The lexicon of justice

7 June 2020
7 Jun 2020
West Lafayette, IN
4 mins

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The flurry of recent events in the US around racism, police brutality, and their over-militarization has got me thinking a lot about these problems thrust into the spotlight. But I’ve also been ruminating on the language we use the talk about these issues. What are the shared reference points that anchor the conversations we have together about racism and justice at large? How do we construct our lexicon of justice?

In law, at least in the US, the outline of what the law permits is defined as much by written, legislated code as by the history of past cases and relevant court judgements. Precedents, as much as ideology, guides action.

I think this duality also applies more broadly to how we talk about justice. When we study the vocabulary we use to talk about injustice and call for reform, we don’t just find high-level arguments about morality and ethics, and about the concept of policing. What dominates our conversations is history, and the moments of injustice and victories it contains. With every Colin Kaepernick and George Floyd and every video recorded at the front lines of protest, we collectively gain new vocabulary to be able to speak against injustice and racism.

I think it’s essential to recognize this. When we become more just and equitable, that’s due not only to the politics that legislate our beliefs into action, but especially to the conversations and movements and marches and protests led by people outside of politics. These people move the conversation forward, and add new words to our collective lexicon of justice by action – by being loud, and being heard.

Frontiers

The tragic invariant of injustice is that its absence is most apparent to those for whom it doesn’t exist; for those people, it’s omnipresent. This privilege doesn’t just shield us from injustice, it also distances us from it. To stand against it, then, requires active work, not passive compliance, to ensure that the absence of injustice in one place doesn’t also blind us to its destructive traces somewhere else, for someone else.

Large protests and movements are where we become most active and vigilant about looking outside this privilege. It’s one of the most effective ways we have of calling attention to these frontiers of justice to those who don’t encounter it every day as a fact of life. It’s at these frontiers where history is made, and it’s at these frontiers where we must continue to fight. There will always be the frontiers, where the privileged stand next to injustice, unaware. This is only more reason to keep going.

It’s no surprise, then, that there have always been marches and revolutions and movements that move the needle. This is the work that history requires of us for injustice to speak up, and be heard through privilege. There will always be marches and revolutions and movements. As long as there is injustice and privilege.

But the frontiers of justice are not just in the streets where protesters march bravely forth; it’s also in the courtrooms and the offices of the lawyers drafting cases. It’s also in the stacks of notes and desktops of journalists and photographers documenting and sharing the facts, not letting power speak on behalf of those who lack it. It is also in the entrepreneurs and writers and artists and musicians and authors and community leaders organizing change by inspiring love and action and optimism for those who come face to face with the frontier.

When we make progress in that frontier, whether in the courtroom or in the voting booth, it’s also up to us to ensure that progress isn’t forgotten, that we put a stake in the ground so it isn’t reclaimed when our collective societal attention inevitably turns somewhere else. We do this by voting out injustice, legislating cases into law, and pushing for reform in the institutions that perpetuate injustice, whether that be the police, the ICE, or Wall Street.

Above all, I think our most important responsibility is to ensure that the lessons we learn during these fights are etched as unforgettably into our culture and education as they are into our memories. At the workplace, in the newspapers, in music and popular culture, and absolutely in schools and universities, we need to shed light on the work we’ve done to expand justice, and the work that’s left ahead of us.


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