The Messy Work of Seeking Justice

Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.—Canadian Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries #17

Have you ever changed your mind on an issue you cared deeply about? If so, how did that transformation happen? If not, why do you think that is?

Seeking justice and peace—the mission of Canadian Friends Service Committee—only seems easy when we’re overly confident that we’re right and have it all figured out. The more we understand the details and challenges of what peace and justice demand of us, the less straightforward our work becomes. Every approach has trade-offs and pitfalls, and striving for a way forward demands that we remain open to new Light; that we keep listening, letting go, and being willing to change.

Such openness is a major challenge. People who care about social justice can particularly struggle with it, because we tend to be so certain that we’re fighting for the right cause or are on “the right side of history.” Our sense of being on the right side can severely limit our readiness to engage “the wrong side” with tenderness and with curiosity.

In the 1700s, John Woolman discerned that to “grasp after wealth” was impossible “without having connection with some degree of oppression.”1 He called for people to look at their material possessions to see if the seeds of war were present. Imagine if Woolman, already a radical, had gone much further. What if he had begun to perceive the seeds of war in every single possession, not just luxurious ones? What if he’d found those seeds in his every choice of word and concept? What if he’d started to deconstruct each element of his culture to recast it as a problem?

A major challenge for those involved in social justice activism is just this—a vague or ever-expanding definition of the problem. Justice can be an endless concept, as can harm. This means that we can interrogate any word, any act, or any social institution, and call it harmful and oppressive. Deconstructing and critiquing through such critical analyses can be immensely valuable and powerful. It can give us a new understanding of harms that were formerly obscured, perhaps helping us to address them. It’s a bit like when a physicist peers through a microscope to get a deeper view into matter.

The more we deconstruct to search for violence and oppression, the more we find. But we never reach a final solid ground.

First it was discovered that what was thought to be irreducible matter was actually made up of atoms, the final irreducible building blocks of life. Then there came the insight that atoms themselves have a nucleus and neutrons and protons. These eventually gave way to reveal a full chaotic-seeming particle zoo. At each level of increased detail in our exploration of oppression, we might learn something, but we lose some perspective too.

There certainly is plenty of needless and brutal harm in our world. CFSC is continually working to identify and effectively address many forms of it. But in our search for how to do so, we bump up against the uncomfortable fact that there is no bedrock of purity or total harmlessness on which to rest. Some branches of Jainism have pushed non-harm as far as humanly possible, but the results are still imperfect (and far too demanding for most of us to emulate).

Not recognizing the complexity and imperfections of our world can have very damaging consequences if we’re not careful. Consider the case of Trent Eady, who was the target of homophobia while growing up and, understandably, became deeply involved with social justice activism upon arriving at McGill University.

Eady set out to make the world more just. This led to increasingly critical thoughts and ever more radical understandings about oppression and its causes. Eady became more and more certain and quick to blame and call out others who didn’t share this same analysis of power and oppression. This certainty was dogmatically reinforced by considering it morally wrong and even violent for anyone to question it. Do you believe anything that, if someone questioned you on it, you wouldn’t simply consider them incorrect, but also morally reprehensible or violent? We each need to tread with care when we find that we hold such staunch beliefs.

Eady joined social justice groups that carefully watched, and then aggressively shamed, their members for any perceived infractions. This made questioning the groups’ beliefs rare, as saying the wrong thing met with such harsh judgments and stigma. This lack of questioning and dissent also turned the groups’ activism into an urgent moral crusade. Everyone who went against them was easy to dismiss without further reflection. They were simply on the wrong side of history.

With all this deconstructing and protesting, the groups never constructed a viable and realistic positive vision. They were trying to enforce a highly abstract and non-existent purity instead.

Eady writes, “I can’t convey to you how bleak my worldview was. An activist friend once said to me, with complete sincerity, ‘Everything is problematic.’ That was the general consensus.”2 Caring so much about justice, and seeking to address oppression, had led Trent Eady to a deeply destructive and desperate place. I’ve read other similar stories.

There are many less extreme examples that are also worth reflecting on. I was at a conference where I heard a speaker critiquing racism and colonialism in various thoughtful and thought-provoking ways. She then expanded her critiques to the point of saying that using international law to protect human rights is immoral because international law is a system founded on white patriarchal institutions and values, and so can only be oppressive. She wasn’t generating any new or better ideas for action though; simply expressing understandable frustrations with real injustices, but doing so in a way that didn’t seem to be informed by specific knowledge about what was being criticized—international law or the details of how it works. The criticism can’t simply be ignored, there’s certainly something to it. But because it was so sweeping in its quest for purity, I expect that it didn’t accomplish much, other than appealing to folks who already agreed, and further polarizing them from those who don’t see the world in such terms.

