Damager: On Worth, Language, and Justice

Inspired by The Differend by Jean-Francois Lyotard.

It’s true that to hurt an animal is to hurt that which cannot bear witness to damage. This is why to hurt an animal is to point toward the inevitable differend at the heart of most damage. To damage someone is to communicate: damage says, “I have control over your worth.” Every damage is an action that reduces worth.

Worth need not only be external (economic) but is also internal (emotional): you can damage someone and hurt their sense of self-worth. But because this worth belongs to them and them alone, it is inexpressible, and here lies the differend. An animal can’t bear witness to damage on account of its lack of language, but a human, even with idioms at their disposal, cannot speak to that which is so personal and have others understand. Others can approximate, but nobody knows the hurt eating away at the heart of the damaged, who is now situated in opposition to the damager in the universe to which they have recourse for attempting to speak.

There is no cognitive, sensible language game to play; self-worth doesn’t make sense or have an objective metric. We exist as subjects and as such have the ability to give ourselves worth and feel that gift. There doesn’t need to be an objective metric because objectivity is not at stake. For that reason, the worth cannot be communicated, and the damage done cannot be expressed. “I am hurt” implies a state of being but not one that can be seen because it is not physical. “I feel hurt” communicates something even less concrete. “I feel worthless” gets more specific but no more tangible.

The damager will never understand, and neither will the tribunal (legal or logical) that deems an action as damage, or validates the feelings of the damaged, or even lets the damaged be damaged. The damaged themself won’t even understand; hurt is felt, not thought.

It’s worth noting that we’ve used “hurt” as a verb, a noun, and an adjective. Each of these forms is distinct grammatically but point toward the same basic fact: that somebody is experiencing something negative as the result of an action. To hurt is to cause a negative experience. Hurt (noun) is the experience caused by the action. Hurt (adjective) means experiencing something negative as the result of the action. Damage can also be used in these three forms, but it has to do with worth, not experience. To damage is to diminish another’s worth. Damage is the action itself, or the sum (monetary or an approximate emotional toll) of the diminishment. Damaged means diminished in worth as the result of an action.

To say that one is hurt (adjective) when damaged (verb) means that their negative experience is tied directly to a loss of worth, which is incommunicable because it is expressed as a feeling as it relates to the self. We are effectively the damaged animal without recourse to language despite the fact we have just outlined three respective forms of two different words that all relate to the experience we are trying to communicate.

So, how do we achieve justice in instances of invisible, subjective, emotional damage? You can’t prove it because you can’t communicate it, hence why we use the word differend, an instance of the unspeakable (or not-yet-speakable if we’re feeling optimistic). Just because somebody can’t speak something and can’t meet the objective metric for validity established by logic does not mean that thing isn’t real.

I’m not talking about “my truth” vs. “your truth” in a spiritual sense. I’m talking about lived experience as incommunicable, yet in most instances we believe that other people are experiencing what they say they are experiencing. It’s the moment justice is at stake that we get itchy. Yes, people lie about being damaged, and people sometimes prove they should not be believed, but the logic of “innocent until proven guilty” always conveniently works in the damager’s favor.

The damaged has just as much to lose, maybe not in a legal sense, but certainly in social, political, and emotional senses. That we believe damagers is due to conditioning, not any real ethical standard. Hell, ethics itself is incommunicable, at least prior to its being translated into a code that gives it a truth status it can’t claim because it’s a predominantly emotional sensation. Ethics does not reside in the law; ethics is what we feel is right then justify after the fact by means of language games that in a very literal way make no sense.

Ethics’ metric is the same as that of any other feeling: subjective, inexpressible, fallible, and, most of all, beautiful. But for that same reason, we can’t elevate it beyond its actual bounds. We need to acknowledge that the hegemony of (American) ethics is also rooted in conditioning. Justice resides in a much more ambiguous space than any legal system would have us believe.

I don’t know what to do with this except for encourage people to listen to one another, which feels like a hippie-hippie response to the slow dissolution of ethical and legal language games, but I can’t think of anything else we can do except give people space to express themselves and try our best to glean understanding.

Understanding is maybe a better end than what we currently signal with the word justice, because even if that understanding is technically impossible, there’s maybe a version of communication where all parties feel heard, and there’s no possible end that leaves anybody satisfied based on how flimsy the bases of our current ethical convictions are.


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Tommy Kessler

Chicago-based writer and musician. 1970s drug-fueled private investigator.