Sounding Reasonable and Real Justice

A well-behaved young lady of nine was playing with her younger brother and cousins. She had choreographed a game of tag--which everyone was enthusiastic about--and announced that the youngest two would be "it." Her brother exploded in frustration. He stomped and cried, and yelled that he didn't want to be "it." She was gently and firmly insistent, but he continued to scream refusal. After a few minutes, she came in to announce sadly that they couldn't play the game because her brother just wouldn't cooperate.

On the face of it, she had just cause for complaint. The game wasn't working--and her brother certainly looked and acted like the problem. But, having a passionate and sturdy little second child of my own, I was aware of another possible point of view. The older sibling, as usual, was making everything go her way. Once again he was expected to be "it," to run his fat little legs off in vain trying to tag the older ones. He couldn't win an argument about it because arguing was another thing she was better at. The only choices he saw were to give up and do it her way--once again--or to resist. And the only way he knew how to resist was to yell.

If only he'd been able to walk calmly into the room and announce sorrowfully that the game was ruined for everyone because she refused to be "it." But he couldn't. So she got an incredible edge in winning the adults to her point of view--because she sounded like an adult. She was calm and reasonable. She stated the situation in clear, logical form. I think we resonate unthinkingly to these modes of presentation. We like being around people who sound calm and reasonable. We are in sympathy with them just on the basis of their tone of voice.

It's not surprising. But tone of voice has nothing to do with justice. In this case his grievance was exactly the same as hers. It should have carried exactly the same weight. In another situation, his grievance might have been much stronger, no matter how deeply obscured by tears, rage and flailing of arms.

It seems universally true that those with more power at their command--fuller use of language, longer legs, access to resources, the ear of authorities--are the ones who can most afford to sound reasonable. They have played the larger role in shaping the status quo, establishing ground rules that work to their benefit. They would choose to be reasonable upholders of order. "This is the way we've always done it." "These are the rules."

It's the ones with less power--less sophisticated language, shorter legs, less access to resources and decision-making--who end up raging and railing against the status quo. I see this dynamic on many levels: younger children in relation to older ones, all children in relation to adults, marginal members of the society in relation to the establishment.

Of course, loudness and rage are no automatic indication of having justice on one's side. But the next time I hear a reasonable-sounding "adult" position, in conflict with an incoherent bundle of protest, I hope I won't jump to any conclusions. I hope I remember that little brother who had such a legitimate complaint--and listen very carefully to the side that's harder to hear.