Developing a Healthy Sense of Justice and Compassionate Sensitivity – Published on Current Concerns no. 20, by Dr Eliane Gautschi, October 2011.
We are repeatedly confronted with news of children and youths committing crimes – often very grievous ones. We hear of youths coming together in gangs to steal and rob. Or, to give a concrete example, think of the incident in which youths from Küsnacht near Zurich beat up and seriously injured pedestrians on their class trip to Munich out of pure boredom. The trend toward violent behaviour has, unfortunately, not declined in the last years. This is confirmed by studies published by the Swiss Coordinating Institute for Accident Insurance (SSUV)1 and the Criminlogical Insitute of the University of Zurich2.
The SSUV’s study shows that instances of public criminal assault has increased massively since the mid-90s. Especially affected are young men from 15 to 24 years old: between 1995 and 2009 their risk of being injured in an assault has increased three-fold. The study also criticizes that, in contrast to the resolute measures taken in the private and professional sphere, violence in the public realm has not been adequately met.3 Zurich’s Criminological Insitute shows that from a study of the rate of victimization among the population of Kanton Berne, Switzerland has sunk to European standards regarding security.4 Such news provokes thought and urgently raises the question how we can provide children with guidance and orientation that is once again geared toward social and humane co-existence. Our entire society is called upon to initiate change here.
Our children and youth need to “touch base” again. They need to know the legal boundaries they are obliged to respect. They also need to know what consequences will follow from a violation of law. Co-existence in a democratic state of law can only function if the constitution upon which it has been built and the laws governing it are accepted by its citizens as binding. Moreover, this insight must be passed on from one generation to the next. As a result, our entire society is called upon to ensure that we educate our children and youth accordingly.
In the course of history and in all societies ideas developed which enabled peaceful co-existence between the members of society equally. These ideas took special shape according to each culture, yet all agree on the principle of equality before the law. What in earlier times had been laid down through oral agreements, traditional customs and established rights is now regulated by a delicate system of laws. They mirror the values and morals held by the society and form the basis of our democratic state. Law-makers must ensure laws are just, their meaning and impact comprehensible and practicable. Only in this manner can trust in its legal principles develop without which a functioning state of law would be unthinkable. This foundation must be passed to the next generation, otherwise our human relationships will become subverted, our social cohesion dissolve and the fabric of our society rip apart. Yet it is not enough to know the “letter of the law”, instead correct human behaviour and thought must become internalized. Children and youths must learn to take care of themselves and others, to assess dangerous situations correctly and take preventative measures to divert from harm. It is important for them to develop the emotional capacity to express remorse, to confess blame and make reparations for it. Conversely they should be able to show compassion and make reconciliation possible.
The necessary emotional and psychological basis for a healthy sense of justice and compassionate sensitivity is laid during a child’s upbringing and education … (full text and Notes).