Do you Do Do Justice?*
Has anyone ever pitched you a social justice initiative, and after the conclusion you thought “Something doesn’t feel right about this, but I don’t know what it is”? Maybe your instincts were right, but you couldn’t articulate exactly what was wrong? Yeah, I’ve been there too.
Justice is a potentially simple concept, but the transition from theory to practice can be extremely complicated and fraught with danger. It is entirely possible to enact injustice or oppression while attempting to do justice.
Here are three simple questions you can ask in order to quickly analyze any social justice pitch:
- Whose story is being told?
- Who is telling the story?
- If they are different people or parties, why is one telling the other’s story?
The first question is used to determine the propriety of story. We are narratives: humanity was spoken into existence. There is no more innate resource to us than our own stories.
The second question is employed to determine the identity of the story teller. Who is getting the most airtime? Who’s doing the talking? Whose voice are we hearing most of the time? Is the narrative autobiographical or someone interpreting the story for the audience?
I ask the final question because this is where imperialism, theft, co-option, paternalism, and condescension tend to be revealed. “Being a voice for the voiceless” is a common theme within the American social justice meta-narrative. But as Brittany Ouchida succinctly summarizes: “The oppressed do not need voice; they need an audience.” No one is inherently voiceless, but the first act of oppressions like colonialism is usually to silence their subjects. Speaking for someone, particularly without their permission, frequently and easily becomes its own form of oppression. There are laws that protect against the misuse of a famous person’s image or likeness for commercial endorsement. Unfortunately, the impoverished rarely have the monetary resources to sue for life-rights-&-likeness violations in US courts. Use Johnny Depp’s face to sell your lemonade? Get sued. Use an “anonymous” third-world toddler’s face to pimp your charity? Get funded. All people are made in Creator’s image. To put our image before and over someone else’s is equal parts blasphemy and idolatry.
It’s true that we in the West have the technology and infrastructure to project messages to the rest of the world. But do we have to be that message at the same time? Power can be and often is accumulated. It can be, but is rarely given away. Does it really take a white man to travel to Africa to voice an African’s story? Why can’t the people of Africa tell their own stories? We can be camera operators and post-production, but do we have to be screenwriter, star and director as well? And whose narrative does it become when the camera spends most of its time on the white man who is making the film?
I was recently at a meeting where an Asian-American scholar bristled at the suggestion that some influential white man was needed in order to invite him to a gathering of other influential white men (and that’s how things would get done). “I’m freaking tired of asking permission.” The oppressed do not need the permission of the oppressor to tell their stories. We don’t need a three minute video “about Africa” with 15 seconds of fly-covered African children and 2:45 minutes of sobbing, but well-meaning white guy. Such films rob their alleged subjects of their humanity, making them mere props in the tale of real hero—the foreigner who travels to a faraway place on a quest for redemption and deeper spiritual meaning.
So when is it ok to tell someone else’s story? When you receive permission to, and when the gifter of the story knows what you will be doing and agrees to the telling, the manner of telling, and the desired outcome. What the re-teller needs to be careful of is benefiting either through fame or fortune: once the story becomes about the representative and not the represented, it’s been corrupted. Sometimes, a story needs to be translated. Sometimes it has to be told through an intermediary due to other extenuating circumstances. If that’s the case, make sure the audience knows that you have the permission of the subject both for the story, the manner in which it is being told, and their consent for any outcomes you might request. Finally, I would strongly advise planning for and working towards your own obsolescence. As allies, we achieve a significant victory when the oppressed no longer need our help to be heard or valued.
Injustice is far too complicated to be solved by mere good intent. And we must always be careful not to do injustice when working for justice. A good starting point would be to ask these three questions when examining appeals for justice actions and avoid exploiting those we seek to help.
* “I Do Do Justice” is a satirical look at modern tech-based Social Justice appeals. It was shown at Wild Goose West 2012.