In Plato’s The Republic, Socrates makes the point that when the parts of the soul are in balance there is justice and that imbalances lead to injustices. But even if true, what does that say of justice itself? How do we achieve a just world, a just society, or even a moment of justice? Especially when every indication is that we are living in an unjust world. Why do we commit to justice, then let injustice fester and grow?
“All too often, when we see injustice, both great and small, we think, ‘That’s terrible,’ but we do nothing. We say nothing,” says Roxanne Gay in Bad Feminist. “We let other people fight their own battles. We remain silent because silence is easier. Qui tacet concentire videtur is Latin for ‘Silence gives consent.’ When we say nothing, when we do nothing, we are consenting to these trespasses against us.”
When we stay silent in the face of injustice, we consent for trespass against others. We have grown so comfortable with this communal scapegoating that we often ignore it until we experience it, and then like those in similar positions before us, we are shocked to find ourselves falling off a cliff with no hands reaching out to save us. It is easy to speak out against bullying and abuse in the classroom or in the pages of a book, but how many of us have the bravery to stand up on the playground of life to defend others?
Justice requires messiness. This is not a simple world of good versus evil. Our lives are lived in the edges and margins, and it is there we encounter injustice. Too often, when faced with these moments we turn away. It is much easier to point and name the failures in others than it is to name them within ourselves.
We tend to get drawn into major moments of injustice, responding with vigils and marches, never realizing that it is the things just beneath the interest of the larger society that often lead to the greatest harm to the individual caught within them. In the 1980’s. there was a movie about two poor kids growing up in Texas (played by famous siblings Helen and Christian Slater) who take on the town bully and his father after the bully and friends beat the brother and ruin his scooter. The entire issue of justice for the Davy’s in the movie is enough money to repair or replace the scooter, which they rely on to get to work they need to survive. As is often the case, both in movies and in life, they become criminals and fugitives because they try to achieve justice for the things that happened to them. In the end, it takes an outside agent and justice includes the duo having to leave the only home they have ever known. It bears a message that justice can be costly.
Too often we give up on the creation of justice and the eradication of injustice because it is hard – much harder than just walking through the world with blinders, or even worse, sitting under a tree canopy pretending the world doesn't lie just beyond the leaves. When we cannot see a solution, we turn our faces away and pretend that not knowing is equal to justice. In this, humans are like the walls of a house, insulating an insidious form of toxic mold just under the surface in our communities. Like Walk Disney World, we have built an elaborate system of tunnels and passageways so that guests into our space are never confronted as others remove trash under their feet. We do this until something happens that tosses us into the muck. Instead of seeking a plumber at the first sign of a clog, we wait until the entire sewer has backed into our collective basement. And when we do this, we fail at justice now and we fail to create pathways toward greater justice in the future. Glennon Doyle says something similar in Untamed. “Every philanthropist, if she is paying attention, eventually becomes an activist. If we do not, we risk becoming codependent with power – saving the system’s victims while the system collects the profits, then pats us on the head for her service. We’ve become injustice’s foot soldiers.”
She continues. “In order to avoid being complicit with those upstream, we must become the people of And/Both. We must commit to pulling our brothers and sisters out of the river and also commit to going upstream to identify, confront, and hold accountable those who are pushing them in.”
So, what do you do when you have faced injustice and confronted your own role in its long legacy? Can you correct an injustice, or is it better to let past injustices stand and instead pledge to do better in the future? Is it ever too late for justice delayed to become a reality?
It is not an easy question to ask because history has shown that those who become hyper-focused on justice too often never see it achieved. Movements are like waves upon a shore, and each wave brings the whole ocean closer to highest tide, but each individual wave is driven by those still coming behind it. A movement toward justice will never be complete.
The truth of justice movements, however, is only one side of justice. What of individual justice, for a person wronged in a specific way? How many years after an occurrence of abuse, trauma, or neglect is it legitimate to stand and speak for those harmed? Can we center love and compassion in a way that truly heals? Poet Alice Walker confronted this question often in her work, and it is her answer in “The Mother of Trees” which speaks most to a heart seeking justice, describing it in the terms of the human desire to protect our children from the things we ourselves might have endured. (from Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart).
“If I could be the mother of Wind I would blow all fear away from you. If I could be the mother of Water I would wash out the path that frightens you. If I were the mother of Trees I would plant my tallest children around your feet that you might climb beyond all danger. But alas, I am only a mother of humans whose magic powers have vanished since we allow our littlest ones to face injustice suffering & the unholiest of terrors alone.”
We might not be brave enough to confront injustice by ourselves, but in community we can create new truth. We can change the story so that poets look back someday and see the magic restored to humanity, and a just world reflecting hope.