Retributive Justice, Cancel Culture, and The Stranger

Under the policy of retributive justice, any harmful act is punished by an act of equal harm to the perpetrator; this policy is often summed up in the biblical phrase, “an eye for an eye” — if someone stabs another person’s eye, their own eye is stabbed as punishment. Retributive justice can be found throughout The Stranger, most notably when Meursault’s murder of the Arab is found to be punishable by death.

Yet, much of the prosecutor’s argument against Meursault stems from his complete lack of emotion, particularly with regards to his mother’s death, stating during the trial that “‘Tomorrow, gentlemen, this same court is to sit in judgement of the most monstrous of crimes: the murder of a father . . . I suggest to you that the man who is seated in the dock [Meursault] is also guilty of the murder to be tried in this court tomorrow” (101/102). In essence, Meursault is sentenced to death for a lack of emotion — clearly, this punishment is significantly disproportionate to the charge.

To continue the analogy of “an eye for an eye” punishment, this sort of disproportionately retributive justice would be as if someone breaks another person’s glasses, and as punishment has their eye stabbed.

In the modern day, this is comparable to cancel culture, in which people are essentially blacklisted from society for relatively minor offenses. One notable trait of cancel culture is that all individuals are punished equally through societal exclusion, regardless of the severity of their actions, and this is portrayed in a similar fashion in The Stranger in the two drastically different reasons provided for Meursault’s execution.

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