Voodoo justice–compassion or condescension?

The news that five Maori family members were given community sentences and spared jail terms after being found guilty of the manslaughter of their niece, who they believed to be possessed by demons, during a prolonged exorcism ritual that involved repeated eye scratching and waterboarding (a term now unfortunately part of the popular lexicon) of the victim (who it turns out was mentally ill rather than possessed), has caused a predictable stir in judicial and political circles. Pundits on the right lambaste the apparent double standard applied to Maori in this instance, where gross ignorance, superstition and stupidity cloaked in the garb of “traditional beliefs” is given a cultural pass when it comes to adjudicating personal and collective responsibility for the lethal consequences of said beliefs. The argument goes that any Pakeha exorcism resulting in death would have seen those responsible incarcerated, and that ignorance is no excuse is the eyes of the law. There is truth to this view, as there have been prior instances of bible-bashers (here meant literally) being jailed for abuses against individuals suspected of possession or other religious transgressions. There is also the issue of relative justice, in the sense that people involved in assisted suicide or drugs offenses have received jail terms rather than community service (ie. their crimes were less heinous  than this one). From this vantage point, the light sentences handed down to the defendants on grounds that they did not realise the consequences of their actions and thought that they were doing good for the victim is an astonishing act of judicial double-standards rooted in over weaning political correctness. The bottom line, in this view, is that is is condescending, patronising and just plain wrong to let Maori off lightly because they may have “traditional” beliefs the lead them to commit acts that others could not get away with. After all, “traditional beliefs” are not always correct, civilised or appropriate, because if they were then NZ society and the law would approve of foot-binding, genital mutilation and ritualistic whippings as acceptable practice for those who ascribe to them.

On the other hand, some progressive pundits and cultural relativists see in the decision a wise act of compassion by a judge who believed that the family had suffered enough with the inadvertent death of Janet Moses at their own hands. In this view it serves no purpose to punish them with jail terms because they are already acutely aware of the mistake and have a life long punishment to serve as a result of it. They and society would be better served by having them do community service and learn more about their own cultural heritage so as to not distort traditional beliefs regarding makuto and its treatment.

From my perspective, the main trouble is that in democracies the law should universally apply, and that application should apply universally in sentencing. If ignorance of the law is not an excuse for violating traffic regulations, then surely it is no excuse for manslaughter. Yet in heterogeneous societies comprised of an assortment of pre-modern, modern and post-modern beliefs espoused by indigenous, colonial and post-colonial groups, it may be impossible to apply the “justice for all” standard in ways that do, in fact, ensure so. I am thus left with mixed feelings about the verdict and sentence. On the one hand, the actions of these individuals are inexcusable; on the other hand, they were acting in good faith when they committed them. What then is a fair sentence in this case?  Are some groups entitled (that word again!) to different standards of justice based upon their belief systems? For the moment I am left with the uneasy feeling that ignorance may not be bliss, but for some it makes for a better defense.

6 thoughts on “Voodoo justice–compassion or condescension?

  1. The problem with democracy is that the majority rules, and the majority isn’t always right, unless you hold that democracy is the be all and end all.

    Did these people perform correct tikanga? who knows, but i don’t think you can say they didn’t, because of the fact that no one knows.

    Did they break the imposed law of the land – yes.

    Justice for all? There is no justice for all, there is only justice for the majority.

    Whatever the beliefs that were held, they are indigenous. That is different from imposed beliefs from others such as foot-binding and genital mutilation. Those cultural practices are just as imposed, for the indigenous peoples here, as police and courts are.

    Yes maori as indigenous people are entitled to a different judicial system, one that recognises their world view and not the imposed artifical colonist viewpoint that is held up as some sort of ideal. If they were judged within their cultural matrix there would be better outcomes, IMO.

