Empathy, justice and Law in A Time To Kill
Without any doubt, A Time To Kill is a fantastic movie and its original purpose is to promote justice among the community of black and white people. It, indeed, did a very good job on such things by successfully invoking empathy in its viewers. However, when it comes to the question of whether empathy promote justice in A Time To Kill, my answer might be NO. In my perspective, empathic feeling in A Time To Kill played such an important role that it might overdo the rule of promoting justice and, furthermore, encourage some form of unfairness within our society by the means of stealing concepts.
First and foremost, I want to state my definition of empathy. In my opinion, empathy is an emotional state when one is putting oneself into other’s shoes and affectively feeling what other feel’s, just as the “affective empathy” by Hoffman (230). However, sympathy, or according to Hoffman: “cognitive empathy” , is a feeling that one has the awareness of other’s feeling.
These two kinds of empathy that I mentioned above can serve as catalysts to boost people to help. In another word, empathy can act as a motive. When people witness someone in distress, they would feel empathetically distressed and willing to help, even their empathetic targets are strangers (Hoffman 231). Under this intense empathetic pulse of helping others, people would even be willing to break the protocol. This kind of special emotional state, in my opinion, greatly contribute to the change of original decision among the jurors.
Secondly, in order to make things clear, I want to give my own definition of justice. What is justice? Some might said that it is a form of legal equality, so that each people would live in a fair environment under the governing of law. Other people would like to say that justice is a sense of utilitarianism, in which the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility. To me, justice is a form of fairness, in which the goods are impartially distributed. In another words, each of us is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties. To do so, we should not maximize our own welfare by sacrificing other’s benefit to a greater extend. What’s more, our human beings have a strong preference of justice. We often associate out empathetic feeling with our detest of injustice. According to Huffman, “empathic feeling of injustice and anger” is form under the process that one first responds empathically to someone in distress, then, realizing the cause is an injustice transforms the empathic distress in to an empathic feeling of injustice. This form of empathic feeling would boost people to change laws and promote justice. However, it would also instigate people to do something unfair in responds to other’s injustice situation, just as the themes in the movie.
What’s more, when we talk about empathy, we might usually refer it to good value, such as helping people, changing laws and promoting justice. However, empathy itself has its own limitations. Although it is a clear pro-social motive, empathy is limited by its fragility, dependence om the salience and intensity of distress cues and susceptibility to one’s relationship to the victim (250 Hoffman). Empathic distress would increase with the intensity of victims’ distress. It means that when someone sense the intensity of the victims’ distress, they may no longer be able to think as a bystander without his or her personal bias. However, the empathic distress in this person is so intense that drives him or her to help the victim he or she empathize, despite the fact that the action he or she conduct, in this situation, might not meet the standard of justice. Besides, people have an tendency to empathize more with kin, friends and their own ethic group, which is call “in-group bias” according to Huffman(251). In addition, the physical present of the victim would also intensify jurors’ empathy. These three types of limitation of empathy have especially damaging effect in the courtroom, which may cause the jurors to abandon their former thought and came up with a decision that seemed no so fair.
When we analyze the movie with the factors that I mentioned above, we would easily discover what the movie aimed to promote with the utilize of empathy, which might be seemingly right when we are watching the movie, is not so fair. It is for sure that Jake’s closing argument invoke empathy in both the jurors and viewers. At the very beginning of his closing argument, he first apologized to the jurors. He said that: “
|I’m hear to apologize. I am young and I am inexperienced. But you cannot hold Carl Lee Hailey responsible for my shortcomings. You see, in all this legal maneuvering something has gotten lost, and that something is the truth.”(TK)
By doing so, he immediately drawn the attention and empathy from the jurors, because the jurors are mainly white, who although might not be able to empathize with Carl Lee as far, they could, without doubt, empathized with Jake, a young, handsome, white male layer. Under this circumstance, Jake was able to seize this very kind of appreciative empathy so that he got the change of asking the jurors to listen to his storytelling and flex upon it with their own imagination. In his story, he depicted how two hateful white men raped, tortured and even tried to kill the girl. Most importantly, at the end of his closing statement, he choked with his tear almost fall down and dropped the most powerful statement of his speech: “Now imagine that she is a white.” (TK) Afterward, the jurors’ empathic feeling toward Carl Lee had so been immediately amplified that they changed their mind from considering Carl Lee, who butchered two armless white people, guilty to believe that he was innocent. When viewed from the factors that I lists above, it would be clear that the closing argument of Jake not only encourage empathy but also rely on the limitations of the empathy within white jurors. The most obvious factor lies in the final sentence of the statement “Now imagine that she is white”. This sentence drew the in-group bias among the white jurors. It rapidly shortened the mental gap between the racism of black and white so that the jurors could, at the first time, view the little girl and Carl Lee as ones of their community and empathize with them. What’s more, this closing argument also attribute to the factor the salience effect. Jake intensified jurors’ empathic feeling to Carl Lee by vividly depicting the theme of his daughter getting rape in order to inform them the intensity of distress that the victim, Carl Lee, was in. In addition to the presence of Carl Lee in the court room with a desperate gesture, the negative effect cause by limitations of empathy urged the jurors to make an injustice decision to regard Carl Lee as innocent.
