Lessons learned in the pursuit of justice

By Os Keyes

This is a transcript of a talk I gave for DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media in October 2021. My thanks to Sheena Erete and Heather Quinn for the invitation!

So: the premise of this series, as I understand it, is a bunch of justice-oriented people coming in and articulating their stories. What they care about; how they pursue it; how they came to care about it and pursue it. There’s nothing wrong with that - it’s useful to have! We are, as people, mostly comprised of the possibilities we can imagine, and so broadening the range of possibilities (particularly hopeful possibilities) is important.

Here’s the essential thing about me, though: I’m not that interesting. Correspondingly, it’d be the height of narcissism to assume that me adding my story to the pile will provide some deep, vital insights you’d otherwise miss out on. So instead, and hopefully far more usefully, this talk is about the lessons I’ve learned about being in the world. It’s about how the very things that motivate an interest in justice can also undermine our ability to achieve it. It’s about fallibility, and vulnerability, and not the ways I go about making things better but the ways I’ve fucked up and made things worse. The result could be incredibly boring, or incredibly useful, or anything in-between. I’m not sure; we’ll find out together.

In the beginning…

Unfortunately telling the story does require a bit of a potted biography - forgive me.

People like to say that their work or inspiration (or issues) began in their childhood. In my case, my psychiatrist’s report from when I was eight makes pretty clear that was the case:

Fragment of a psychiatrist's report from my childhood

Apparently I was “always already” an academic. Of course: that I was being evaluated by psychiatrists when I was eight tells its own story.

Without going into the nitty-gritty, I didn’t have the best life growing up – a very unstable and unpleasant childhood even without attempting to articulate who and what I was while lacking the language to do so. There were a lot of feelings of insufficiency. Of monstrosity. Of helplessness.

One thing this resulted in, arguably, is precisely my interest in and drive towards justice and community. This is a drive I imagine much of this audience probably shares, regardless of how you got there. If my experiences did anything good, it was instilling a deep, visceral understanding of how important these principles are.

There’s nothing that makes them quite so urgent as knowing so intimately what it means to lack them.

Unforseen consequences

But this isn’t all that life instilled in me. It also instilled a fear; a fear of being helpless, of being vulnerable, of being insufficient, of trusting. It instilled a deep insecurity about myself – a lack of self-trust, and of self-respect. It instilled the ideas that:

  1. I was expected to be enough for everyone;
  2. I was not enough, for anyone;
  3. Trust was a trap;
  4. Safety was a trap;
  5. Any promises of trust or safety were a double trap.

Over time, what I came to realise – in some senses, far too late – was how deeply these lessons were undermining my ability to contribute meaningfully to justice and community. How they made me part of the problem, as often as I was part of the solution. A lot of the time, more often.

Justice without vulnerability

Let’s start with justice. And here, I’m not just thinking of the really big, societal-level harms, but questions of how you handle harms from friends, or colleagues, or yourself.

It would be nice to think that responding well to harms just required a sense of justice; a sense of right and wrong, and a demand that wrongs be addressed, negated, compensated for. And a sense of justice is vital. But it’s not enough. It’s necessary, but it isn’t sufficient.

Responding well doesn’t just require a sense of justice, but also a sense of vulnerability. A willingness to listen, and to understand, and to try to rebuild relationships. Without that – it’s easy to get caught up in a mindset where any harm is a sign off future threat, and safety requires retribution, revenge, destruction. And it’s all the more difficult to have empathy; to see people as people.

And that vulnerability-free approach doesn’t provide safety or justice; it can’t. Instead, it can itself further injustice. Injustices to others because writing them off denies the possibility they might be capable of becoming a different, better person. Injustices to ourselves because we are all deeply imperfect people, and can only learn our way out of our imperfections with others.

The attraction of invulnerability, particularly in conversations about boundaries and harms, is an obvious one. We want to be safe; we want to be certain. If we’re here as a result of trajectories which contained neither safety nor certainty, that goes double. And we live in a society that idealises control, collectively and individually, and idealises self-sufficiency. But as Erinn Gilson has so movingly written, it is this very attitude that makes it so difficult to achieve a degree of safety - because if you’re certain, that means you’re fixed in place, and if you’re fixed in place, you can’t change, in turn.

Not only that, but a prioritisation of invulnerability makes it pretty inevitable your reactions won’t be proportionate, and will be reflexive, looking at the immediacy instead of the long-term. And it’s hard to form networks of healthy relations out of disproportionate reactions. Get a reputation for responding to any injury with thermonuclear hellfire, an nobody will be interested in providing the feedback you need to learn. To avoid committing injustices, in turn.

Community without trust

This segues neatly into questions of community. Community is important – is vital. There is little you can experience worse than being left without it. Interestingly: in one of the ethical traditions I come from, Judaism, this is understood quite literally. The worst sanction possible is to declare someone “herem”, or excommunicated. It means nobody will talk to you, or recognise you exist, except to give you food and water if necessary so that you might continue to live in invisibility. The word comes from the same root as the word for “to destroy utterly”; to annihilate.

So: community is important. We all need it, and many of us are thrown into a world in which we lack it. But community without trust is dangerous, exploitative, even, If you cannot bring yourself to trusting of and vulnerable to the people around you, then the best case scenario is: they notice. And they reciprocate that lack of trust. And you’re not in community at all. But the worst case is: they come to trust you, to expect reciprocity in trusting you, and are betrayed. Not with any ill-intent at your end – simply out of a dysfunctional idea of what self-protection looks like. But betrayed nonetheless, and hurt nonetheless.

The same goes for if you cannot trust yourself. Self-trust isn’t that much about the self at all, in consequence; it’s in large part about those around us. Joan Didion wrote a classic piece on self-respect (which is different but usefully overlapping) that absolutely skewers this, in (I think) a really useful way. That gets at the way a lack of respect for self bleeds over into unreliability; into being a bad friend, a bad comrade, a bad community member:

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weak- nesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course we will play Francesca to Paolo, Brett Ashley to Jake, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan: no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we can not but hold in contempt, we play rôles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the necessity of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.

This might all seem a bit abstract, and it is. But it applies, as said, in everything we do to pursue justice, and pursue community. How do we treat those we disagree with? How do we treat those we don’t? How do we react to people who hurt us, and people who help, and what happens when someone shifts from one category to the other? How do our answers to all of these questions inform our own expectations about when we, inevitably, do wrong? And: how does that shape how we respond to or account for those wrongs?

Some of you might resonate with some or all of this – and some might not. We’re all very different people. But whoever you are, and whether you’re planning on going into some neat non-profit, public service, academia, the for-profit world…the justice of the work you do there is not just about the large-scale systems you’ll find yourself entangled in, but the small-scale, too. The ways you treat each other. The little actions from which large-scale systems are built.

Pursuing justice matters. But how we pursue justice matters, too. If justice is about people having the freedom to be treated fairly, to pursue the “good life”, then it’s got to be about how we treat each other in pursuing justice, too.

Doing differently

Rather than ensuring we react to injustice, then, we might ask how we achieve transformative justice. How we make a harm less likely to reeoccur, as well as try to repair the damage that harm did.

Rather than looking for community, we might look for radical vulnerability – for spaces and relations of shared struggle towards understanding.

And in both cases, rather than treating justice and community as fixed statuses to be achieved, we might treat them as practices; practices that have to be learned, that change and grow as we engage with them, that require change and growth from us, in turn.