    As for perception of the gross ignorance, superstition and stupidity of the cultural practices or the people that are performing them. The people who put forward that view often think that the world their eyes see is actually there, when the truth is that their brain recieves the electrical impulse from the optic nerve, and interprets what it thinks is there. We are spinning through space at massive speeds – where is here? At the micro level we are filled with space between very small particles apparently holding together and thus giving us our corperal body and the ability to go and do things. Do you really think that we know what is happening or even if we did know, that we could interpret it correctly and with accuracy.

    Yet we are quick to judge the less known or different. especially when presented by indigenous people. we are just so sophisticated and advanced… yeah right!

    Indigenous peoples (generally) have a more open concept of the world/life/death/past/future and the interconnectedness of all. Certainly quite different to the ‘use it and abuse it’ attitude prevalent in a lot of societies today. Why should a holistic viewpoint that is not mainstream thinking be ridiculed because it is different, or weird, or strange?

    What do non-maori know about maori concepts of life/death/past/present/future? Not much and only what they are told. What do maori know – same.

  2. No worries Marty. I took no offense and found the comment interesting. I think that Gordon Campbell over at Werewolf/Scoop had the best summation: all belief systems should be respected but none of them have the right to abuse, torture or kill people (presumably as a violation of a universal human right). At that point universal (or at least majority) justice applies.

  3. you characterise as right wing the view that Maori here were getting special treatment but the most notabable proponent of that view was Mallard and it’s a view very strongly disavowed by Key.

  4. Thanks Pablo. Interesting – even if that belief system’s actions are designed to save and protect the person that it ultimately ends up killing?

    Is the killing the issue, the belief system itself which talks about ‘spirits’ etc thus putting it into the ‘outside of normal experience’ box, or is the issue an impossibility of understanding because of the cultural aspect.

    People die every day when doctors make mistakes, make wrong diagnoses, are drunk or just inattentive. Are these people who killed their family member in the same catagory?

    The judge has said that, “[88] I consider it important to state that in my view this was not a situation of a killing that was part of a ritual. It is easy to attach labels but they can mislead. There was no pre-planned ritual here and it was not a group of fanatics pursuing some warped ideology with no regard for others, nor was it the playing out of fanatical beliefs.”

    It wasn’t voodoo, it wasn’t faith healing, it wasn’t an exorcism that killed her, it was a mistake.

    The judge decided that it was a mistake. These people asked for help, got the help, did what they were told… and then made mistakes that ended up with the death of their family member.

    Yes all life is sacred and no one has the right to kill anyone – I fully believe that. The controversy around this case is around the penality imposed, and that penality was a best guess by a well meaning judge well outside his depth. As we all would be, tohunga were outlawed in 1909 and repealed 40 or so years later, but by then much knowledge was lost. So the solution is to have parallel systems where the true import of the spiritual aspects of maori culture can be recognised, understood, and contextualised – for the benefit of all people in this country.

    And that would protect the judge from being misinterpreted and misunderstood and also being hung out to dry.

  5. It may be interesting to note that some of those unimpressed by this Judge’s verdict from the the right of the blogging world have and continue to, threaten similar or worse physical torment than the deceased subject here received, to others on a regular basis. The violent fantasies some such oafs posted about Sue Bradford at the start of the Section 59 debate have unfortunately still not been erased from my recall.

    Re Marty’s excursion into matters quantum (not all quoted below),
    “Do you really think that we know what is happening or even if we did know, that we could interpret it correctly and with accuracy”
    Is the world knowable and does it matter? Yes and yes, or at least take a shot at it I say. The alternative is likely perpetual hallucination and paralysing indecision. Run a few redlights at speed, did that crash really happen or am I just plugged into the matrix?

    My position does not negate the need for more philosophers, exactly! some might say. The Blog format pushes hard for the now, and talking about the “rules of engagement” too often can frustrate this friskiness perhaps.

    However just as I am ready to write this blog off as ‘Kiwi Pontifico’ and ‘pedants corner’ previous comments such as Pablo’s insistence on use of accurate and proper political terminology persuades me to return.

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