I wonder if you have ever heard a sentiment along the lines of ‘we will never forget’ in relation to such tragedies as the Holocaust? How about the words, ‘we will never again let history repeat itself’? Or a remark that sexist and racist views are ‘outdated’ or ‘of a different time’? Or a reference to ‘the bygone era’ of slavery/colonialism/etc.?
Recently, particularly in relation to the coverage of #MeToo, I have found myself feeling frustrated by declarations of ‘watershed moments’ and ‘the ushering in of a new time’. I have also found the way that those such as Harvey Weinstein or Larry Nassar have been villified deeply problematic.
This is absolutely not because I disagree with the #MeToo movement and it is definitely not because I wish to defend to any extent the actions of either Weinstein or Nassar. Rather, it is because I wish to take issue with the way that we use language to talk about historical struggles against injustice, and the way we understand injustice more generally.
Firstly, when we situate injustices as occurring in particular contexts or time-frames, we act to reduce the relevancy or applicability of what has happened (or is happening) from our own contexts, and deny the possibility of its reoccurring. This is partly what we do in vilifying (and why we vilify) particular people involved. If the Holocaust is centrally connected to the particularity of Adolf Hitler, then we are less able to recognise our own complicity in the atrocities that are contemporary to us (for example, in what is currently happening to the Rohingya*).
Another consequence of this is that we grow complacent, priding ourselves on our being better ‘more progressive’ people now than those others at time x or y. We then ignore our own susceptibility in reproducing the injustice around us, and abdicate our responsibility for injustice – perhaps on some sort of mistaken view that inevitably things will get better without us doing anything, because history is fundamentally progressive.
We cannot take for granted that things will get better. The decisions we make about how we respond to climate change will have real impacts that are in no sense ‘inevitable’. How we advocate for those in need, or discuss what stance our society takes on foreign aid or welfare provision or immigration is important because it has huge consequences for peoples lives. Consequences that are in no way a ‘given’ because we are ‘in the 21st century’.
I think that one way we can help ourselves to fight against injustice is to be aware of this and the way that we all too often oppose injustice by dehumanising dehumanizers or by constructing a notion of ‘fighting for justice’ as a battle in opposition to an ‘other’.
By doing this we obscure from view the pervasive injustice that exists in our world. What’s more, our ‘fights’ will ultimately end in failure: injustice is not somehow located within an ‘other’ or in a particular individual’s actions.
What I would like you to think about, then, is how you conceive of injustice. Do you conceive of yourself as on a particular side of justice vs. injustice, rather than as split across both? Do you think of your social choices and actions as having a real impact on how just this world is? And to what extent do you think ‘deterministically’ about the injustice in the world?
I find it helpful to think about justice in terms of a single struggle against injustice. This is not a struggle with sides, but a collective struggle. One in which it is recognised that we must deal directly with the deeply human origins of injustice, and the tendency within each of us for pride and complacency and our own forms of complicity in evil and injustice. A collective struggle in which we work together to fight ideologies that fuel injustice and oppression (where some are systemically privileged in relation to others).
When we fight for justice we must therefore recognize that although we may identify two sides in any one particular injustice – say, an oppressor and an oppressed – the process in achieving justice cannot not occur only on a single side. We are all a part of the problem for we all have a stake in injustice: and consequently we are all required in attaining the solution. I am sure this is partly why Jesus commands us to ‘love our enemies’ – only by recognizing the humanity of an enemy can we achieve the sort of true justice that exists collectively.
What are your thoughts?
*The Rohingya are a persecuted ethnic minority who have been violently evicted from Myanmar by the military and Buddhist extremists. Over the past year, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have been driven from their homes and are now residing in refugee camps in Bangladesh. (more info: in 90 seconds, longer article, donate to Tearfund)