Debt and Punishment

A bit more on the function of debt in Disgrace, especially with respect to the TRC.

I’ve been trying to figure out how punishment works as a form of compensation for the victims of ethical and legal wrongs (which are not the same thing). In an earlier post, I moved away from the idea that legal (i.e., state-sanctioned, tribunal-mediated) punishment was intended to provide a compensatory satisfaction to those who have been wronged. I think this is generally true, at least as a theoretical principle of modern law; it’s one of the reasons, for instance, that “victims’ rights” remains a marginal concept. (The other being, of course, that the state is now understood to intervene between perpetrator and victim, so that the victim isn’t a proper party to the exercise of legal justice.)

But what about institutions like the TRC, which I claimed in my ACLA paper do serve a significantly compensatory function? How so? Well, it’s partially that they provide something of value to the victim in a context where more direct compensation in the form of reparations, significant socioeconomic restructuring, etc. is unlikely. But there’s more to it than that, I think. The desire of victims to receive a “sincere” apology—illustrated at some length in Coetzee’s novel through both the reactions of Melanie’s family and David’s souring relationship with Petrus—is a desire to see the perpetrator suffer the pangs of conscience. The victim in such cases enjoys, takes satisfaction in, the perpetrator’s self-punishment, which is more harsh than most of what can be otherwise imposed on the perpetrator (as evinced by the obvious inadequacy, to most of those involved, of Lurie merely losing his job absent any sincere expression of contrition). So there’s a sense in which legal punishment, even today, is intended to provide a kind of repayment to the victim, and this is especially true in the case of (pseudo) tribunals like the TRC that are intended to address large-scale historical wrongs.

Note, too, that all this is a theory of law and rights that’s presupposed by and enables the bad reading of Coetzee developed and critiqued in my paper, not something that I’m insisting is necessarily the basis of all contemporary law. In any case, though, Coetzee is in a way law-agnostic; his real analysis is of ethics or morality, which he is at pains to show work differently. That’s the point of Lurie’s encounter with the commission, which mixes law and ethics in a way that doesn’t work well for either one.

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