perfect whether it be served as solely retributive or restorative. However when Spelman’s two types of justice combine, such as in the world of superheroes, justice may assume a harmonious heterogeneous mixture that may prove beneficial to all.
And perhaps that’s why we love superheroes, through them we hold on to a world we will never truly realize. The black and white, good and bad world of superheroes seems ideal when compared to the grey muddled mess we live among. In the real world the criminal doesn’t always get caught, communities don’t always bounce back, and the victim isn’t always saved, but superheroes reignite that childhood flame of innocence inside us all that despite all evidence else-wise, still wants to believe that good things happen to good people.
Justice in its truest form caters to all those who have been effected by it. Contrary to Spelman’s description where justice may solely serve one party or the other, be it victim or perpetrator. Where one form of justice is unable to rightfully serve those negatively effected and another is unable to ensure equity in reparations, it can be found that through a combination of the two justice is served for all. While the world of caped vigilantes is one far from our own it may serve to remind us of what justice is and what it serves at its core: equality.
Gross, Samuel R. “The Staggering Number of Wrongful Convictions in America.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 24 July 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2016.
“NAACP | Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. NAACP, n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2016.
Spelman, Elizabeth V. Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World. Boston: Beacon, 2002. Print.
“The Criminal Justice System: Statistics | RAINN.” The Criminal Justice System: Statistics | RAINN. RAINN.org, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.