Generally, the more we understand the details of an issue, the less we create such simple binaries—international law is purely oppressive—and the more we recognize complexity. We can both be highly critical and still celebrate the many positive achievements of people working within the international legal system. Whatever the issue, remembering that our thoughts and reactions may be incorrect or overly simplistic, and looking for counter-examples, can help us get past narrow or stereotyped thinking and broaden our ideas for action.

Successful social change campaigns do this. They bring together people who work in a range of ways including advocating, organizing, helping to improve institutions from within, and rebelling and applying pressures from without. This means collaborating with people who think differently and have different priorities. It means broadening support through sharing a positive vision and starting with achievable goals, first steps on a long path. As Friend and lifelong activist George Lakey says, “To win the right to vote, women only needed a majority to agree, not to vanquish the patriarchy.”3  Research suggests too that, contrary to what we might assume, it could be when we’re feeling better, rather than when we’re feeling outraged or depressed, that we’re most likely to become active to address injustices.4

Here are some of the common threads I’ve found, and think do not serve us well, as we work for justice and peace:

  • distancing from the perceived enemy rather than considering if there is any common ground,
  • failing to recall a shared humanity, or what Quakers often experience as “that of God” in people,
  • assuming that anyone perceived to not be in agreement has bad intentions, is immoral, and deserves to be attacked,
  • believing that shame and punishments like banning presenters from speaking, having professors fired, or engaging in physical intimidation or violence are the best or only ways to bring about justice,
  • being vague or so broad in defining and applying important terms like racism, trauma, oppression, and injustice that just about any word or act might fit with the definition,
  • assuming that a preferred theory about these terms is correct without formulating it in a way that allows it to be tested or revised if needed,5
  • assuming that if an idea offends us or makes us uncomfortable, it can automatically be completely rejected because our feelings are all that matters,6
  • demanding conformity through heavy policing of language and ideas.7

These approaches make it challenging and uncomfortable to question them, because any attempt to do so can be called out as oppression. (Some readers may feel that this article itself is oppressive.) Yet we need not let such flawed tactics hijack important efforts toward a more just and peaceful world. We can learn to sit with and consider claims about oppression before jumping to conclusions one way or another. We can identify some of our own biases and inconsistencies in standards and behaviours, recognizing too that our biases may be implicit and different from overt prejudices.8 And, although certainly not always possible, we can work toward healthier disagreements and genuine win-win solutions.

Did anything in this article feel familiar? Quakers aren’t immune to adopting unhelpful social justice thinking and approaches from the broader culture. But there are also excellent resources to help us overcome these trends. Canadian Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice is one source of wisdom on the topic of building caring community. CFSC has also developed a new resource about engaging in peace and social action, which may be helpful (contact me for copies). The resource highlights the importance of worshipful discernment, which involves listening within and without, and letting go (recognizing places of attachment and ego and allowing them to drop). If we can do the difficult work of settling ourselves, we may hear what wasn’t available to us before. If you find yourself struggling with this, a clearness committee  may help you to reorient your social justice work, so that it can arise from a place of centeredness and peace.

Matthew Legge is CFSC’s Peace Program Coordinator. He is the author of CFSC’s book Are We Done Fighting? Building Understanding in a World of Hate and Division, which offers powerful stories and practical tips about what we can do to constructively transform polarizing conflicts.

  1. John Woolman, The Journal of John Woolman, 1761-62, https://bit.ly/2REY6WD, Chapter 8.
  2. Trent Eady, “Everything is Problematic,” McGill Daily, November 24, 2014, https://www.mcgilldaily.com/2014/11/everything-problematic
  3. George Lakey, How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning (Melville House Publishing, 2018), 111.
  4. Matthew Legge, “The Surprising Role of Happiness in Acting for Social Change,” Psychology Today, September 17, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/are-we-done-fighting/201909/the-surprising-role-happiness-in-acting-social-change
  5. Musa al-Gharbi, “Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence,” Heterodox Academy, January 30, 2017, https://heterodoxacademy.org/microaggressions-macro-debate
  6. Julie Beck, “The Coddling of the American Mind ‘Is Speeding Up’,” The Atlantic, September 18, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind-is-speeding-up/570505
  7. One study found that in the US, social justice activists, more than any other group, report feeling pressure to conform. Stephen Hawkins et al., “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” More in Common, 2018, https://hiddentribes.us/pdf/hidden_tribes_report.pdf, 74.
  8. Keith Payne et al., “How to Think about ‘Implicit Bias,’” Scientific American, March 27, 2018, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-think-about-implicit-bias