Social Justice: Making Visible the Unseen
by Brianne Donaldson
This essay is one of a 6-part series titled “What is Justice?”:First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth
Social justice puts flesh on the bones of Rawls’ principles of fairness discussed in the last segment, bringing individuals and communities to life. Bodies and voices insist their way into the frames of our consideration in spite of their historical exclusion from full membership in collective civil life. Lee Anne Bell describes social justice as “a process and a goal” (21)—gesturing toward the ways that justice functions peculiarly as both a noun and verb that I mentioned in Part 1 of this series. Bell’s vision is expansive, exceeding merely retributive, economic, or rights-based justice to include the intersection of distributive justice, the agency of actors, self-determination as well as interdependence, in which “the goal of social justice is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs” (21).
What sets social justice apart from the previous descriptions in this series is the need to recognize historic oppressions as mis/informing what is considered just and to whom that justice is due (Bell 22). While respecting the dignity and rationality of persons may inspire consideration toward individuals, these abstract principles can overlook how certain groups have systematically been denied such personhood from the outset. Race, gender, and species are three such categories that describe the oppression and exclusion of entire groups so that calculations of justice need not apply to them.
In her landmark text The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol Adams suggests that animals, women, and people of color function as “absent referents” (51)—whose actual lives are disappeared even as they are ubiquitous in culture as disembodied meat, as symbols of sexuality, purity, or motherhood, or as laborers/savages respectively. “The absent referent” writes Adams, “can be anything whose original meaning is undercut as it is absorbed into a different hierarchy of meaning” (53).
Being “black” in America, for example, defines the superior norms of being “white,” being “feminine” defines the desirable “masculine,” being “animal” defines the “speciesist” (Singer 37) privilege of being “human.” Real bodies become abstract metaphors for defining the social privilege and safety of certain groups (Adams 53) while (sometimes violently) disappearing the real existence of other entities as independent, feeling, beings. Moreover, privileged groups are defined by giving greater weight to the interests of their own group when interests conflict (Singer 37). Can fair treatment land upon such bodies shaped by “conscious historical and [now] dysconscious contemporary” oppressions (Roppolo 76)? If our very sense of “normal” life was constructed through the historic dominance of whites over people of color, men over women, and humans over animals—where “power over” has been deemed good and desirable in the past (Johnson 336) and has led to the creation of symbols, hierarchies, and institutional structures reflecting these oppressions (Lorber 327-28)—how can justice, whatever it may be, flow freely or mutually?
Even as overt discrimination has ebbed against women, native communities, people of color and certain animals in the U.S., the traces of oppression persist in the stereotypes, omissions of history, and distortions that continue to characterize subordinate groups like subtle “smog” in the air that we cannot help but breath in day in and out (Tatum 65). The additional segregation of bodies—be it human separation from the farmed animals who become “meat,” men from women in occupational roles, clothing, names, parental expectations, or the ongoing separation of racial housing, further contributes to the lack of understanding needed to ultimately dispense with the legacy and re-performance of oppressions that hinder wider collective applications and considerations of truly social justice.
Adams, Carol. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum, 2000).
Johnson, Alan, “Patriarchy, the System: An It, Not a He, a Them, or an Us,” in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 3rd edition, ed. Maurianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Carmelita Castañeda, Heather W. Hackman, Madeline L. Peters, Ximena Zúñiga. New York: Routledge, 2013; 335-339.
Lorber, Judith, “’Night to His Day’: The Social Construction of Gender,” in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 3rd edition, ed. Maurianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Carmelita Castañeda, Heather W. Hackman, Madeline L. Peters, Ximena Zúñiga. New York: Routledge, 2013; 323-329.
Roppolo, Kimberly, “Symbolic Racism, History, and Reality: The Real Problem with Indian Mascots,” in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 3rd edition, ed. Maurianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Carmelita Castañeda, Heather W. Hackman, Madeline L. Peters, Ximena Zúñiga. New York: Routledge, 2013; 74-77.
Singer, Peter. “Practical Ethics,” in The Animal Ethics Reader, 2nd edition, ed. Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler, New York: Routledge, 2008; 36-46.
Tatum, Beverly Daniel, “Defining Racism: Can We Talk?” in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 3rd edition, ed. Maurianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Carmelita Castañeda, Heather W. Hackman, Madeline L. Peters, Ximena Zúñiga. New York: Routledge, 2013; 65-68.