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Of Justice in Modern America

One could fill a library full of books on the subject of justice. From Plato to Locke to Marx to Rawls justice has been the topic of philosophers and demagogues since the dawn of civilization. I too have taken my crack at it. I spent a full year, 6 days a week, doing nothing but working on my own vision of justice and how it can be measured in educational policy as the heart of my doctoral dissertation. We live in an age of soaring expectations of justice, juxtaposed by the daily news from around the world of how injustice prevails. It is easy to just become cynical and say “Who cares. What can I do? Why should I even try?”

Justice is a difficult concept because at once it seems so simple, but at the same time it is so complicated. The great American philosopher, John Rawls, titled one of his books “Justice as Fairness”, sounds easy; but the question is fairness to who, regarding what?

How easy is it to read a news story and be sure you know what would be the just thing to do. The reason we tend to do that is news stories are mostly written to lead you to a conclusion as to what the “just” thing to do is in a particular case; however, justice nearly always has many competing interests. In nearly every case there are competing justice concerns not just for the multiple parties directly involved but for the more general political rights and economic rights of society as a whole.

Let’s take a little story from a few years ago when a 5 year-old kindergarten student was suspended from school for giving his “girlfriend” a kiss. The story featured the boy’s angry mother and others saying the punishment was too harsh and the label of the event “sexual harassment” inappropriate.

So, who deserves justice in this case? The press reports put all the readers focus on the injustice of calling a 5-year old a sex-offender, but what of the little girl? What of the teacher and principal who were being pilloried on a national stage? What about the needs of the other student’s whose education was negatively impacted by the national attention? What of future students who would be treated differently because of the attention? What of the taxpayers whose hard earned money goes to defend the school against a law suit by an aggressive attorney?

So, even if we had a full and 100% accurate account of everything that happened (which is not possible), how would we balance all the justice needs?

In this case, a few days later the little girl’s mother came forward and said she’d complained repeatedly that her daughter did not like the boy touching her. The school was required to say nothing so as to preserve the rights of all students and by so doing subjected the staff to harsh attacks in both the press and on social media.

Some want to pretend that it is possible to have complete justice for all. I would suggest that is simply not possible. Justice as fairness involves making trade-offs between what is fair to different people, groups and interests. In the above case all parties want to feel validated by the system of justice and that is not possible.

As a former educational administrator, my frame of reference is naturally school settings. In a well-run school, the needs of the adults take a back seat in justice to the needs of children. While saying this explicitly might seem harsh, this sort of prioritization is necessarily present in any justice issue in a social setting. The question of who’s needs matter most must be addressed head on?

A well known class action lawsuit in California brought this conflict between justice for adults verses justice for children to the fore. In the suit on behalf of a large group of low income children, it was contended that such children get a substandard education because teacher’s union rules allow the most experienced teachers to go to the most affluent schools, thus leaving the poor kids with the least experienced teachers and thus the least effective education. The facts in the case are all well established. The most experienced and skilled teachers are overwhelmingly in the most affluent schools and school districts are prohibited by union contract from requiring those teachers to teach in the poor schools. Further the single most important thing to a child in a classroom is the skill and experience of the teacher.

The question was what is just? Did the rights of the experienced teachers to avoid the challenges of teaching at low-income schools outweigh the needs of poor children to get the same quality education as their more wealthy peers? The court concluded (rightly) that the rights of teachers do not trump the rights of poor children to get an equal education. So, in this case (that is still being litigated) the court picked winners and losers. What was just for one group of people is unjust for another. In cases like this there is no practical way to preserve justice for all the players.

The point is that in the real world, some people will have to live with an injustice. There is no way around it. To pretend that that is not true is to defy reality.

There are those who spend their life trying to vilify those who seek justice for themselves (or their group) at the expense of the speaker (or their group). Such people simply ignore the fact that justice for them may well necessitate injustice for someone else. Thus they are not the moral paragons they want to pretend they are.

My favorite philosopher on justice lived in a world where the levels of justice we expect on a daily basis were beyond anyone’s hope or even conception. Under military occupation and a puppet government there was no hope of any sort of justice for the ordinary people. So, what did he tell his poor and disenfranchised followers?

Did he organize rallies and protests? No. In his case, living under an unfathomably brutal Roman Empire, the result of civil disobedience would have been wholesale slaughter verging on genocide. So in that case he did not dwell on the conditions and how unfair everything was? No. How would that have helped anyone? Did he try to start a revolution and take up arms to fight tyranny? No. His people tried that a generation later and their ancient civilization was completely erased from their ancestral lands.

So what did he do? In that case, Jesus told his followers that justice and truth can live in each of us no matter what the outside world might do. No one can take our personal commitment to live out a life of justice for others. He must have foreseen the end of his people’s nation and religious institutions and instead told people that true human value and true religion does not come from external processes and actions but from an inner light that is committed to treating everyone with love and respect.

An alternative approach was that of Gandhi. In his case, his people too suffered under an oppressive foreign imperial ruler. However, unlike Rome, Imperial Great Britton had a public moral conscience to which Gandhi could appeal. The British Government has long had an image of itself of enlightenment, and he used that self image as his leverage. Passive civil disobedience he knew would highlight the oppressive behaviors inconsistent with the image they had of their empire, and thus force a moral reckoning. This approach worked for Gandhi because there was a broad commitment to justice. That commitment did not need to be universal, only strong enough to counter those who were willing to use any force necessary to bring the “disobedient children” to heel.

