Embedded in much contemporary political (and theological) discourse is an underlying assumption that the definitions of grand concepts such as “inclusivity” and “justice” are glaringly self-evident. What has preoccupied some of the best minds in philosophical history has now, apparently, been settled once and for all in a new orthodoxy that tolerates no dissent from a dogma which, if not always obvious, is made ferociously manifest when one transgresses it.
Let’s take the concept of justice as an example. When I read or hear an intellectual, minister, politician, or activist laud the pursuit of justice, I find myself pausing and asking the following kinds of questions: whose justice? Who benefits from this definition of justice, and who might be excluded? What happens if my working definition of justice is at variance with the definitions I am being compelled to support? Outside of the constraints of the law, whose interpretation has the right to dominate? Upon what basis would this power be conferred? Do we agree with Plato that true justice is simply the harmony of the whole, or does an adequate theory of justice take into account the timeless existential realities of inequality and violence?
These are uncomfortable questions, provided one takes them seriously. Even more disconcerting is the possibility that the very idea of “justice” can itself become transvalued into something vastly different from the traditional virtues associated with it. Compassion, equity, rights, dignity…these are all rightly considered aspects of a humane and just society. Yet a pertinent question for our time is whether the pursuit of these virtues can manifest those elements which are diametrically opposed to everything we associate with “justice”: hatred, tribalism, exclusivity, and so forth. In a practical sense, the line between justice and revenge thus becomes blurred, as those who express reservations of disillusion with popular narratives surrounding the pursuit of “justice” (again, whose justice?) may find themselves on the receiving end of measures more reminiscent of coercive power. Again, these measures — whether they be de-platforming, firing, destroying reputations, etc., — are more reminiscent of the coercive power associated with thoroughly unjust regimes and institutions. Hence the insufficiency of thinking that it is enough to throw around the word “justice” and assume that people everywhere should acquiesce to a single definition, even if a component of true justice might well be some form of a universal ethic. Something far deeper than mere words and superficial definitions is required.
There are many potential reasons for this dynamic, not least of which is the role of social media in facilitating proclamation without genuine dialogue. It is one thing to zealously advocate for justice in 280 characters, it is quite another faithfully engage with the views of those with whom you might disagree. What I would like to hear of is the reasons people have for forming their understandings of justice, rather than just a tacit assumption that we should all agree. Even if we, as a global community, could magically adopt a shared definition of justice, how might we go about implementing this definition on a policy level, bearing in mind our differing cultural and ethnic contexts? More pointedly for the Western context, how might we correct the injustices of the past without crossing the line into revenge?