The quality of mercy

Watched another great episode of Mad Men last night. It’s been a season of many great episodes. Last night it was the episode where Don confronts Lane about him embezzling funds.

Like so many times watching this show it ended with me feeling invigorated, stimulated and buzzing with ideas. The best episodes cram so much into them, so much that seems both relevant and very authentic at the same time. I’m sure many people feel they have a ‘personal’ connection with their favourite TV shows. Through the nineties I used to think that Seinfeld captured the attitude we – my friends and I – lived by. We would go to work and meet socially and discuss the latest episodes with a knowing laugh, and still to this day will often find ourselves referring to scenes or using the famous phrases from the show as a kind of humorous and telling shorthand.

Mad Men is a very different show from Seinfeld, but for me it captures – somehow – so much that seems true to me now and for the last decade. I’ve written of this before, how the character of Don Draper reminds me of my father, and also how I feel sympatico to him. I feel as if a lot of the blood that runs through Don – lusty, ambitious, ruthless, compassionate, occasionally amoral, sometimes cruel – runs through me. More than anything though it’s the events that unfold through the course of the show that resonate with me. There is drama and controversy, conflict and sorrow packed tight into the program – more so than in real life perhaps, but with a ring of reality. There’s a motley collection of characters both good and ordinary and things between that reflects my experience of the world, and particularly working life. The things that happen on screen are different to what I experience in my life in the detail, but the moral perturbations and contradictions, the striving and struggling, the rampant desires and regrets, seem so true to my experience of life – as probably they do for many. That’s why I get stirred up, because I’m taking the same strife torn and uncertain path with precisely the same ambitions.

I watched last night as Don took Lane aside and got straight to the point about the money Lane had taken. Lane blustered and feigned outrage while Don remained firm and straight. I thought: that’s the way to do something like that. If something difficult must be faced it’s a lot easier approaching it face on rather than dancing around it, as so many people do. Far better for all concerned to just say it, simply and without drama, than to sidle up to it. When Don, despite Lanes desperate protestations, demanded his resignation I thought that was right too. He was not vindictive, perhaps inside he understood it in some way, and so sought to make it easy on Lane by asking him to resign, to keep the matter private, and to make up the shortfall himself. He cops a lot of flak Don, but – and this the beauty of his character – there is a strong streak of decency and justice in him. There was no getting out leaving though for Lane, it was a matter of trust as Don said, and that was that. And I felt myself agree.

I knew what was coming. I’d read something online that ruined the surprise for me, but knowing how it was to end I watched with an absorbed fascination, as if watching the moments before a disaster in slow-motion. Humiliated, disgraced, about to be unemployed, Lane hung himself on the back of his office door.

It raised for me an important philosophical question. Should we make judgement on others simply based on what they have done? Or should we consider the consequences of that judgement?*

I’ve no doubt that Don regretted his hard line with Lane, and would have recanted if he could. Does that make his original decision wrong then? Or wrong only because Lane chose to end his life because of it? Or does it remain just – a crime was committed and Don was within his rights to refer it to the law – regardless of how Lane chooses to respond to it. In other words, is justice subjective, or purely objective? Do we adjudicate on the crime, or the outcomes?

There’s a parallel to this in the news right now. About a week ago nearly a hundred refugees seeking asylum in Australia perished when the ship they were traveling in from Indonesia sunk. This has long been a contentious issue, but this tragedy re-ignited the controversy. In the newspapers, in the streets, in parliament itself there was a clamour to finally achieve some kind of satisfactory resolution – impossible, unsurprisingly, as it turns out. You would hope that in parliament, where our laws are made and supposedly the moral probity and intellectual discourse should be paramount, that some just outcome should be achieved. It wasn’t though, and rarely is. The notion of objective justice does not exist in our government, and few, if any, worldwide. What we have instead is a debate corrupted by politics, and political gain, and subjective emotions.

The question should be about what is the just treatment of the desperate refugees seeking shelter within our borders. That is the root question, the issue that demands objective judgement. While our pollies might claim that is what they debate, for the great majority that issue is not the point.

The clamour and outrage we witness now is because so many helpless people died seeking a better life while traveling on a leaky boat. It’s not surprising that there is an outcry, but in parliament the drama is less about the causes and all about the effect. Refugees have been turning up on our doorstep for years, and while it has been a running argument it has been allowed to fester unresolved, the political battleground the parties fight over. Now it has erupted, but the debate is not about people seeking a better life and how we may humanely treat them. Except for a few sprinkled around the parliamentary benches, the debate boils down to how this tiresome problem can be removed.

I have my very firm opinions on the asylum seeker debate, and it’s mostly about opening our borders and letting more in through conventional methods. In contrast the parliamentary debate is about how to stop them from ever setting out for here, thus removing the tragedies we have just witnessed and the political inconvenience they cause. My idea will achieve much the same thing, and much more humanely, but is so politically objectionable that it is not an option. We come at things from different directions, I – and many like me – seek humane justice, they desire a convenient law. Consequences – political consequences – trump humanity, and overshadow the real issue.

So, is objective justice possible? Is it desirable?

I wonder. We can all pretend to live in a pristine, ideal world, but that doesn’t exist. No-one who makes judgement lives in a vacuum. And judgement cannot be, should not be, a matter of simple arithmetic. We are human, not robots. It’s impossible I think to achieve that perfect, objective truth, but on reflection I don’t think it is something we should aim for. Objective appraisal should be the basis of justice, but there is room for a subjective qualification.

In the case of Don in his treatment of Lane he did nothing wrong, but nor would he have been wrong to temper his judgement with mercy. In the case of our government it means finding an apolitical mechanism to seek causes rather than effects, to find an objective but humane truth. I guess this goes back to that old Shakespearean aphorism, that the quality of mercy is not strain’d. How often we forget.


*A related question when it comes to criminal proceedings: do we seek to punish for the transgression, or do we seek to rehabilitate the transgressor? I think the aim is both, but it’s a tricky balance to manage.

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