One of the most important ideological divisions in western societies today is over the question of structural injustice, whether it exists and what it is responsible for. This incident from a couple months ago – where three students filed a complaint against a teacher for teaching about structural racism – is a clear example. The teacher and the student both couched their claim in ethical terms, and both found plenty of supporters online. It seems to me that the debate over this incident is just an especially clear example of what is in fact a widely recurring disagreement – a disagreement so profoundly felt that most of the time people just yell past one another, because their opponents position seems so deeply wrong. At the core of the disagreement is the relationship between society and the individual. Does your world view have room for the implications of something like “structural injustice” or not? Answer that question, and I will tell you what you think about affirmative action, the prison-industrial complex, the glass ceiling, and rape culture.
By “structural” injustice, I mean in particular those forms of injustice which are not the product of an individual or a group of people mistreating someone else. I mean instead those forms of injustice that are a by-product of “the way things are,” the unfortunate blind spots in the system that just happen to work out for some people and not for others. There is a whole sub-industry of scholars – feminists and critical race scholars and sociologists and queer scholars among others – who spend their time showing, brilliantly and compellingly, the way in which the blind spots in our economic, social and political order just so happen to map on to historical prejudices and the imbalances of power among those who made and make the rules. Good examples of structural injustice include the disproportionate incarceration of young black men and the continued dominance of men in high-powered positions of business, politics, etc. If you believe in structural injustice, you think that these unfortunate situations are a product of racism and sexism – not explicitly (it’s not that individual police officers are racist – although of course that’s part of it) – but because a complicated and fraught history of racist/sexist laws, compounding economic disparities, and social expectations and norms have worked together to bring it about. If you don’t believe in structural injustice, you probably think that something else explains these situations.
I think there are basically two reasons why people are skeptical about structural injustice. The first is that, if you live a life of even moderate privilege, and can be hard to see and to believe the injustices of the system. I, for example, have lived a life in which institutions – universities, government bureaucracies, police, public schools – have generally acted well, and in my best interests. As a result, I tend to think of these institutions more or less positively, and when someone starts denouncing them as deeply patriarchal, my instinct is to get defensive. In order to accept this critique, I need to embrace and legitimize someone else’s opinion about a reality that I already know fairly well from my own perspective. I need to accept that their perception is as valid as my own. That’s called empathy. And it’s hard. Most of us do well to really empathize with the closest people in our lives, our friends and family. And even then, when you get into an argument, it’s easy to forget that they have a different but equally legitimate perspective on how things are.
This ethical dimension is one of the reasons that debates on the topic can become so fiery so quickly. If you think about the issue in ethical terms, it can seem as though people who are skeptical about structural injustice (especially privileged people) are quite simply lacking in empathy; their political position betrays an insensitivity to someone else’s suffering. I think that’s real, and that’s part of it, but only a part. I’m wary of arguments which trace differences in political position to a moral failing. It ignores the fact that an ideology or political belief is not a substitute for actually caring about people; but it also glosses over the deeper philosophical question that is at stake.
The second reason that structural injustice can be a hard notion for people to swallow is that it requires thinking about one’s own relationship to the world in a way that is both counter-intuitive and contrary to some of the most powerful myths of modern society. We usually see ourselves as agents. Living an ethical life, for many people, depends on a profound sense of personal responsibility, which in turn relies on the ability to distinguish between those actions for which you are responsible and those which are out of your control. This sense of personal responsibility goes hand-in-hand with modern notions of equality -if everyone is equal, that means precisely that everyone is responsible for their own actions. We no longer live in a world killing someone because your lord ordered you to is ethically justifiable.
The idea of structural injustice that I laid out above troubles this. What it brings to light is that, in addition to being agents, responsible for our own actions, we are also implicit participants in a whole variety of systems which thoroughly exceed our control. I’ve written before about how alienating this experience can be. But what this incident brings out is that it’s also an ethically confusing experience. The students reacted against this professor on a moral register – their argument was not that she was wrong or boring, but rather that she was racist. What they mean by that is that they felt as though they were not being treated as unique, free agents. Instead, they were being held accountable for things over which they had no control – things which were only related to them at all because they happened to share a skin color with people who used to lynch other people for being black. For these students, racism means judging someone based on how they look rather than “who they are”. And by that definition, calling white student to account for the actions of some different white people is racist.
Now, the problem with this position is that pretending that you can make sense of “who you are” in the absence of the history and the social context that made you who you are is nonsense. But it’s nonsense that lots of people buy into in one form or another – and for good ethical and political reasons. Accepting personal responsibility is at the very heart of what many westerners, including myself, understand to be mature, right behaviour. Shifting blame is a symptom of ethical immaturity or cowardice. And so when faced with an argument that seems to undermine this logic, by emphasizing the importance of structural forces in shaping our actions and the meaning of our actions, people are very understandably made uncomfortable.
What is required here is an expanded and nuanced understanding of personal responsibility; a way of thinking about agency that both avoids blaming everything on circumstance and allows for the ways that our agency really is shaped by forces beyond our control.
I’m going to conclude here, having outlined what I see as a fundamental problem in our contemporary political discourse. Both liberals and conservatives tend to have an individualistic and a-historical understanding of the individual, and this tends to make arguments about very real structural problems unproductive and rhetorically overheated. It is in other words, not only a product of racism and defensiveness, but also a product of a built-in incoherence in the dominant political ideology, that makes it so hard for people to understand structural racism and other forms of structural injustice.