Balancing acts by Trevor Plumbly

They don’t use balance scales anymore. It’s a shame really; we could learn a lot from the basic principle of equal weight.

Unlike pre-packaging, the old scales and weights used to be part and parcel of everyday shopping, representing trust and fairness. Personal costing was an important part of the process, almost ceremonial: for the retailer the accuracy of his scales was the pivot between profit and loss, for the customer they were the dividing line between need and costs. The act of weighing provided a mutual bridge; old fashioned though it might seem, there was a shared involvement symbolised by the simple act of equal balance.

Weighty decisions

The scales aren’t quite as accurate when it comes to justice. Metaphorically, the old lady’s blind to influence, a wondrous concept if everyone goes along with it, but it’s about presentation these days, more theatre than a pursuit of truth. The better actors play a dominant role and, of course, demand higher fees, thus you can get the best justice money can buy.

As far as the jury’s concerned, its mainly down to oratory skills: most of the ‘twelve and true’ owe their legal knowledge to John Grisham novels, the rest probably just want to get it over with and go home. For the prosecutor a guilty verdict is the final curtain, but for the defence it’s a chance to star. It’s a fact of life that everyone’s had something bad happen to them at some stage and dredging this up before sentencing is a common ploy, a plea for mitigation is the legal equivalent of the Shakespearean dying speech: bugger the facts, let’s punch the sympathy buttons.

Current thinking asks us to reason and embrace crime rather than punish it by exclusion, thus if Jimmy came from a dysfunctional family, it’s perfectly reasonable to excuse him from harming others. I’m not suggesting we abandon mitigation as a defence plea altogether, but constantly beating society at large with it tilts an already tired looking balance.

Weighty influence

Recent events in the US highlight the current barriers to mutual judgement; it was like God decided to dump the seven deadly sins across America and left them to get on with it. Using the scale analogy again, the election should have weighed popular preference, but sadly the old device isn’t cut out to cope with pride, greed and the like. Nor can it weigh the influence social media is having on our ability to decide for ourselves. If you control the popular press or put a few million in the right pan, reasoned consideration gets outweighed.

I doubt that all those that supported Donald Trump embraced his politics, a great many were either bullied or seduced by a propaganda onslaught that bore an uncanny resemblance to the formative days of Nazi Germany. The problem left for the new administration will be to adjust the weights to restore balance, which, given the country’s political climate, doesn’t seem that easy.

A balanced diet

At first, the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg captured world attention; we all love a firebrand, at least for a while. The message was clear: we’re killing the planet through pollution, over production of short-life goods and poor governance of food sources. Some Asian countries are in the process of banning diesel and high emission vehicles, but rather than recycle in their own backyards they export them to pollute someone else’s.

We need to start asking ourselves how much foreign junk we actually need. It’s now the norm in middle-income households to have two TVs, lap-tops, tablets and any number of cellphones; why? They take our attention away from each other and, if you believe that’s a problem, think about getting rid of the stuff when it’s useless or outdated.

If climate change isn’t enough, take a look at sustainability: down here in NZ we treat arable land as if it were renewable, we pollute fresh water rivers and do very little to protect off-shore food sources from overfishing. But the used cars and electronic toys keep coming in, thanks to ingrained entitlement and the somewhat ironically titled ‘trade balance’.

All things being equal

I’m pretty glad I’m getting on in years: events tend to sadden rather than anger these days. Much of the above occurred to me at Christmas, a time supposedly for sharing, but as I watched my grandson unwrap designer shoes that cost more than a needy family’s weekly budget; I started to wonder about imbalance.

Looking at the Victorian brass scales on the sideboard from our old local Grocery store, I remember the polite question from the shopkeeper years ago, “That’s a little over, is that all right?” I wonder what the honest response would be if today’s social guardians asked the same question. For the Plumblys part, next year we’ll be looking past electronic toys and designer shoes and thinking about meaningful giving. Balance anyone?

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