13 min read

What Is “More Helpful” For Justice?

Welp, this escalated, didn’t it? :-p

I really love ridiculous long conversations about things that actually matter and Matt has always been more than willing to join me in the indulgence. A proverb claims iron sharpens iron and I while I know some find these kinds of exchanges to be exasperating, I do think there’s healthy, long-term fruit and (dare I say it) a culture-shaping good.

He took the time to write a longer response. Out of respect for that, I’ll try to write as thorough a response as possible, though I will say I have lots of school to do, so I reserve the right for addendum should my hasty response be shown to have produced carelessness.

Before we get to that, the background:

Previously, In This Exchange

For those of you just tuning in, this all started when Brandon (probably not thinking he was inciting weeks’ worth of back-and-forth) posted a link to a story about a “Christian” recovery organization that was basically running a slavery ring at a chicken “farm”.

After a few exchanges, the conversation turned to the best way to address these injustices. Matt contended,

Who shapes the structures? Mostly dead white men, decades and centuries ago. I know what you’re saying: individuals shape structures which shape individuals and on and on. And that’s true in a sense. But in this case, I would say that there’s a couple of key reasons keep emphasizing systems over individuals.

First, the structural injustice (lack of virtue) is bigger than any individual and usually can’t be fixed by one person. Thus, it makes a distinction between the problem and the people. That creates space for responsibility rather than doling out guilt. Which is especially important in light of the fall, which leaves us all simultaneously victims of/implicated in systems of injustice. So focusing on the structural is more accurate to the problem, which is bigger and beyond the individuals involved.

Second, it makes space for healthier responsibility when discussing problems. Individuals are responsible for what they do but not for fixing the entire problem. Per Steinbeck, “when you no longer have to be perfect, you’re free to be good.”

A few days later, I replied,

I was thinking about this a lot over the weekend because I have two ideas that are in conflict. But after much reflection, I still maintain that real problems are caused by individuals. Take this Weinstein fiasco:

The argument here is that “Hollywood” has a problem. I think that’s an unhelpful way to frame the problem. Crowd psychology tells us that “diffusion of responsibility” is a real thing. When we say things like “Hollywood hurt me”, it shifts the problem from a an individual situation to a “structure”. Rather than “creating space for responsibility” this causes a diffusion of responsibility. When people cause problems and we aren’t able to bring person-to-person justice, we’re left with vague rages against ethereal opposition. “End Hollywood’s sexual harassment” isn’t as clear a prescription as “The Miramax board should fire Harvey Weinstein”.

So while the problem may be identified as cultural, the prescription is always going to be individual. Otherwise, we end up railing against institutions meaninglessly. “The _____ hurt me!” —as I’ve heard us all say, unable to offer a solution. Furiously punching at the tide does nothing to help us end the effects of the moon.

That’s when Matt (wisely) decided to the move the conversation off Twitter and into a format that lent itself to lengthier exchanges and posted his response on his blog.

My Position In Brief

This conversation has been framed as what is “more helpful” in bringing justice to unjust situations. Matt has argued it’s more helpful to focus on the systems and structures. I’m arguing it’s more helpful to focus on individuals in individual situations.

I want perpetrators of injustice to be met head-on by perpetrators of justice. And I advise perpetrators of justice to focus and confront instances and individuals because I think that’s the most effective way to do it.

Matt’s response seems to be, Yes, but it’s actually more helpful to focus on how badly everything truly, madly, deeply sucks.

I don’t think that fulfills the criteria of being “more helpful”. I don’t see how a focus on the tectonic chunks –the seismic frictions of justice and injustice that have been battling for centuries in the human experience– helps to further justice practically. In fact, Matt’s post seems to easily and effortlessly demonstrate the fruit of this systematic focus: resignation.

The title of Matt’s post (“You’re Not the One to Save the World”) does not address my point at all. I’m not saying an individual is responsible for saving the world. I’m saying local, individual focus on specific situations contributes and that leads us to the question: What if everybody did that?

You win the war by winning battles. So you tell the troops to focus on their battles, not the war– because putting their energies into the battle is putting their energy into the war. The same can’t be said of the reverse.

My Response In Detail

So let’s start with the major “contention” of the post:

For my part, I think David’s position is solid and well-reasoned, and there’s a simple clarity to it I’m a bit envious of. Ultimately, though, I think it’s more helpful to consider systematic problems as separate from, and greater than, individuals. There are big-picture realities you miss when you’re focused on individuals, which is to say we need a vision of systematic injustice that’s bigger than individuals without diffusing responsibility or resorting to tilting vague windmills.

I put “contention” in scare quotes because he basically affirms the position I put forward: one of individual responsibility and accountability. But he does suggest a false dichotomy I’m not claiming and in fact reject. So let me be clear: The big picture does matter and it is influential. I’m just saying it’s “more helpful” (Matt’s criteria) to focus our justice efforts on individual responsibility and accountability.

