What does it mean to fight for justice?

Justice does not have the same meaning to everybody. What does justice mean to you? Illustration by Kaitlyn Tran/The Daily Campus.

What does vaping have to do with justice? Quite a lot. Justice is a highly contested phrase. To some, justice means leaving people alone, to others it means being morally correct. Even more people think justice is derived from the agreement of most people, and others think justice is fair distributions of resources. Words like justice are often thrown around and have politically charged meanings and implications for various groups. Ironically, a lot of debates, such as in whether sex work should be legalized, have both sides clamoring to describe themselves as the ‘just’ side.  

 As such, it can be confusing to understand how justice works, and what it means to be just.  An important question is whether justice is a characteristic of an individual or a society. If justice is largely a characteristic of an individual, an important focus is on whether a specific person has been harmed, and what is to be done to restore that individual or punish an individual wrongdoer. An example of this is wanting Breonna Taylor’s killers to be convicted of a crime because the perpetrators violated Breonna’s individual rights. Others see justice as a collective issue. For instance, the median wealth of white families is more than 10 times the median wealth of Black families. Seeing stark inequities in society is something that people who are concerned with fair institutions see as proof of an unfair system.  

Differing views on how justice works, and the level of analysis to take justice results in radically different policy decisions. If someone is an individualist, their concerns may focus more on how individuals are treated unfairly and may neglect to notice patterns. On the other hand, if people are primarily concerned with society at large, people often forget about individual actors and their responsibilities. This often creates problems as well-intentioned policies often incentivize bad behavior. 

There are a couple key aspects of justice that should be respected regardless of which perspective one takes on the justice debate. First, the primacy of reason is important. It follows that freedom of expression and speech are imperative. Without them, there is no guarantee that what one is pushing for is right, or even just. Maajid Nawaz puts it, “No idea is above scrutiny and no people are beneath dignity.” Without the ability to criticize, there’s often terrible and irreversible consequences. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an enemy of free expression, and during the war, he was empowered with the ability to largely silence his critics. It is no surprise that he was minimally criticized for his actions like throwing Japanese Americans in concentration camps. Civil rights were fought and won largely by being able to speak truth to power. Unsurprisingly, when speech codes are in place, they often solidify power and provide tools for shutting down dissent. New York Times v. Sullivan is a good example of a court case where use of libel law was weaponized by the powerful to squelch press coverage of the civil rights movement. Advertisements in the New York Times about how public officials mistreated civil rights leaders were threatened with defamation lawsuits in order to prevent out-of-state publications from shining a light on abuse and mistreatment.  

Yet, many people who believe they’re fighting for justice believe that preventing offensive and blasphemous ‘hate’ speech will empower their movement. In France, there was a sustained effort from the LGBTQ+ community to ban certain words. Unfortunately, their leaders can be arrested since the phrase “homophobe” became seen as a slur. Thus, in the fight for free speech, the ability to dissent and explain are integral in allowing progress towards justice to be made. 

Also important is to be able to convincingly argue with one’s critics. Most people on most issues are open to having their mind changed, and it is often the case that there are mutual goals that both groups of people would like solved. Opponents in one disagreement may be allies in the next, as such, alienating agnostic people from justice initiatives for insufficient commitment is likely to be at best counterproductive and at worst threatening. Justice movements splinter and die if they fail to persuade people outside their narrow constituencies.  

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