what is the rule of law and why does it matter?
In a country that follows the rule of law, the laws and penalties are the same for everyone. Under that definition, there isn’t a country in the world that is entirely following the rule of law. A lot of countries, maybe even most, believe in it and work towards it, however, and that is important.
When people are able to go around the law if they are rich or powerful, that causes problems.
If people are more harshly punished because they are poor or a minority, that causes problems.
When the heads of government use their power to go around laws and ignore them, that causes problems.
If governments pass laws that make some people legally “better” than others, that’s a problem.
problems when we don’t follow the rule of law:
When laws are easy to understand and fair, people benefit. If laws are enforced the same for rich people and poor, Black people and white, people benefit.
When you look at the United State’s laws, it looks like laws are the same for everyone, but in practice, it’s not really true. I bet you can think of lots of ways that the rule of law isn’t followed. Here are some examples I run into that affect peoples’ mental health directly:
- A couple is getting divorced. One partner has money for a lawyer, the other doesn’t. Even though the one without a lawyer has been doing most of the caregiving, the one with the lawyer is awarded the child.
- A well-off person and a poor person get tickets for speeding. The well-off person gets their ticket “fixed” by a lawyer, pays a fine for a lower offense, and has no “marks” on their license or insurance. A poorer person pays the fine and their insurance goes up. Or perhaps they also lose their license because they have too many “marks”. They might even be unable to afford the fine and have to spend time in jail.
- A family has been reported to child services for abuse or neglect. Many children go unprotected because they have the “right” kind of family. If the family is wealthy, and/or white, or and/or straight, even if there is abuse, the child is likely to stay in the home. For families that are poor and/or people of color and/or LGBTQ, the child is more likely to be taken from them. Even if that family did nothing wrong.
when our leaders don’t follow the rule of law:
Because most countries believe in rule of law even if they don’t always practice it, a country that doesn’t follow rule of law — that is corrupt, in other words:
- Loses allies throughout the world.
- Makes bargains that benefit leaders and not the country they lead.
- Develops policies that are inconsistent and don’t make sense
just and unjust laws and the rule of law:
As many people realize, not all laws are just (fair). Many people think it’s unfair that colleges are too expensive to save for, now. Others feel its unfair that Fair Wage laws aren’t enforced and that white men still make more than other people regardless of job or talent. Some notice that the fact that schools are paid for by local income taxes means that schools aren’t equal. People have grappled all through history with how to handle unfair laws.
Do you try to change the law by becoming a leader? What about protesting? Unionizing? When all else has failed and people continue to be seriously harmed by laws, that situation can cause riots and even wars.
mental health and the rule of law:
When your country or your state or your neighborhood or your life is affected by legal injustice, it affects your mental health.
- When people lose faith that elections are honest, they endure a low-level stress every day and a feeling that, in general, life is unfair.
- If a law punishes you for just existing in a world where you aren’t a majority you can add things such as losing opportunities and even being killed “extrajudicially” (outside the law) to this. This includes things like
- Gay people being unable to marry or adopt children.
- Black people being shot for traffic tickets and even less.
- Women being fired for being pregnant.
- Natives being forced to send their children away for school.
If laws are unjust, whether you’re being directly affected by a legal problem or not, it creates a sense of uncertainty. What if I get caught in one of those situations? Suppose they decide I was resisting arrest? Who is going to come to my defense if they fire me for my race or gender or sexual orientation?
your mental health and the rule of law:
When you visit a therapist for the first time, and you have been affected by unjust laws in some way or another, that therapist will not be able to fix that law for you. However, there are many things they can do. If your therapist attempts to ignore this legal context of your life, try explaining again, and if they insist the context of your life doesn’t matter, and you can’t see your way to health otherwise, seek a new therapist.
A therapist can:
- Teach you skills that help you cope day to day, and on your worst days, with the effects of injustice.
- Help you learn how to communicate with people in power in ways that are less likely to lead to injustices.
- Validate your anger and disgust at the injustices you have faced.
- Help you look for or provide resources that can fight or lessen the effects of injustices.
- Advocate on your behalf to systems that have been unjust to you.
- Work with you to develop plans that allow you to make a difference in changing the injustice that challenges you.
- Possibly even connect you with others facing the same injustice to work together.
when someone says the rule of law is “no big deal”
You know better, right?
When they say it’s no big deal if a politician uses their office to bribe or threaten someone, you can teach them why it is.
If they say that such-and-so category of person “doesn’t deserve justice”, you’ll be able to say “oh, yes they do”, even if the category is sex offenders and the justice is a jail sentence (hopefully with substantial treatment to keep them from harming others).
When you see someone who is down and out, you’ll be able to look at their actions and the unjust actions of the world that acted on them. If they are doing something harmful, you will treat them as human as you stop them from harming.
You can teach others through your actions and words. As each one reaches one, we become better at being just and fair. We work harder to create and enforce just and fair laws. And that constant tingling of anxiety because we feel like the world is against us eases, just a bit.
You can find my work at (deep breath) Twitter, YouTube, SoundCloud, Patreon (go ahead and join. There are benefits!) and Discord (to be opened on January 1 2020). As of December 31, 2020, I will be deactivating all of my Facebook profiles, pages, and groups.
When I wrote this in November of 2020, my best friend Kathy Malone was still thousands of dollars away from the $20,000 she needs to stay eligible for a heart transplant. Go to GoFundMe and read her story, and if you can chip in a buck or twenty, please do.