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Unitive Justice

  Lovingkindness in action. 

2. From Hierarchy/Top Down to Equality/Inclusion



Hierarchy: a classification or organization in which people, groups or things are ranked one above the other according to status or perceived importance. Hierarchy comes with entitlement, privilege and a sense of superiority.

Inclusion: the condition of being accorded the same value, respect, dignity, connection and humanity as all others, without exception. Roles are differentiated based on skills and knowledge, but roles do not come with entitlement, privilege or superiority.

Punitive Justice and Hierarchy 

Hierarchy is another punitive system structure that is so pervasive and has been with us for so long that we rarely question it. Let’s go a little deeper, look at some of the problems that come with hierarchy, and ask if there is an alternative that might work better.

Being a rules-based system, punitive justice requires hierarchy as a structural element. Those at the pinnacle of the hierarchy write the rules and are responsible for the system of enforcement. This is true whether the punitive structure is housed in a government system composed of the legislative, judicial and executive branches or in a family system composed of parents and children.

We may not recognize that the presence of hierarchy means that inequality must also be an attribute of the punitive system, and this produces systemic inequality. Those at the top who are in control are necessarily separate from those at the bottom whom they are controlling. Likewise, the necessary inequality means that privilege, entitlement and superiority are accorded to some, but not to all. Privilege shows up in many ways.

The punitive justice system is so complex that we take for granted the extensive legal training needed to navigate within it. Access depends on knowledge of how the complex system works and being granted permission to enter. One privilege accorded to those at the top of the hierarchy is that they control access to this system. Our system of licensed lawyers and judges is one example of how such control is exercised.

Those at the top also decide who gets the benefit of exceptions to otherwise strict enforcement of the rules and the punishment meted out for violations. In ancient times, permitting a goat to be killed instead of the person/people who had committed wrongdoing is an example of those in control avoiding the imposition of harsh punishment when they found it unjust. The goat became known as the “scapegoat.”

Today’s complex punitive system has many exceptions that those in control are able to apply, when they choose to do so. Who the police arrest and who they let go is one example. The specific charge the prosecutor levies against the accused is another choice that is controlled by the hierarchy. Who a school principal suspends for several days or instead sends to in-school suspension for the afternoon is yet another.

In our representative democracy, we are taught to think of those at the top as working on our behalf, but that ideal is not always realized. The system is constructed in such a way that, despite democratic elections, it may be subject to abuse. Its hierarchical, punitive structure permits those in whom we have entrusted control to sometimes serve the interests of a few, not the many, contrary to what a functional democracy requires. 

Nonetheless, even when the imbalance that hierarchy causes is obvious, until we have something better to offer, we may conclude that this is the best we can do. Comparing the structure of the punitive model of justice to the structure of unitive justice is one way to highlight what works and what doesn’t, and how we can begin to make positive, systemic change.

Unitive Justice and Equality/Inclusion

In Unitive Justice, equality means inclusiveness without exception. Everyone is valued, respected, and accorded dignity. Where do we find examples of this type of inclusion? In the teaching, “love your neighbor as yourself.” In the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In neither case is an exception to inclusion countenanced.

Such inclusion is found in the Muslim teaching of wishing for others what you wish for yourself. It is reflected in the admonition to “love one another as I have loved you,”[1] and in the commandment to love your enemies.[2] A similar urge to unity and congeniality is expressed in the Hindu greeting, Namaste, meaning “the soul in me greets the soul in you.”[3]

Inclusion is at the core of the Unitive Justice structure. This means that structural power is shared horizontally, regardless of the role each community member plays. Different roles permit the community to function well, but no role comes with a mantle of superiority, entitlement or privilege. It is not a space in which some are given preferential treatment because they are valued—or feared—more than others.

How can we create additional ways to achieve inclusion—inclusion without exception—in a preemptive way, without first having a conflict and then setting up a circle process? In schools, teachers are using circle processes to strengthen relationships in their classrooms, before conflicts occur. This is happening in some businesses where internal walls are removed to signify more inclusiveness, and to send the message that less formality (hierarchy) is how they operate. We are on the crest of the wave that may carry us toward inclusion without exception as a new norm.  

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The video below demonstrates what happens when those in control are unrestrained. It is a 29 minute BBC documentary on the Stanford Prison Experiment. The video provides examples of all 12 punitive structural elements outlined in the Arcs to Unity: rules, hierarchy, judgment, punishment, control, proportional revenge, separation, distrust, distortion, it is adversarial, it singles out episodes while ignoring the epicenter and reflects the worldview of duality. Available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=760lwYmpXbc. (29 min.)

[1] Bible, John 13:34 (KJV).

[2] Bible, Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27 (KJV).

[3] Rita Geno, “The Meaning of Namaste, Yoga Journal, Oct. 3, 2014, http://www.yogajournal.com/article/beginners/the-meaning-of-quot-namaste-quot/ (last visited Nov. 12, 2017).