A husband slaps his wife in public. An observer calls the police. The man is charged with assault causing bodily harm. Because the family has a young child, Children’s Aid Society becomes involved, concerned for the safety of the minor. The husband and wife are separated.
As a society, we have declared that abuse is intolerable. We have formal systems in place to protect victims. In this scenario, a perpetrator of violence is nabbed, and the state intervenes to support a woman and child who have suffered at the hands of a physically aggressive individual. The system, it seems, is working as intended.
Now, let’s add some more details and context to the story.
The scene of the incident is a newcomer settlement agency: a social service for refugees. The family is from Syria. Before their harrowing escape, the father witnessed the execution of his brother. He suffers from night terrors and exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Prior to arriving in Canada, the family spent over two years in a Turkish refugee camp.
The wife does not speak English. She is informed through interpreters why her husband has been charged. In the subsequent months, she stays at home caring for the young child alone. She experiences severe social isolation, which leads to depression.
In court, the husband is found guilty. Now flagged as a violent offender, he finds it virtually impossible to secure employment, leading him to chronic dependence on the welfare system.
We now have the benefit of these contextual details and the clarity of hindsight. It seems prudent to reconsider whether the initial response — involving the law enforcement system — was an ‘appropriate’ response to the inciting, critical incident. While remaining unswervingly convicted that violence and assault are never justified, can we imagine any positive outcomes if we drag this already vulnerable family into the criminal justice system?
The alternative, it seems, is a differential response framework: i.e. ‘different’ policies pertaining to perpetrators of physical violence that apply specifically to newcomers, but not to the rest of general population. But is this not a double standard? On the other hand, is it fair to prosecute an individual under your law if you have barely given them a chance to learn your cultural standards, norms, and morals? Is it fair to ignore the circumstances and past experiences that surround the individual’s behaviour?
Is it fair to hold a person acceptable for their actions if they do not yet understand what the consequences of their actions will be?
Justice must be blind. How can selective or non-impartial justice be considered fair? On the other hand, how can justice that is utterly blind to the wellbeing of victims be, well, just? Is it morally right to enact the statutes of justice if doing so brings further insecurity to those who were already the victims of the injustice itself?
This case study is fictional, inasmuch as it is a compilation of third-hand stories. It is also overly dramatized. However, the dilemmas posed by this scenario are pertinent and live issues in my city and country at this moment. I recently had the opportunity to work with some incredibly thoughtful people who are devoted to finding a constructive way forward. If you are interested in thinking about this scenario some more, watch this video we recently produced on the topic.
Pragmatically speaking, this case study is a microcosm: it highlights the underlying challenges of multiculturalism itself. Our ‘gut responses’ to this scenario provide us with mirrors of our own instinctive, unconscious, and dormant assumptions about the nature of morality, justice, and fairness. And try as we might, we can’t tease our convictions apart from our cultural foundations and biases.
Multiculturalism is extremely difficult. But it is not unimportant. Indeed, multiculturalism is worth every ounce of the struggle it requires, even if for no other reason than that it compels us to think critically about our own institutions, beliefs, and morality. Today we must examine ourselves in a far more nuanced and reflexive manner than we ever would (or could) in a colony of cultural homogeneity. If we are unwilling to undergo intense self–reflexivity, multiculturalism is doomed.