Justice and Humanity -- or, "Why you gotta be so mean about everything?"

Brian Gongol

It's been announced that the 100th anniversary of the Woodbury County Courthouse will be celebrated with a series of events in May. If you're unfamiliar with the crown jewel of architecture in Sioux City, you really ought to make an effort to see it at least once -- or, at the very least, indulge in some photography of the place.

It's a truly magnificent work of Prairie School architecture -- earth-toned horizontal lines, proto-Art-Deco metal work, and stunning colored glass. And the art! Sculptures in relief and painted figures all over. It's the best kind of public space: The kind I call a cathedral to public service.

But the very best thing about this magnificent building isn't how beautiful it is. Its very best feature is a set of three words on the facade: "Justice and Humanity".

Indeed. There are hardly any three words that better define the work that ought to take place in a courthouse.

In fact, there are hardly any three words that ought better to define what takes place any time people deal with their law -- or each other. And that's a sentiment worth reviving right now.

I am worried about the meanness on display -- on Facebook walls, in online comment sections, on talk radio shows, and throughout cable "news". People who have every right to express an opinion are eager to show just how much they want other people to suffer.

It's what you see when someone buys a coffee mug with a label like "Liberal Tears", as though it's somehow virtuous to refresh yourself with the weeping of someone who just happens to disagree with you.

It's what you see when someone wears a shirt or slaps on a bumper sticker that says "F*** you for voting for him", as though a vote isn't often a complex and multidimensional thing.

It's what you see when anyone says they are gratified, somehow, by watching others suffer pain.

America, we're supposed to be better than this. A whole lot better than this.

There should be nothing gratifying about the suffering of our political opponents. We don't scalp the other side after battle -- not even in war, and certainly not in the political sphere. If our relatively recent forebears thought it wasn't just possible but necessary to rebuild Germany and Japan out of the ashes of World War II, then surely we have it within ourselves to think that justice AND humanity can coexist in our ordinary American lives.

There are lots of things about which to disagree. The world grows irreversibly more complex by the day, as technology, the economy, and even the ever-growing world population create more choices, more questions, and more potential conflicts than ever before. That's fine! Because along with the complexity come new freedoms, new opportunities, and new ways for us as people to improve ourselves and our own lives.

But we're not going to get any better if we take joy in celebrating others' failures. Of course we're going to have opponents and rivals. Of course we're going to have differences of opinion on strongly-felt issues. And sometimes, we may have very good reason to want someone on the "other side" of something to fail -- especially if what they're doing is likely to cause harm to others.

Wanting someone else's project to fail, though, is different from wanting them to suffer. "Justice and humanity", together, demand that the right things happen (that's justice) but demand also that we want them to happen the right way and for the right reasons (that's humanity).

There's no room for meanness in it, and that's not some kind of postmodernist hippie-think. It's just a reminder posted a century ago on a courthouse wall.