Temi Ogunye reflects on the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and how people can use activism to fight social injustice.
What is there to say about the events of the past few weeks? I honestly would not have guessed that I would ever witness such a diverse coalition of people around the world speak up against racial injustice. And these were not simply expressions of outrage about the most naked, egregious, undeniable wrongs: police officers murdering unarmed black people on the streets of America. These were declarations of opposition to ‘structural’, ‘systemic’, ‘everyday’ racial injustice, stands against the white privilege and anti-black racism that is pervasive in societies the world over. These events inspire cautious hope. Perhaps we will be able to harness the energy they represent to build lasting, durable change. Perhaps conversations about race will be more honest and constructive, less defensive and tiring. Let’s see.
I hadn’t intended to say anything. Viral videos of police officers killing unarmed African Americans have become grimly familiar, and black people across the world are now well acquainted with the particular sense of distress they cause (I haven’t been able to watch the most recent video). I’m also in the final stages of writing a PhD amidst the disruption and anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic. I assumed it was best to stay focused on the immediate task at hand. But the murder of George Floyd was too horrendous and symbolic – and the wave of protest it has triggered too momentous – to pass without comment. Plus, my PhD is on the topic of activism and resistance to social injustice. I’m invested in this issue in multiple ways.
In my doctoral research, I seek to answer the question: ‘How should citizens remedy social injustice?’. This project is largely an exercise in political philosophy and is motivated by the fact that political philosophers talk a great deal about the just society but don’t offer much guidance about how to get there. It seems that recent events have convinced many more people that it is their responsibility to contribute to the effort to make their societies more just. The issues are complex and the details will vary depending on the specific injustice being opposed, but here are some very general suggestions for how we should approach this task. These suggestions are intended to apply to all activism, not just that which targets racial injustice.
Mechanisms: have a clear diagnosis
When people complain about social injustice, they do not typically have local interactions between individuals – this theft or that assault – in mind. This is often expressed by saying that the injustice is ‘structural’ or ‘systemic’. These claims may sometimes seem vague, but the general point is that social injustice is generated by widespread patterns of behaviour. If we want to remedy injustice, we must be clear about the social phenomena – the mechanisms – that underpin these patterns.
One thing that makes this task difficult is that there is no single ‘structure’ or ‘system’ that generates all injustice; human societies are too complex for that to be plausible. Different social phenomena coexist, compete, and overlap, causing different kinds and instances of injustice to come about.
Take law. We are very familiar with social injustice underpinned by this mechanism. The law that said that only men could vote or stand in elections is an obvious example. But law is not the only powerful force in society, and it is not the only social phenomenon that can cause injustice to occur. Rules that are not laws – social norms, for example – can underpin injustice too. And we are becoming increasingly aware of injustice generated by widespread patterns of discriminatory behaviour that people do not intend to engage in and may not even endorse – the phenomenon known as ‘implicit bias’. It is possible that this mechanism is contributing to causing racial disparities in a wide range of areas, including school discipline and unemployment (also see here and here).
Being clear about mechanisms is important if we are going to be able to devise credible and effective remedies to social injustice, and it involves attending to the empirical evidence about what is causing the injustice in question. This is where social science and activism meet.
Means: consider the full range of remedies
If the mechanisms are what cause the injustice to occur, then the means are the tactics and interventions deployed to remedy the injustice, to bring it to an end. The most familiar means for remedying social injustice is, of course, law. The passing of the Race Relations Act 1965, which began the process of outlawing race discrimination in the UK, is a good example of an attempt to remedy social injustice via legislation. It is worth noting that normally only a select group of citizens are empowered to change the law: political representatives and state officials. For ordinary citizens, activism that aims at legislative change is indirect: it involves encouraging this empowered group to act. This can be done in a number of ways, ranging from the mundane (voting) to the controversial (lawbreaking, violence). (We’ll get to the issues of how controversial activism can be justified in a moment.)
While legislative and policy change is necessary (there are many, many examples), law is not the only means by which we should seek to remedy social injustice. One reason is that injustice can be generated by behaviour that takes place in ‘civil society’ – think about families or religious groups that promote patriarchal gender norms – and many think that the law should not instruct people about how to behave in this ‘private’ sphere. And even if we are more relaxed about the state intervening in civil society, we know that such interventions are not always successful. Culture is too resilient for that.
Instead of relying exclusively on legislative and policy change, we should also direct our attention towards more informal sites of activism. This means changing our own everyday behaviour – men taking on an equal share of domestic responsibilities, for instance – and encouraging others to change theirs too. One powerful vehicle for informal activism is the media, where harmful stereotypes – of blacks as aggressive, violent, criminal, for example – are often promoted and recycled. These stereotypes are the essential ingredient of implicit bias. They also serve to constrain people’s horizons and imaginations, to limit the lives they want or think possible for themselves. The stories we tell about different groups in society matter, and some groups get richer, deeper, more open-ended stories than others.
Morality: don’t forget your principles
Activism is about changing the world for the better. This is why it is so important to pay close attention to mechanisms and means. We need to know what is causing the problem and how it is best fixed. If we ignore these factors, we increase the risk that we will fail to change the world or that we will change it in a way that does not constitute an improvement (we cannot eliminate this risk completely). But behind these strategic considerations stands a moral principle: do what you can to make society more just.
Lots of what people can do to make society more just is not in itself controversial. Presuming they are done for a good cause, acts such as voting, signing a petition, or persuading your friends to change their behaviour do not stand in need of moral justification. This is not true of all activism, however. Some activism involves the imposition of harm on others, and the imposition of harm is the paradigmatic example of something that must be justified. This is most clear when it comes to violence, but it can also be true of other forms of activism such as strikes, boycotts, whistleblowing, and ‘civil disobedience’.
The justification of harm is complex but one (just one – there are others) very important principle is that the harmful act should yield a level of benefit that is in proportion to the level of harm that the act involves. In the case of activism that seeks to remedy social injustice, the potential benefit is considerable. The details of each case will differ, but if the means we use are well-designed there is no reason to think that all potentially harmful activism must be ruled out. Take the recent Extinction Rebellion protests in London. These involved activists imposing harm on others in the form the of disruption to travel and the costs of policing. But the benefit sought – addressing the climate emergency – is huge, indeed, existential. And benefits yielded so far – a dramatic (pre-COVID) increase in the proportion of people who see climate change and the environment as one of the most important issues facing Britain – probably already outweighs the harms required to secure them. We might think about protesting against racial injustice during a pandemic in a similar way.
The general point to take from all this is that activism is a deeply serious business, and activists must think in ways that are both strategic and principled. We don’t all have to do everything; a division is labour is sensible. But together we must have diagnoses of the injustices we want to remedy, pick the right means in order to remedy them, and ensure that any harms we impose are morally justified. This is a challenging endeavour, but recent events suggest that many more people now see it as their responsibility to engage in it. Let’s get to work.
Note: this article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.
Image credit: Steve Eason – Black Lives Matter protest at Parliament Square, London 6 June 2020.