In our conversations on anti-racism within the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) plan, some hold out “justice” as a goal. While everyone may understand what he/she/they means by “justice,” collective use of the term is problematic. “Justice” is subject to interpretation; it is subjective, a double-edged sword. One’s justice can become another’s oppression. In order to reverse centuries of institutionalized and systemic racism and discrimination in this country, I would instead suggest “diversity” and “tolerance” as concepts to discuss, pursue and implement.
To see “justice” as the goal brings neither diversity nor tolerance. “Justice” accepts only one viewpoint (that which is “just”) and rejects other perspectives as illegitimate. In other words, it is exclusive, not inclusive, and can lead to further discrimination. Just, justice and justification all derive from the Latin “ius,” that which is right or the law. But who gets to decide what is right? And whose laws? We can find many examples from the past (and present) of leaders and followers seeing actions which we consider reprehensible as “just” and “justifiable,” namely genocide, slavery, racism, greed, totalitarianism and exploitation, among others. “Justice,” therefore, becomes a rhetorical device used to defend one’s actions and maintain current hierarchies. It is imposed on others and not decided through wide conversations. Therefore, if we focus on “justice” as the goal to remove the racism and discrimination embedded in our institutions, systems and cultures, we may create an unhealthier environment with no room for the free exchange of ideas, dialogues or respectful challenges to each other’s views.
Our most treasured legislators throughout the ages knew this challenge of “justice.” Late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburgdisplayed prominently in her office lines fromDeuteronomy 16:20 in the original Hebrew: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” or “justice, justice you shall pursue.” Asothershave noted, we should see justice as a means and a process, but never an end in itself. Eleventh-century Jewish philosopher Avraham Ibn Ezracommented that this verse purposely repeated the word “justice” because “one must pursue justice, whether it be to one’s gain, or to one’s loss …” for “all the days of your life.” In that constant search our views remain dynamic and never stagnate. Justice is pursued, searched for, but never absolutely found. If we set justice as a goal, we have already decided the outcome, because we have already judged what is right. We are just and thereby anyone not on our side is wrong or unjust. No room remains to explore, reexamine and decide outcomes together. We might fall into the trap of self-righteousness, lose sense of honesty and integrity, stop observing the facts of our lives and societies and retreat into our own justified narratives.
Rather, “diversity” and “tolerance” stand as concepts that we can and should grasp. “Diversity” allows for a wide group of contributors, each equal in sharing their contexts, with the ability for all participants to challenge even well-established concepts without rebuke. “Tolerance” allows us to listen to others’ positions and contexts, even if we do not fully agree with their conclusions. Encouraging discussions through diversity and tolerance should form the foundation of a healthy, shared environment in which everyone feels (and is) included. Together we guide each other toward a collective, negotiated solution that works for all. Once we view our pursuit within the concepts of “diversity” and “tolerance,” then we can work together to find achievable ways to make real changes.
While “justice,” “racial justice” and “social justice” appear as admirable and easily-understood goals, they remain manipulable, abstract slogans. If we are serious about turning Tufts into an anti-racist and anti-discriminatory institution and community, we need to pursue concrete goals, not abstract ones, through diverse and tolerant means.
Hedda Harari-Spencer is the Hebrew language coordinator in the Department of International Literary and Cultural Studies (ILCS) at Tufts University. She can be reached at Hedda.Harari_Spencer@tufts.edu.