Art & Justice Part Two: Imagining Justice

[find Art & Justice Part One: Inside here]

All of us care about justice. We may not explicitly state our concern and we may not think too much about the grand injustices of the world, but if someone else takes the last five chocolate chip cookies and leaves me without any I feel wronged. It’s not fair. An injustice has been done to me, however trivial.

It takes little imaginative work to see when an injustice has been done to me individually. We probably all have early memories of being treated unfairly, seeing others being given more than us or being punished while others with similar culpability were not. We start off with a strict, formal version of justice as fairness and advocate for it out of self-interest.

Turning our sense of justice outward is a key component of maturing. I may see someone else getting fewer cookies than I got, imagine how that would feel if it were me, then give some of my cookies to them. Unless my imagination of the taste of the cookies overwhelms my sense of justice, in which case I’m eating all my cookies.

Notice that the injustice of not getting my fair share of cookies is inseparable from the desired good of savoring the rich, sweet mix of butter, brown sugar, and chocolate suspended in a chewy, toasty dough. If we imagine justice exclusively as punishment for wrongs done we lose sight of the good of justice, of things being beautiful and good and fair and lovely, that is lost when an injustice is done. Justice is a positive state of things to seek. Injustice is when it has been violated. Even when we imprison someone we have collectively decided that the wrong he or she has done is enough of a violation of the good of our life together in the world that removal from that shared life is the appropriate consequence.


Back to cookies. It requires extra imaginative effort to see that it’s just for my friend with peanut allergies to be given the last two chocolate chip cookies while I get stuck with two peanut butter cookies. I have to begin to imagine justice as personal, adaptive, and connected to the specificity of everyone involved. It can seem unfair or unequal if I still live within an image of justice as abstract and formal, a principle outside or above the particular people involved.

A much larger imaginative leap in our view of justice is required to seek a positive state of justice for others who are thoroughly unlike me. They may live in a different social location from me. Maybe they are geographically different, in another part of the world with a very different culture. Or maybe they are nearby but occupy a different position in our social hierarchies. We may have grown up with differing amounts of money and cultural capital. Or we may have different skin colors and live in a world that has for centuries created and maintained a fiction of race that places radically different values on people based on the color of their skin.

Or maybe they are on the other side of that great wall known as enmity. Whatever structure may have formed us as people opposed to one another — nation or electoral politics or workplace competition or personal harm — the sense of their being unlike me is compounded by the emotion of their also being against me.

Making this imaginative leap to envision a positive justice for my enemies is more than challenging. It’s nearly impossible. When it happens it’s miraculous. Not miraculous in the sense of some magic trick that happened instantly, miraculous in the sense that the time and energy and heart involved are so rarely observed that they seem to step outside of our normal experience of the world.

This imaginative leap requires setting aside for a moment my concern for myself and those like me. Then I must recognize that I can’t simply extrapolate from my own experience to imagine what justice would look like for them. If I’ve made it that far, then I must begin to imaginatively project myself into their whole world. What might it be like to have experienced what they’ve experienced? How might they have different needs and concerns than I might expect from outside their experiences? To do this work I have to hold simultaneously an image of them as like me, fully human with all the power and weaknesses that come with humanity, and unlike me, irreducibly different in their experience of the world and even in their very selves.

I can only do this imaginative work slowly and in a posture of engaging and listening. I need to become aware of the stories and images I inhabit, to hold them aside for a moment, then inhabit the stories and images of others. Then and only then can I envision and act toward what is truly good and beautiful and fair and lovely for us together.

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