Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

Justice in a WEIRD world

A couple years ago I came across a blog on how the field of Psychology was WEIRD. The article criticized psychological studies which claimed to speak normatively about all of humanity yet based the conclusions almost exclusively on studying people who were Western, Educated, and from Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries (WEIRD). The acronym is a double entendre, because while that perspective is centered in psychology, it is in most cases not representative of all of humanity. Not only that, WEIRD people tend to be a statistical outlier, way to one side of the “bell curve,” when a truly representative study is done. WEIRD is normative, but not normal. It is the dominant perspective, but not the majority perspective.

This concept has stuck with me as a lens to look at how we talk about the world, recognizing when we are centering WEIRD position. I’ve mentioned a few moments in class when we are centering dominant WEIRD concepts over truly majority concepts. This often happens in centering the USA as normative and relating everything to that standard.  The clearest example so far of centering WEIRDness is in the way we speak about justice.

Miki Jacevic described 2 forms of justice: retributive justice, which is normative or dominant, and restorative justice which is an “alternative.” The framing is conceptually helpful, but ultimately lacking. A more helpful framework is a spectrum of justice with retribution on one end and restoration on another.

If we were to do this and list out various “justice systems” – forms dealing with harm done to a community – in cultures around the world and throughout history (from making human sacrifices out of perpetrators, to restorative circles, to various legal systems, to the inquisition, to gacaca, to sulha, to kangaroo courts, to TRCs.) We would find that the common law or civil law systems on the far retributive end of the spectrum, it would be WIERD. Most the “alternative” forms of justice we lump under the umbrella of restorative justice would make up the majority of the bell curve.

Since our class is fully conceived in WEIRD frameworks (for example the Western academic model), we naturally think of legal understandings of justice as the standard, and restorative justice as a secondary option, rather than legal justice being an outlier in world conceptions of justice (though a dominant one). Dr. Kishu Daswani said as much when referencing the TRC in South Africa, stating that since South Africans couldn’t prosecute, they did the “reconciliation thing.” The implication is that prosecution (a retributive concept) is ideal, and if you can’t reach that ideal, then reconciliation (a restorative concept) is the best you can hope for.

The conception of justice through legal systems is dominant, being the way that former colonial powers conceived of justice, but it is not “normal,” it’s not the average human societies conception of justice. But given that the powers who created an international justice system were all WEIRD, they created a WEIRD system based on their conception of justice.

WEIRD justice is the foundation of international law, the ICC, human rights tribunals, etc. The goal of these institutions, according to WEIRD mythology, is creating universal standard, accountability, and prevention. Yet the track record of these more retributive justice practices is not great. They have been terribly ineffective at achieving these goals. International Law is criticized as toothless against powerful countries, not preventing them from continual abuses. The ICC’s rulings reflecting political realities rather than a universal justice, undermining the idea of fairness and impartiality. Human Rights and war crimes tribunals are almost universally panned as ineffective at holding perpetrators accountable.

A clear example is in Sierra Leon where, after an 11-year civil war that killed 500,000 people, a war crimes tribunal spend $300 million on only 13 indictments, leading to 4 trials 9 convictions. Very little was done for the victims during that time.

The experiment of using WEIRD understandings of justice to create a universal understanding of justice is largely a failure. It may work alright for some in the WEIRD world, but is an inefficient, ineffective, and insincere imposition in most of the world.

The few times when “majority” forms of justice have been allowed (usually after the failure of WEIRD attempts), it has been far more effective.

To go back to the Sierra Leon example, grassroots efforts used a traditional form of Sierra Leonian justice called Fumble Tok at the communal level. Fumble Tok (or family talk) would be on the restorative side of the spectrum. 150 ceremonies were held, where 2,700 people testified. Perpetrators were held to account and realistic steps were taken to build safety and deal with trauma. The effects to the society of these restorative efforts were incredibly healing.

Miki was clear that restorative justice was not better than retributive justice. While there are drawbacks to both, we’ve been practicing nearly exclusively retributive justice, so we rarely recognize its excesses. Our WEIRD (as people who are WEIRD or striving to fit the WEIRD paradigm) mindsets elevate and center retributive forms of justice. To overcome our WEIRD prejudice for retribution, we need to elevate more restorative practices, which temper the excesses of the retributive legal system.

As peace practitioners living and working in a world dominated by WEIRD thinking, we need to be vigilant to the ways our assumptions that WEIRD is normal and good cause us to ignore the failures of WEIRD understandings as well as the contributions of “global majority” ways of thinking. Ultimately, perpetuating WEIRD assumptions perpetuates the status quo. If we want world peace (a true world peace, even better than the one that WEIRD leaders promised and failed to deliver) we need to dismantle WEIRD supremacy.  We can start recognizing and challenging our own WEIRD assumptions.

Jonathan Nahar – USA

Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 26


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