Can Loyalty and Justice Coexist?
Loyalty is thought of as a positive character trait. We like to think of ourselves as being loyal to our friends, our spouses, our country, even our favorite sports teams. It is thought of as a good thing that we stand by such people and institutions, especially when they are experiencing hard times. The concept of “justice” is something that we strive for as well. It’s right there at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance: “with liberty and justice for all”. (Quick aside: you always hear Republicans talk about “liberty”, but you never hear them talk about “justice”. “Law and Order: yes, but “Justice”; not so much). But I digress: the point is that both loyalty and justice are ideas that we all aspire, or at least pay lip service, to. But are these two concepts mutually compatible?
What happens when loyalty and justice collide? I thought of this recently upon reading of the death of Aaron Hernandez, the former pro football player who died in prison (an apparent suicide) after being convicted of murder last year. The day Mr. Hernandez died, Mike Pouncey, also a pro player and a college teammate of Hernandez, posted this on Instagram: “To my friend, my brother! Through thick and thin, right or wrong, we never left each other’s side. Today my heart hurts as I got the worse (sic) news I could have imagined”. A clear and heartwarming statement of loyalty, right? And yet I remain troubled by the “right or wrong” part. What if your friend, or your country for that matter, is wrong? Does loyalty compel us to say that our friend is right, even if deep down we know they are wrong? If so, where does that leave justice? What if the wrong done by your friend was a really bad thing? If I see my friend commit a terrible crime, does loyalty compel me to keep quiet about it? If I do, am I not thwarting justice?
There is a saying in some communities: “snitches get stitches”. It basically means that if you see a crime and tell the police what happened, you will be endangering yourself, so you’re better off just keeping quiet. It stems from a concept of group loyalty, i.e. you should be loyal to your neighbors and “not get them into trouble”. I don’t buy it. In keeping quiet, where is the loyalty to the crime victim? Where is the real loyalty to the community which will continue to be victimized by your so-called friend if he is not reported to the police? And where is the justice in helping a criminal to get away with their crime? The New York Daily News routinely refers to criminal informants, especially in mob trials, as “rats”. I am outraged by this. I concede that people who testify against the defendant in criminal trials often do so in an attempt to get favorable treatment from the authorities for their own crimes. But regardless, they are doing a public service, frequently at no small risk to themselves. So why does the Daily News vilify them for their perceived disloyalty, and to vicious criminals no less?
So can loyalty and justice coexist? I think so, but it might take a redefinition of loyalty, so that it doesn’t thwart justice. If I see my friend commit a crime, I tell the truth so that justice is done. I can visit him in prison, because I’m loyal. I can help support his family while he’s locked up, because I’m loyal. I can help him get a job when he’s released, because I’m loyal. What I can’t do, no matter how loyal I am, is help him to get away with his crime, because that would be antithetical to justice. And maybe, just maybe, he will emerge from prison as a better person, having paid for his crime and seen the error of his ways. In which case, perhaps speaking up, telling the truth, and aiding justice can actually be seen as an act of loyalty in and of itself, at least in the long run. I do believe that loyalty can be a good thing, for the most part. But unlike justice, it can’t be blind.