Playing God (R3)

Renowned author Jodi Picoult asks, “Why are we the only first world country that still has capital punishment? Is it because we’re too afraid to really examine the system?” America’s ongoing debate over the legality of the death penalty divides so many people that it may as well be called a civil war. While justice systems battle over the merits of restorative versus retributive sentences, Spelman’s Repair never mentions perhaps the most extreme version of each: a life in prison versus the loss of one’s life by lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber, firing squad, or hanging. Spelman’s definition of repair in the courts constitutes repairing the wrong done between perpetrator and victim(s), yet capital punishment tears at the very fabric of ‘mending’ even as some advocate for it as the ideal solution or the ultimate justice that can be offered to a victim’s grieving family.

The death penalty is a blight on American society because it denounces mercy. Its mere presence as a sentencing option challenges the rights of the accused; the trial itself presents the accused as irredeemable, inexcusable. The damage the perpetrator has done—either aggravated murder, treason, or the combination of a felony and murder—is irreparable, but capital punishment declares that he or she is, too. Spelman lists myriad repairing words and juxtaposes them with words of disrepair:

Use: renewal, redemption, reconciliation, salvation, compensation, consolation…in their stead…break, rupture, unredeemed, unmendable, untreatable, unsalvageable, irreconcilable… (p. 27)

Thus, if justice is supposed to be a source of redemption, how can the murder of a murderer, “an eye for an eye,” be anything but irredeemable and in complete antithesis to Spelman’s sanctified salvation? State governments argue for the families’ sense of retribution, explaining that the death of a loved one makes them eager for revenge. Revenge is easily understood to be a feeling that opposes reconciliation, and the sour taste it leaves in one’s mouth when the deed is done is no real compensation for such tragedy. Spelman writes that retribution was once “resorted to with regret” (p. 60), so where did American sentiment go awry?

Over 1000 people have been executed in the United States since 1976, and over 3000 inmates currently reside on death row ( The African concept of ubuntu “focuses on the interconnectedness of people that makes harm to any harm to all” (p. 67) and is the backbone of the restorative justice system; but the death penalty ignores this humanistic concept in its reliance on Hammurabi’s ancient code.

Not only does capital punishment rupture ties within a society, but it shatters relationships between people, and it really does echo the Civil War with proceedings clearly biased by individual and institutional racism. Black men are disproportionately more likely to be sentenced to death: “a person convicted of the same crime is more than three times more likely to be sentenced to die simply because the crime was committed in a predominantly white…area” (The Impact of Legally Inappropriate Factors on Death Sentencing for California Homicides, 1990-1999, Pierce and Radelet). States with long histories of extensive racial segregation, especially those in the south such as Texas, Tennessee, and Alabama, are some of the only states that remain vehemently insistent on maintaining the death penalty. The legal method of hanging is reminiscent of the Jim Crow era. Spelman mentions the failure of consistency, and thus of justice, in a legal system where “assaults on white victims are prosecuted much more ferociously than those on Blacks” (p. 69). While less than 30 percent of homicide victims are White, over 80 percent of executions have been performed on those convicted of killing Whites (Pierce and Radelet).

This persistent racial disparity should not be remedied by increasing the use of the death penalty for White perpetrators who also “deserve” them.  In a humane society, no one deserves them. Although some offenders’ crimes are severe and injurious to both individuals and the social fabric, a humanitarian version of retribution would ideally have the perpetrator suffer in prison, not literally lose his or her life, which some may consider a release from blame. Similarly, restoration happens when the families of victims are supported and provided assistance that enables them to forgive, mending their own frayed souls, or at least when they can seek comfort—and thus ease some pain—knowing the perpetrator has lost the privileges of a free life.

Repair, therefore, is more prevalent and effective when capital punishment is absent as an option. Millions of dollars have been saved in states and countries where a life sentence is given in lieu of death. In America, “The War on Crime” could focus its efforts on rehab services and mediation rather than violence that ultimately makes more violence, because no state where the death penalty is legal actually has less murder than those where it has been abolished. So let us restore a broken justice system by abolishing capital punishment, thus strengthening Spelman’s “fragile world.”


The Violence of Repair (R2)

Exploring the intricacies of both restorative and retributive justice within the United States’ legal systems, Spelman writes that “repair is…essential to justice,” (p. 52). She reasons that in some cases, one type is more appropriate than the other; that is, there is often a rather clear distinction between when it is time for reparations or for punishment. Spelman claims that while people argue the merits of each, they generally fall to support one or the other. One instance where the distinction does not seem so clear is domestic violence. With such a depth of physical and emotional injury caused by someone to whom the victim is intimately attached, can domestic violence really be repaired with restitution or imprisonment? And where and how do the apologies explored in chapter six of Spelman’s Repair fit in this disturbing category of crime?

In most cases, domestic violence occurs behind closed doors, and bringing the perpetrator to court usually requires the bravery of the abused party or the outrage of a close relative or friend to reveal. Though a law has clearly been broken, and a person (or persons) clearly wronged, the appropriate form of repair called for is difficult to discern. Restorative justice claims that victim and offender should be “partners in repair, not adversaries” (p. 59), but this fails to acknowledge the cost to the domestic violence victim. Proponents of retributive justice would rally behind a prison sentence and fines, whereas restorative justice supporters would advocate for therapy and eventual reconciliation between partners. Fines, or restitutions, are questionable because they place a monetary value on a human being’s mental suffering and corporal body. In contrast, the restorative justice system, founded on fairness, would ideally involve “repairs appropriate to the various harms afflicted” (p. 65). What constitutes a reasonable repair to an unsalvageable and traumatizing situation? When harms suffered in a domestically violent environment are called to the stand, neither restoration nor retribution alone can really ameliorate the injuries, and reintegration of both people or the simple salvaging of such a relationship is hardly an option.

