Towards Justice As Healing
By Elisabeth Layne
The confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh exposed deep, painful divides in our nation, bringing to the forefront our disparate conceptions of truth and justice. How should systems of oppression be acknowledged in our political proceedings? How do we enact and uphold processes that ensure fair judgement? We here at SKEPTIPOL discuss several of these viewpoints in our new series, Truth vs. Power.
Everyone keeps telling me to speak truth to power, as though power listens. As though we all know what truth is. As though speaking truth is harmless and easy, as though it comes to me. Power, here undefined, is not equipped to know what to do with my truth, or yours. Truth would eat systems of power alive. Truth requires justice unbridled and brimming with compassion, the sort of justice that has been intentionally exiled from our justice system. What if justice and truth were allowed in the room with power? The truth is an embodied fact. Facts are objective, sure, and facts come first, but facts stand still. Truth is subjective but it is true. It is a fact with legs. The truth is the lived evidence of a fact. As a site of knowledge, the truth outlives and outshines a fact. Truth carries and holds things for us, truth and experience occupy the same spaces and as such truth has the power to inform deeply. Truth observed and met with justice, not the justice system, has the power to free us and to upset our current structures of power.
“Speak truth to power” implies truth is inherently outside of power. Truth can be the joy of black childhood, the complexity of gender, or the traumas of marginalization and assault, but it is someone’s lived experience of fact. The facts, conditions of living or existing, are determined and designed by power. It is a fact that cis-gendered men have more power than women and other genders. Individual-specific experiences of abuse and trauma are lived truths. Speaking truth to power is a form of what Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire calls “critical intervention” in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, to not only see the realities created and maintained by power but to call its bluff. How powerful people, classes, and systems respond to that truth is what is most telling about the reality. The justice system, the court, is an arm of the state; its first priority is to protect the state and the state’s power. The court is also, curiously, the designated place for one to “speak truth to power”. It is a system detached from context, full of definitions and problem-solution formulas. Distance allows objectivity, allegedly. Objectivity concerns itself with facts, and the equation of facts, and the solution which comes from the equation of facts: a sentence to the guilty party. Justice is not to concern itself with truth, which also comes from facts, because truth is too bloody, too unwieldy. Here, justice is concerned with tidiness, and the maintenance and wielding of power. “In trying to become ‘objective’,” writes Gloria Anzaldúa, a scholar on Chicana, feminist, and queer cultural theory in Borderlands: La Frontera, “Western culture made ‘objects’ of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing ‘touch’ with them. This dichotomy is the root of all violence." Here, justice is not concerned with lived evidence of fact, truth, and its subsequent viscera. Objectivity is instead employed, justice is “served”, and the truth and their facts together go unexamined.
The justice system as it exists, seems to offer a two-step post-problem, post-truth-telling solution.
1) Rationalize the facts, rationalize the conditions of living that lead to the painful truth of lived experience. This way, nothing needs changing and power can be maintained. 2) Serve justice. Address only the visible problem, not the truth or the underlying state-sponsored violence, and only if that problem is on the list of pre-approved transgressions. If every violence is addressed, someone might notice the abuse of power and the veil might be torn. (Bonus points: if the court imprisons someone for telling their truth the “wrong” way.) This is not justice. This is the long arm of the law upholding the state. This is one way the state maintains its power. But it is not justice.
Justice is ongoing. So often justice is regarded and enacted as the thing that comes after the violence, the pain, the act. So often it is assumed that violence and pain are a fixed moment and not a moment glimpsed of continuing violent and painful conditions of living. Where is justice before injustice? During? Justice isn’t about “someone getting their due” and justice isn’t served; justice is serving. Justice cannot be passive. Justice, like truth, necessitates embodiment and may take many forms. Justice is not linear. Justice is about standing in the room with truth and offering up what’s needed for healing. Justice must move with, around, and out of truth.
What would it mean for truth to be answered with this sort of justice? What would that mean for our reality? What if truth and fact together were met with justice-as-healing, working as a feedback loop informing one another? What if instead of distance, the truth was close enough to touch, the bloody, breathing mess of it? Perhaps this sounds too utopian for you. Perhaps you’re worried about crime rates or getting blood on your shirt. Perhaps the power makes your lived experience easier, or you don’t feel ready to give up the illusion of safety for the freedom of truth. These concerns are coming from a place of fear and not of justice or freedom, and it is a real fear. Speaking truth to power is traumatic and uprooting, and you may not receive the justice you deserve. Audre Lorde, American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist reminds us in The Cancer Journals, however, that “…we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us,”
I think justice probably has very little to do with wielding power and everything to do with putting it down. The twist here is that those in power will never willingly disarm themselves.
I am writing in the sour light of the Supreme Court confirmation, having spent weeks watching those whose responsibility it is to do the work of justice ignore the voices of women and survivors, and dismiss the truth of Dr. Blasey Ford in support of the status quo. Continued abuse of power took precedence over truth and justice, and this was not a failing of the system. When I call for a re-imagining of justice, I am not interested in making edits to the justice system as it currently exists. It is designed to maintain power; it is in and of itself an injustice. To meet the court with justice is to do the work of dismantlement and reseeding.
I am talking about justice as an outsider to the systems of power as they currently stand, as a necessary intentional element in every place power is enacted and exchanged. Justice is required in tandem to compassion, and as such must be considered on the interpersonal plane as well as the political and structural. I am talking about justice as praxis, as recognizing and moving from truth as a site of knowledge into action, into active care, freedom, and staunching the wound with bare hands.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999. Print. Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco :Aunt Lute Books, 1997. Print. Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Print.