By way of example, the “more helpful” focus Matt proposes is:
(1) See the universality of fall,
(2) See the “all fish are wet and don’t know it” reality of culture,
(3) See the ill-effects and influence of money, and
(4) Acknowledge how trapped we are in this fallen world

A careful reading reveals that none of these militates against individual responsibility and accountability. In fact, the first three affirm it. Let’s take each in turn:

(1) Seeing the Universality of the Fall

The fall is universal. Of course it is. But it’s also individual (The whole, Romans 5, though one man’s sin, so through one Gift etc.)

Also, Matt isn’t saying this, but just so we’re clear, it’s probably worth noting that the fall itself isn’t an example of systematic injustice. The Christian view of sin is that we are not just judged for sin, but that sin is a judgment.

Regardless, I don’t see how such a point makes for a “more helpful way” of seeing injustice. I’m arguing that focusing on specifics identifies those constituents responsible and that such a focus can (in time) solve the bigger issues, too. “But the fall!” seems a true reality but not very practical outside of a “this is how the universe operates” tautology. For example, Cain’s response to God’s question wasn’t “But the Fall!” Can was individually responsible for his action even though it was a clear outworking of the Fall.

(2) See the “fish are wet” reality of culture,
(3) See the ill-effects and influence of money, and

Culture and Money don’t exist without individuals. Blame shifting doesn’t help and I still maintain that it defuses responsibility.

Money doesn’t produce evil. Money-lovers do. If the whole of humanity leaves the planet in spaceships, money becomes litter to be swept up by the poor robot left to the task. (Seriously, you can see Wall-E driving over cash in the opening sequence). If individuals use money unjustly, they should be identified and brought to justice. It takes a critical mass to make money unjust; it’ll take a critical mass to reverse that effect, right?

The same is true with culture (I agree they’re closely linked). But again, culture is just the cumulative total of people congregating. No individuals, no culture. Those who’ve tried to change culture know how essential those constituents are to effectuating change. This is something high schoolers completely miss when trying to figure out what’s “cool”. People don’t do cool things and it makes the people cool. Cool people do things and it makes the things cool. It’s the people who create the ping the produces the echoes around them.

So if the plea is, “David, we have to focus on the bigger picture!” (a strange call given that the conclusion is we can’t actually see it, but we’ll get there) My response is, I hope we all see it, but it’s not necessary in order to promote justice within the small section of societal real estate in which God has placed each of us.

Again, I don’t see how a big-picture focus creates a more helpful way of effectuating justice. What I do see is that it demotivates anyone from even attempting such an effort. And Matt seems to agree. He concludes: “No action or activism or reparation can undo what has been done, and no action can prevent other tragedy or injustice from occurring.”

Along those lines, let’s try a reductive and extreme thought experiment: which is more likely to produce a more just society: we only focus on bringing justice to particular individuals and situations or we only focus on the big, systematic issues? I contend that focusing on the parts would bring resolution to the whole. Focusing on the whole will bring no resolution to anything –strangely, Matt seems to clearly articulates in his post. So I’m not convinced we disagree.

That brings me to the final point on blindness.

4. Acknowledging our own blindness to situations

Matt writes,

I hope I’m a little less blind. But I know I’m just as ensnared. I don’t want to further evil or support injustice, but everywhere I turn, I find wrongness. It’s not all equally bad, thank goodness, but it’s impossible to avoid. I can’t avoid participating in systems of injustice, much less dismantle them. (emphasis his)

I can appreciate his self-awareness and I actually share in his frustration. But what I hear is: We are all trapped in a morass of evil and injustice so thoroughly permeating, we can’t even know how bad it is. We’re blind. Totally and completely blind. Until, of course, we manage to catch a glimpse of it, but then we just realize how blind we really are.

I have trouble following the logic that claims sight makes blindness worse. If sight isn’t a solution to our blindness then what is? I hope the logic here isn’t, “I can’t see everything therefore I can’t see anything.” because that’s just not true.

It seems to me such a line of thought practically produces hopelessness and manipulation. Let’s talk manipulation first.

Cyclopean Tyranny

In this discussion of blindness, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask, “Is there anybody who isn’t blind?” And the answer must be yes, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all. And that means, those who are “less blind” (as Matt puts it) are the new rulers.

As the saying goes, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” So it’s hard not to wonder if such “kings” are honorable or just on power grab.

How would I know I’m not being gaslit about my blindness? If I say (with apologies to Monty Python), “I’m not blind!” and somebody else says, “Yes you are!” What can I say to that?

But even if I accept that I’m “blind” to certain, systematic injustice that exists in The System that only The Kings can see, what assurance do I have that I’m not being drafted into a drone army being sent on a moral snipe hunt? “The injustices over there!” And the drones dutifully swarm, because The Immortan, One-Eyed Joe says so.

But then, “Oh no! The injustice is over here now! Quick! Swarm!”

“I don’t see it…”

“That’s because you’re blind! It’s there! We know because we’re less blind!”

I’m not saying that’s what’s happening; I’m just asking how would I know one way or the other?

