Everyone loves a villain. A Machiavellian figure we can collectively hate without remorse. It's so much easier when people neatly fit into the boxes of good and bad. Who wants to deal in shades of grey when easy, unmitigated condemnation is an option?
Unfortunately, though good and bad may be useful touchstones, they're rarely sufficient to capture the reality of the human experience. In truth, we all exist somewhere on the continuum between the two, fluidly shifting closer to one or the other and back again. We've all done things we're not proud of, and we've all tried, at one point or another, to be decent and upstanding.
Jami-Lee Ross is no different. Undoubtedly, he has acted in ways that have hurt people. Badly. I won't rehash the details of his conduct, both because I'm not in the habit of kicking someone while they're down, and out of respect to the women who he has harmed (and yes, it is possible to hold both of those positions simultaneously), but it's fairly likely he will look back on some of the decisions he's made in the past few years with regret.
I have seen Ross called a number of things over the past few weeks. I've read armchair speculations about what particular mental disorder he may be suffering from. I've seen people weaponise his mental distress to discredit him, playing into old and damaging stigmas. Simon Bridges, upon announcing Ross was taking personal leave a few weeks ago (an unusual and arguably insensitive announcement in itself), described his mental health issues as embarrassing. It was only the beginning of a tidal wave of comments that seemingly propelled empathy around mental health back at least a few decades.
In the light of all that, I have found myself feeling sympathy for Ross. Having your very public meltdown broadcast to the nation, being sectioned, having "friends" speak to the press about said sectioning, and having strangers call for the public release of your private medical information, as if your darkest moments were public property … I wouldn't wish such a thing on my worst enemy. No one deserves that.
I'm not for a second minimising the extent of the damage Ross has done. I was sickened by the allegations I read last week. I feel intensely sorry for his wife and family, and for the women who came forward to tell their stories about how Ross had treated them.
I would imagine the past few weeks have been a living hell for all of them. I hope they are getting the help and support they need.
I've been musing this week upon the nuances of condemnation, however, particularly in the #MeToo era. I have been an outspoken supporter of victims and survivors who have come forward to tell their stories. I have felt sadness and rage when reading stories of harassment and abuse. I've felt anger and devastation as a result of my own #MeToo experiences. But this week has provided a reminder that people can do bad things and still be deserving of help. Indeed, without offering help to those who have hurt others, we'll likely never fix the problem of widespread victimisation.
We have a rehabilitative justice system for a reason, but it is failing victims and perpetrators at the moment. Its failures - in the areas of reporting, prosecution, conviction and rehabilitation - are the reasons why we have a #MeToo movement. People are speaking out publicly because they are afraid of engaging with formal justice processes and because they're worried their abusers/harassers may go on to hurt others. As a society, we must take stock of the situation and find a way to fix it.
At the core of our approach to justice, however, is hope. We don't just lock people up and throw away the key. To dramatically oversimplify, the central premise of our justice framework is a hope that people will be able to be rehabilitated so they can reintegrate into the community without reoffending. Our recidivism statistics reveal that our hopes are not being realised, but that's a story for another column. The point is, our view of justice as a nation is one that allows for redemption.
Redemption takes time and effort. Making amends is never easy, and nor should it be. But to me, the ideas of recovery, restoration, and eventual redemption are immensely important tenets of humanity. As the #MeToo conversation moves forward, we will eventually come to a place where we need to help victims and perpetrators find ways to move forward.
Compassion and condemnation may seem like antithetical ideas, but I wonder whether the two should be mutually exclusive. I'm not suggesting victims should feel responsible for perpetrators' wellbeing. It is not the job of victims to show kindness to people who have hurt them. But as a community, we have twin responsibilities to support victims and help perpetrators become better people.
When mental illness is involved, compassion becomes even more important. And it is involved more often than you'd think. The National Study of Psychiatric Morbidity in NZ Prisons found nearly 60 per cent of all inmates had at least one major personality disorder and a quarter had suffered from a major depressive disorder. More shockingly, 89.4 per cent of the prison population have a substance addiction or dependence disorder.
The vast majority of people with mental disorders do not go on to victimise people, but the high rates of mental illness among people who have harmed others gives me pause. Mental illness is never an excuse for hurting people, and wrongdoers must be held accountable, but people on both sides of hurtful experiences likely need help.
It's easy to cast someone as a villain, but as this week has shown, it's impossible to know what someone is grappling with internally. It may be time for us to put our compassion where our condemnation is.