The other day I had a long conversation with a colleague of mine who joined a “diversity group” on campus. She was frustrated. Frustrated for a lot of reasons. One of which was that this group had devolved to a pretty abusive place. A place where everyone was trying to out-oppress each other (I’m more oppressed as a person of color; I’m more oppressed as a woman of color, etc.) which isn’t always helpful. Add into the mix the folks who believe that white people are incapable of rising above their socialized, inherent, learned and often unconscious racism; and the silencing of divergent views; and your basic, run-of-the-mill homophobic Christians; and the fact that everyone involved is training to be a professional academic and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of intellectual name calling. Sounds like fun.
I asked her was the purpose of this group was, what they hoped to accomplish, why they created it in the first place. “Justice,” she said. “What the hell is that supposed to me?” I asked. She just shook her head.
I suggested that they all needed to read some Cornell West.
It got me thinking, of course. What is justice? What do we mean by justice? It seems like one of those words that we use all the time without really knowing the definition. Not the dictionary definition, but what it means, what we want it to mean, what we want justice to actually accomplish, what it looks like.
(As an aside, it’s like that old definition of pornography I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.)
Seems to me like if you’re working for justice, you need to be working for something. It would be fine if this student group on diversity was meeting to address discriminatory administrative policies, systems to hold professors accountable when they perpetuate racist stereotypes or discriminate against certain groups of students, that sort of thing. But some vague notion of justice with no plan other than to meet periodically and beat each other up doesn’t seem to be advancing the cause of justice.
Cornell West is not at all irrelevant here. According to West, justice is love expressing itself publicly. Which, if you think about it, is a goddamn beautiful sentiment.
Let it sink in. Justice is love expressing itself publicly. What that means, I think anyway, is that we’ve got to call up within ourselves deep, passionate, and unconditional love for other people, even the least among us, to borrow a phrase. Even those who have committed the five grave offenses, to borrow another. Even those we vehemently disagree with. If we approach the world from this place of love, justice naturally follows.
It follows because if you’ve conjured this sort of love within yourself, how can you harm others? How can let others suffer? From this place of love, you work toward ways to end suffering and thus bring about justice.
It’s no small thing, I realize. But it’s a start. We’ve got to start somewhere. Because look around. The world is literally crying out for justice. But the world doesn’t have to be this way. We made the world the way it is; we can make it some other way.
We can, right now, right here, choose to create a different world.