In interactions on everything from the gender wage gap to racial inequalities and gaps in representation, I often get asked some version of the question, “When will you be satisfied?” I imagine many of you out there too get asked this, in a frustrated or confused or even idly curious tone: Some version of the question, “When will you be done agitating?”
The context makes the exact point different in each case, of course. When it comes to the wage gap, I’m asked, “Do you insist that women and men are represented perfectly 51-49 or 50-50 in each industry?” When it comes to racial representation and diversity issues, I’m asked (in effect), “Do you insist that it can’t possibly be fair unless there’s literally 12-13 black Senators, 5-6 Asian Senators, 17 Hispanic Senators, and so forth”? But in each case, the assumption is that, if I’m using a representation gap to indicate evidence of inequality, then my perceived solution is to demand that there is precisely equal representation in each industry.
That’s not at all my position, and I don’t know of anyone’s position that it ever has been. Dr. King in “Operation Breadbasket” insisted on something similar to this: As the King Encyclopedia at Stanford indicates, “[t]he group obtained employment statistics for industries selling their products in black communities and, if these statistics demonstrated that blacks were underemployed or restricted to menial positions, ministers from Operation Breadbasket asked the company to ’negotiate a more equitable employment practice’ [King’s words in 1967]. If the company refused, clergy encouraged their parishioners to boycott selected products and picket businesses selling those products”. But even here, King wasn’t demanding on literal proportional representation as a fixed fact. Rather, he was reacting to the obvious injustice of the time and insisting that a company that didn’t hire proportionately indicate that it was making all efforts (in today’s terms, all “affirmative action”) to do so.
In contrast, my desire is that justice actually be achieved.
And this is the deeper, and much more dangerous, assumption behind the questions that ask us when we will feel that we are done.
It’s based on a worldview and an idea of justice, likely rooted in wishful thinking, that has to be confronted.
This idea views injustice sort of like spring cleaning, or a juice cleanse, or a race. It’s a specific task that has to be finished.
In White Like Me, Tim Wise recounts a girl who, after a talk of his, said that she wanted to “get busy on this racism thing, so I can still have time to save the rainforests before I have to sell out and get a real job”. This is an astonishingly common idea among young liberals, white liberals especially, but it’s also an indication of an idea of how justice and injustice operates.
For these people, injustice is a momentary deviation from an otherwise-just status quo. It’s akin to a process I’ve discussed in the past, of putting a golden age in the past and imagining that we are just sliding away from it. The pessimistic version of this view is to assume that this decline is permanent, and the optimistic view is that we are in a brief and bad interlude, but both are based in ways that the brain recalls the past (aided by no small bit of privilege and being shielded from the worst catastrophes in the world): we don’t tend to remember the mediocre, only the superlative and the awful, and it can be easy to assume that the fixed past was more superlative than awful.
When you think this way, achieving justice becomes rather like finishing a quest in a video game. You get your reward, you get the ending, and then it’s over. You may be able to keep playing in the game, but that problem never recurs.
The real world doesn’t work that way. The real world is at best more like a massively multiplayer roleplaying game: there’s always new quests to do and new problems to fix.
I’ve been accused of being a perpetual optimist and indeed a Polyanna. I am indeed quite optimistic. But I don’t believe the world is intrinsically just, or unjust. It is what it is. We get what we can from it, as a species. We draw the food we can from the rocks and from the animals. We strive for greater science, greater art and greater discovery, precisely because what we have to leave behind in that striving isn’t enough.
So I recognize that it may seem like a bit of a dodge, a naked copout, when I tell someone, “I don’t have a specific one-size-fits-all standard for what I want to see in terms of outcomes. I want to see procedural justice. I want to know that people are treated fairly and are able to achieve whatever is best possible, and I want to expand the range of that possibility”. But it’s the only answer that can be given.
Perhaps we’ll find that, even with equal representation in politics and economics, women still face a new kind of barrier. Maybe changing the way that our home lives can be lived will require adjustments to culture that we can’t dream of yet. I don’t know.
What I do know is that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.
Or, to quote Noam Chomsky in his debate with Foucault: “It seems to me that the difference isn’t between legality and ideal justice; it’s rather between legality and better justice. I would agree that we are certainly in no position to create a system of ideal justice, just as we are in no position to create an ideal society in our minds. We don’t know enough and we’re too limited and too biased and all sorts of other things. But we are in a position-and we must act as sensitive and responsible human beings in that position to imagine and move towards the creation of a better society and also a better system of justice”.
Or, to quote Tim Wise at the end of White Like Me: “[T]here is no such place as ‘justice’., if by that we envision a finish line… There is no looming vacation. But there is redemption in struggle”. In fact, as Wise makes clear, the ability to focus on outcomes, on your efficacy, is itself a privilege. Our Paleolithic ancestors could only imagine success in terms of the ability to survive as best as they could. Only when a society gives you not only resources but tremendous resources can you begin to think about how to achieve great outcomes, to calculate costs and benefits in an analytical and intellectually removed way. Anyone who’s seen war, or death, or even just tried to fight for and maintain reforms and civilizational progress, knows that you can fight a good fight and lose, and that doesn’t invalidate the good fight.
(Crucially, this insight is not to say that we shouldn’t care about outcomes, or efficiency, or putting our efforts where they are best suited. Of course we should. But that realization that all that matters only comes about when you understand what the goods you are working to achieve are in any kind of sense; otherwise, you are put into the positions that conservatives so often put us into, of trying to pretend that security at the cost of liberty and at the cost of justice is not an exchange of a finite value for an infinite one).
Justice, freedom, solidarity, diversity, equity… these aren’t goals. They are values. Specific goals to achieve those values will always be around.
A just society is like buying a home. You don’t ever get a chance to sit down and say that you’re done with your home, that there will never be a leak, a broken wall, a shattered glass. The Second Law of Thermodynamics alone denies that possibility. We are fighting a constant war against entropy, and you can see that in society too. We have to constantly educate a new generation to have at least the same capacities we do; we constantly have to produce new resources to consume and divide them up equitably. When we achieve one social reform, another problem rears its ugly head.
The beloved community that Dr. King dreamed of can be achieved. But it will be achieved by a process, by systems that auto-correct and deal with new threats in ways that maintain and expand justice.
So when we fight to close the wage gap, to expand opportunities and resources, to deal with psychic harms inflicted to people and to try to create a norm of respect and empathy, we can’t offer those who ask us some finish line to point to as a goal. We can only offer them the reality that the good fight is its own reward.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.