Yet here is where abuse is so easily unregulated. The abuser admits his or her wrongdoing, apologizes—or as Spelman notes, possibly only “utter[s] some words” (p. 82) to alleviate the pressure of being held accountable—and promises to never lay a hand on his or her partner again; this can happen within the home or within the courtroom. Apologies are meant to repair the emotional and physical injuries humans inflict upon one another. It seems the abuser, then, has a plethora of transgressions to remedy, unless this person views the abuse as a type of repair. After all, victims are usually beaten for violating what the abuser deems proper behavior, or for failing to meet the abuser’s standards for household and relationship maintenance. So when the apology is finally offered, mandated or not, it nearly becomes the victim’s responsibility and burden.

“Now that I’ve apologized to you, what are you going to do? My apology is a kind of subpoena, pressing you for an appearance, a response. Given what I have declared, and declared openly, shouldn’t you be pleased? Shouldn’t you give up any anger and resentment you have? Don’t you at least owe me some kind of response?”

Manipulation becomes so effortless here; victims feel guilty for holding anything against their abusers, so they essentially forgive, repairing the relationship, and the cycle of control and fear is allowed to rage once more. This isn’t justice, but something has been restored. There will be later retribution, in violent threats and aggressive hands. But the grievances are not remedied for long, and one could even argue that the damages have increased.


Dealing with Delicacy (R1)

Elizabeth Spelman introduces reparations to her reader with poignant prose, connecting past, present, and future as she gives an overview of the different types of repair. She quickly delves into the specificity she so obviously wants to explore, but it is her subtle choice of examples that truly makes the reader wonder. The representative characters, Willie, Fred, and Louise/Elizabeth/Irene, are more defined by their abilities than their individuality as human beings—innovative bricoleur, passionate restorer, delicate conservationists. And this is where the smooth, neutral quality of her storytelling falters; Spelman dichotomizes the men and women.

Willie and Fred work in garages where they get dirty, work with their hands, and embrace the physicality. This is expected in their lines of work. Willie and Fred repair or restore, respectively, vehicles, either automobiles or motorcycles. In contrast, Louise, Elizabeth, and Irene work with their hands, but sparingly and they apply softness and simplicity to their work. One could argue that this is simply a requirement of their work – the handling and conservation of art – but it is too significant a division of labor to dismiss or explain the distinctions so casually.

Even as a female author, Spelman splits her repair/restore/preserve dialogue to explicitly give the men more manual labor. Of course, their work is methodical and meticulous just like that of the trio, but traditional beliefs about masculinity already separate this attention to detail from the women’s work. Where the men can strip away, rebuild, tear apart, or restructure, Louise, Elizabeth, and Irene are limited to preserving a man’s original masterpiece. The men are expected to be prepared for the hazards of shop work, but women are tucked away safely in studios and galleries. Thus, is this clear distinction of ability and field intentional on Spelman’s part? Willie has an “ability not to be bound by preexisting design” (p. 12), but is the author? Perhaps these gendered ideas were already in place, and she was only offered examples befitting the general hegemony. Did she recognize her use of such a concept, participating unconsciously in a society prone to binary generalizations?

The reader should also note the emotional undertones of this dichotomy. Handiwork (Willie and Fred) is a sobering process, one that is often seen on screen when the man needs to “get away” or relax. It is a solo venture that allows him to assert his masculinity, often away from the wife or children. Alternatively, Louise, Elizabeth, and Irene pursued art and seemingly excelled there, if the Newman project is any indication. The reader can picture the women laughing modestly, validated professionally and emotionally, wine glasses in hand as they toast their arduous task when the restored piece hangs once again. They are allowed to succeed here because men fear emasculation in the face of appreciating paintings. The man breathes a sigh of relief as the woman gets her appropriately delicate hobby and time to socialize.

Fortunately, the author later devotes a section of the third chapter to the question of women and tools, offering a possible answer to the reader’s nagging discomfort about the Willie/Fred and Louise/Elizabeth/Irene partition. She notes that the choice of “white, working-class, and male” (p. 27) Willie raises no red flags in anyone’s mind because he seems the most logical choice for the task. Now the reader must check her or himself as Spelman explains why; women are unwelcome in the field, minority women even more so, and we are often led as a society not to question this; here is where hegemony rears its ugly head:

Indeed, for the most part, women are much more likely to appear in pinup calendars in the offices and shops of repairmen—mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, cobblers, and so forth—than as partners in such work. Graphic and pornographic depictions of women sometimes are displayed precisely in order to make the few females on the job feel uncomfortable and unwelcome—only one sign that this particular area of repair in human life (at least in a country like the United States) is brimming with anxiety about whether women can and should do such work.

But what can women do, exactly? Spelman explains the necessity of femininity in domestic life described my men. Scared of losing their jobs to an allegedly incompetent sex, or feeling emasculated by household chores, the men can safely relegate sewing and other delicate work to the decorative female with dainty hands and manicured nails. The housewife is called to the stage, dissected and discussed, but Spelman does not bring the reader back to anyone but Willie. The Louise/Elizabeth/Irene triumvirate has served its purpose; that is, to examine conservation in juxtaposition to “real” repair or restoration; Willie is even so “fantastic” that he “should be treated as a national treasure” (p. 11). She confirms the line that has been drawn—men in the workplace, in the garages, and women in the home—but she barely takes a stand against the inherent misogyny. By even including it and analyzing it, she shows a basic opposition. However, she does not introduce any clear argument against it. She retains her neutral, informative approach to Homo reparans. The art restorers are left to their deft, pristine fingers, while Willie and Fred are allowed to run rampant in oil and machinery and never face disapproval because they are correctly performing their perceived gender.