From the prospective of the viewers, the movie does not encourage them to be “judicious spectators”. According to Nussbum, “judicious spectators ” are the people who guild by the good emotions but are capable of making judgement excluding their personal bias(73). However, the movie is so established on evoking the intense emotions in the views, such as empathy, anger and shock. To do so, their purpose might be to stealing the concept of the viewers. Through depicting several themes, they managed to making the viewers to ignore the fact that Carl Lee killed two unarmed people and invoking views’ empathy to Carl Lee. The night before the final judgement, Carl Lee Hailey invoked the empathy in Jake and boosted Jake to think about the experience of him as a first-personal-view colored man. Before the day of the final judgement, Carl Lee talked to Jake in a half complaining and half accusing manner. He said that the reason why he chose Jake as his attorney was because he was “one of the bad guys”, which meant that Jake shared the perspective with the jurors so that he was of bigger possibility to come up with a way to win the case. On the other hand, Carl also thought that Jake was different from the other white people, because he believed that Jake was the person who pursuits fairness and justice. However, his view as toppled, when Jake mentioned the different of outcomes of losing the case between him and Carl. In response to Jake’s statement, Carl said desperately that: “you are just one of them; you never shown up at our place and our children will never play together”. The desperate speaking of Carl made Jake resonate with the feeling of Carl. He started to truly empathize with him as a first-person-view colored man and apply that to the group of white people rather than just think about how to win the case and promote justice as a lawyer. Therefore, during the closing statement, he abandoned his original work, which might be full of mundane technical worlds, and went for a personal statement，making full use of appeal to pathos. By doing so, this movie not only invoked Jake’s empathy, but also viewers’. By showing the inferior condition that Carl Lee were in, they successfully win the empathy of viewer’s toward Carl Lee. Moreover, By showing the misconduct of two white people, who robbed a black-man-owned stored, raped and attempted to murder an underage black girl on purpose, and party Klan, in which hateful people tried to maintain the permanent ruling position of white people by conduction violent and illegal crime, the movie managed to invoke the empathetic feeling of the viewers toward Jake and Carl Lee. Even me once considered Carl as innocent when I was watching the movie. Also, the action of Klan invoked the empathy in the masses to ward Carl, too. Therefore, it was a combination effect. However, as a judicious viewer, I think the depiction of the Klan was just an apparent invocation of empathy. Apart from merely invoking empathy, it also arouses the anger of the injustice between the social status of colored men and white men and about the ways that the colored men were treated. This type of feeling of anger would combine with the empathic feeling to form the “The empathic feeling of injustice”. Holding this feeling, this movie successfully convinces a large number of viewers that Carl Lee was innocent is a fair judgement. In short, the movie, though indeed invoke empathy in its views, did not aim to encourage its viewer to be “judicious viewers”.
At the end, it is also clear that this film coextensive with the law. Under the governing of the Laws, there are no reasons one people who can execute the law himself. Admittedly, the two hateful white people were guilt. However, there are still no ways that Carl Lee could butcher these two people himself, without the authentic approval. Furthermore, according to this film, what it encouraged probably is that when someone hurt the people closed to you, it is your own right to punish this people with brutal way of killing. All in all, this film, though seeming promoting the equality of races, did not coextensive with the law.
Martin L. Hoffman. “Empathy, Justice and Law”. Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press. 2014. 213-254
A Time to Kill (Motion Picture: 1996), Directed by Joel Schumacher, 1996.
WRT105E Feeling Good-Empathy and Ethics in-class discussion, Dustin Hannum, 2016.
Nussbaum, Martha C. “Rational Emotions.” Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Beacon Press, 1995. 53-78.