Holier Than Thou

Where I relate wars, capital punishment, environmentalism and feminism.

It was rather unpleasant to watch Gov. Rick Perry being applauded for overseeing capital punishments in Texas during the Republican presidential debate last year. Even a supporter of capital punishment usually agrees that it is not carried out with pride but with a disappointment that such punishments are necessitated in our society[*].

I noticed on wiki (link) that US is in really bad company with China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen in awarding death penalties. The rest of the “western” world (i.e., other than the US) does not see as many death penalties. China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen are some countries that are hated for their domestic policy. Countries with large number of capital punishment victims are usually totalitarian or dictatorial. US, on the other hand, is proud of being a “free nation.” Something was amiss. But then, the US is hated for it foreign policy. It has broken its own laws many times when they are deemed a threat to national security (link). There should be a factor that reconciles all these facts. I believe that it is the holier-than-thou attitude that reconciles the facts.

Before I elaborate, I stress that I am not using holier-than-thou with a negative connotation. Holier-than-thou is usually associated with hypocrisy. My use is more generic.  If you expect a better pay at work for reasons such as race, caste or nationality, that is holier-than-thou attitude at play, and it is frowned upon for its hypocrisy. If you work harder then your peers, and then expect a better pay, it is reasonable, but it is also a holier-than-thou attitude at play. There is nothing bad about it in this context.

Now, let me explain how the holier-than-attitude relates harsh punishments and domestic or foreign policies. The US is notorious for waging wars all the time. War is imposing your idea of what is right upon others. Similarly, harsh punishments are awarded to those whom we deem unfit to live in the society and deny them some of the basic rights that the rest of us enjoy. Both of them have elements of the holier-than-thou attitude. I see capital punishment as a tangible manifestation of that attitude, which brings people to believe that those who have done something terribly wrong are not worthy of living anymore.

I checked out punishments in some of the kingdoms. Larger kingdoms have obviously waged wars and expanded from smaller-sized kingdoms. Are the punishments for crimes in those kingdom equally harsh? I found that the Chola dynasty, a small dynasty, had very little punishment such as fines even for crimes such as murder (link). The Rashtrakutas (link) were a little bigger dynasty. The punishments were harsh, but some “high” caste people were excluded from such punishments. When we get to really big empires such as the Roman empire or the Mughals, the punishments were “cruel and unusual” (link, link, link). Execution by elephants were common. In the British Empire, I could not find examples of cruel punishments during its “glory” days in England. Some links (link, link) do indicate that punishments were harsh before the fall of the empire. There may be exceptions to the rule that ambitious empires also practise cruel punishment, but I would like to see some more study on the correlation (religion may also offer more information).

Few years ago, I answered a survey questionnaire in which a few questions about our opinion on women’s rights and environmental policies were asked. At the end of the questionnaire, I was informed that those who support equal rights for women are also likely to support strong policies to preserve the environment. This brings us to Ecofeminism (link), which has its roots in the belief that “the social mentality that leads to the domination and oppression of women is directly connected to the social mentality that leads to the abuse of the natural environment.” I think that this is just a fancy way to explain that the holier-than-thou attitude (or lack of) is responsible for many of our views.

[*] In the same way, military might is something that is forced upon us because we have enemies; displaying military might  (as during India’s Republic Day) is not something I am comfortable with.  Most agree that public hanging is unhealthy for a society. I don’t think that display of military might, similarly, is healthy. I think the US did the right thing by not releasing Osama bin Laden’s picture.

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