This passive approach has not always worked on oppression by those who claim to work from a moral frame-work. It did not work for those in the late Middle Ages who sought to highlight the corruption in the church. They were massacred and the oppression continued. It was only when Martin Luther successfully appealed to the German princes to use their force of arms to protect him and the reform movement was the nascent reformation safe from the brutally oppressive “Christian” leaders. While that offered a temporary safety, the violence begun over the Reformation lasted for centuries and the told in human death and destruction has no parallel in Europe until the 20th century. Use of force always comes with a risk.

Martin Luther King Jr. sought to use Gandhi’s approach with the “Christians” in the American South and failed. What he found was there was no moral core to use as leverage with the so called Christians in the South. In the end he used a blend of methods used by Gandhi and Martin Luther by appealing to the moral self-image of the United States population as a whole. When the US population was swayed by images of brutal injustice, force of arms by the United States federal government were used to stop the so called “Christian” people of the South from perpetuating their systematic injustice and violence. We make a mistake in thinking that MLK’s non-violent approach worked in the southern states. It did not. Recent events remind us all that without the power of the federal government Jim Crow would be in force today. The lack of a moral foundation in the white Southern brand of Christianity has not changed one bit in the last half-century. The only change has been that the “anti-Christian” Christianity has spread well outside the Deep South. In particular it has almost completely supplanted the liberal Christianity of the Mid-West.

In the end, when faced with systemic injustice we have three choices.

When the oppressor is willing to use overwhelming violence and there is no real chance of change, the only path forward is to learn to live with the injustice. This is what Jesus taught.

When the injustice is practiced by people with an underlying morality, protest and civil disobedience can bring such people to themselves. What is required is the willingness to suffer publicly long enough until the inconsistencies between the moral self-image of a society is so incensed that they make the hard changes necessary to bring the actions of their leaders into line with their morality.

The last option is when the oppressors are not likely to resort to mass killing, nor will they respond to appeals to a higher moral nature. This is the most dangerous path of all and there is no way to predict the cost, nor any guarantee of success. This option is the use of raw power and at least an implicit threat of overwhelming violence.

In almost all cases where an oppressed people were freed from an overlord, the assistance of a powerful outside ally has been required. For Martin Luther it was the German princes. For Martin Luther King Jr. it was armed intervention by the United States government. In the former actual bloodshed was required and the costs were beyond anything that Martin Luther could have ever imagined. I suspect had he been able to see the future cost, he would have willingly handed himself over to the Pope to be burned at the stake. In the case of Martin Luther King Jr. actual use of the threatened violence by the US government was not necessary. Despite their anger and rhetoric, the Southern leaders knew they would be instantly destroyed had they resorted to armed conflict with the United States Army.

Today, at least for now, we Americans live in a country where the ballot box gives control of the US Government and all the power it possesses. We should all be thankful to the leaders of the US armed forces who, unlike some federal agencies, have taken a firm stand that they will not act in a way that is inconsistent with their moral code no matter who gives them orders to do so. Thus, while protests and civil disobedience can indeed have a positive effect, that effect must translate into a mass movement to vote the oppressors out of office. In some places that simply won’t happen, especially in the South where the moral fabric of the over class has never come to grips with the immorality of slavery, let alone Jim Crow.

If social justice is to come to America nation-wide, it must come from seizing control of the federal government via elections. Not just of the coming election in November, but elections for decades. To be clear, that does not mean “Democrat” or “Republican,” it means both Democrats and Republicans must drive those who reject broad social justice from their parties and power.

In the late 1970’s we American thought we had reached a point where the path of social justice had passed the tipping point where it could not be undone. At that time, both parties were committed to social justice. We were wrong. The ideology of personal selfishness and white supremacy were only biding their time. They did not go away.

The white supremacist Democrats simply changed party affiliation to join those Republicans who had long espoused policies that promoted selfishness at any cost to others. Combined the two groups formerly opposed to each other reframed the white supremacist agenda and over the next twenty years quite literally drove all the traditional Republicans out of the party. Those people who glorify selfishness and have no regard for the welfare of others will never change. It is foolish to think they want to change. Protests and civil disobedience about social injustice only hardens their commitment to win at any cost. Only force of arms will make them back down.

No, not armed resistance or political violence. That is a futile and counterproductive approach. Use of violence simply further resolves the oppressors to use violence in response. Rioting and burning might be cathartic, but it undermines the goal of social justice. It also ignores the reality that in today’s United States the real power is firmly vested in the federal government. The force of arms necessary to bring social justice are, and have long been, the same arms used by Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson: federal law enforcement and the US Army.

We have no way of knowing what will happen in November. Yes we need to vote, but I would assume anyone who has read the last 2,400 words will be voting. But what happens after? On an individual level what do we do?

Each of us has, to some level, influence over others. Trite answers and simple memes may feel good, but they almost always simplify the complicated issues of justice to a point that truth is distorted even when the motive of the meme maker is justice. We can never succumb to the thinking error that the means justifies the end. No matter how good something feels, no matter how much we want it to yield a positive result; if it is not true and just in and of itself, it is not going to further the cause of social justice. We must commit ourselves to act in a way that uses just means. Otherwise no matter how much we work toward social justice, we will never reach a just end.

Each of us has an obligation to speak and act in a way that recognizes the multiple demands of justice and the understanding that those demands are often contradictory. This wisdom must come before we speak or act.

Second we must learn to live a life of inner contentment via that understanding. Social justice does not, nor will it ever mean full and complete justice for every single person. This realization removes the need for utopian solutions. It acknowledges that we all have to sacrifice some of what we want and even some level of personal fairness to achieve the goal of a just society. We must be able to live in contentment while sacrificing some level of fairness when it comes to our own life. By this path we can indeed control our own inner peace. The advice of Jesus (and the Buddha, Confucius and others) to be content no matter the external conditions has never ceased to be the cornerstone of a life well lived.

We all have a voice and influence, no matter how small, and that voice matters.

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