As a guard against the potential for such cyclopean tyranny, I reject this hierarchy of sight entirely. Instead, I assume that all people can be helped to see with patient, careful demonstration (hence, my participation in as many exchanges as possible, including this one). Therefore, I’m not going to dive after anything not actually shown to me. Show me a real problem we can all see with a real solution to which we can all contribute that will really work in real life and I will gladly lean in as much as I’m able. But for the sake of moral clarity and the in the name of due diligence, we should listen, examine, and respond appropriately to demonstrated realities. The only practical way to do that is to a focus on individual persons and individual instances.

Moral Resignation

But putting the potential for abuse aside, the real issue is that this blindness (whether real or perceived) seems to conclude in rank resignation.

Matt writes,

The problem, then, isn’t that people do the wrong thing. The problem is that nearly impossible to not do the wrong thing. People are so blind, so enmeshed as they participate in systems of injustice — systems that hurt people — that it’s impossible for them to even start to love their neighbor as themselves because they don’t see their neighbor nor themselves clearly.

It sounds like he’s saying that not only can we not see injustice, if could see it, we couldn’t fix it. If that’s the case, I’m compelled to ask, why then are we even talking about this? I’m calling this “Moral Resignation” because it’s Ecclesiastes without the last chapter. It’s a doctrine of sin without a doctrine of salvation. It’s anthropology as done by Eeyore (“Eeyorianism” should absolutely be a word).

When you have a hamartiology that doesn’t have soteriology of equal strength, you have half a gospel. And this seems to be exactly what drives moral resignation. “The world sucks” is half the story. “God is redeeming the world” is the other half. And shouldn’t we embrace both?

Now combine the potential abuse of a moral snipe hunt with the invitation to moral resignation and we get a worldview that says injustice is everywhere, we can’t see it, but we somehow know it should be fixed, but it actually can’t be fixed.

I am not at all compelled by such a vision of social change because it seems to be all “social” and no “change”.

So What?

I don’t disagree that the problems are too big for a single person. They are (though not too big for The Single Person. Again, to soteriology).

When I do turn to the big picture, I see problems that are too big for me to fix and definitely cause for the heart-felt mourning Matt prescribes. But whatever may be said of that focus, it certainly isn’t a “more helpful” focus for perpetrating justice, a point his whole post seems to be making without my help.

And I also agree that if I somehow manage to bring some justice to a particular situation, I haven’t brought justice to the whole situation. But, to that I ask, so what?

John Maxwell says we should focus on our areas of influence, not our areas of concern. A long standing joke says we eats a whole elephant one bite at a time. Just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. And even if we can’t see the massive, cultural-wide impact of an injustice, that doesn’t mean we can’t see and combat the injustice right in front of us.

What I propose is an hopeful disposition, a consistent standard, and a clarified goal. In other words, declaring we can win, we can win justly, and we can win here.

This is where I think Matt and I can really come together because I know how much we both love strategy. I remember many beverage-fueled discussion about Playing To Win where we tried to find many practical applications for the book’s central thesis: Strategy is the answer to two questions: Where are we going to play? and How are we going to win there?

In retrospect, it seems one application we should have discussed was social justice. Where are we going to play? Human trafficking? Abortion? Race in Criminal Justice? Slave labor at a chicken farm?

How are we going to win? Awareness? Protests? Training? Rescue operations?

As Aaron Sorkin’s biting critique of Occupy Wall Street made clear: if you’re going to be a change agent, you have to pick a target. The rules of the game are: specifics, specifics, specifics. Acquire the target and fire. Pick where you’re going to do battle against injustice, prepare the field, launch the attack.

So, Where Are We?

Matt can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I’ve given an adaquite response to his position:

  • I agree the big picture is important and definitive.
  • I agree that the responsibility to save the world does not rest on any individual who isn’t Jesus.
  • I do think the responsibility for bringing justice to bear on injustice rests on individuals.
  • The examples of systematic injustices, upon close inspection, really aren’t:
    • The fall is a cosmological reality (and, theologically, an example of justice) that hasn’t been shown to be a  “more helpful” focus.
    • Money is an amoral object, not a systematic injustice
    • Culture is just the cumulative experience of individuals and therefore seems to weigh in favor of an individual focus.
    • The description “blindness” that was presented seems better described as “moral resignation” and is potentially manipulatable

That said, I don’t see that my points have been responded to with anything other than affirmation. So, just for clarity, I’ll ask three specific questions:

  1. Who are what causes systematic injustice?
  2. What, specifically, makes a focus on systematic injustice (as opposed to a focus on individual accountability) more helpful in creating justice?
  3. How does a focus on systamatic injustice doesn’t cause a diffusion of responsibility?

I’m having to write quickly, so I appreciate for the forbearance of those who have trudged through this lengthy reply. Regardless of where Matt and I land, this is a tough topic to put in conversation because it’s deeply intertwined in presuppositions about the nature of reality, the nature of knowledge, the nature of morality etc. etc. But that’s exactly why we should participate: we have to get better at making a clear, moral case for our social action that crosses presuppositional and party lines.

I for one, while at this moment sleep deprived, am grateful for the opportunity.