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Discussing Everyday Justice 2

2009 November 4
by Julie Clawson

The recent contest to win a copy of Everyday Justice generated some fantastic comments and questions about justice issues. So over the next few days I will be addressing some of those in blog posts. I don’t assume to have THE answers to anything, but just want to share my perspective and hope you will join in with yours as well.

Jonathan asked –

to what aspect is Justice culturally relevant? or Universal? would an injustice in the US ever be seen as justice, or acceptable, in a different context?

This is a sticky question. It brings up the whole idea of cultural relativity. I agree that all cultures are different, but also believe that justice can transcend culture. That doesn’t mean that there are absolute ways justice can always be applied, just that the idea of seeking to love the other in all things isn’t limited by culture. But as Derrida rightly pointed out, whenever we start to codify justice we create injustice. Creating the absolute laws help us understand and promote justice, but they too can fail. There will always be exceptions to any blanket statement on justice – and there will be levels of injustices as well. That said, I don’t think this should prevent us from taking stands for what we think is right or to seek to love people, but to realize that our actions sometimes will have to be creative and will always be messy.

Take child labor for instance. It is illegal in the United States and in many other countries. We fought hard in this country to get laws in place to protect children. And technically it is against the law to import any goods into the U.S. that have been made using child labor. I think most of us would agree that children shouldn’t have to do work that is physically dangerous or that causes them developmental harm. In addition, most Americans would assert that children deserve to be children – to have time to play, be imaginative, and be educated. There may be some debate if the latter are rights per se, but most of us would agree that forcing a child to do work that stunts their growth is unjust.

This past week as the story emerged that in this tough economy children have started working alongside their migrant worker parents picking blueberries and tomatoes across the U.S. Around the world it is not uncommon for children to work alongside their parents in the fields. Heck, our school year is structured the way it is so that kids would be off to help their parents with the harvest. But to see pictures of 5 year old girls carrying large buckets of berries is hard. Not only is what she doing against the codified law of our country, she is not getting an education and is being exposed to dangerous pesticides. But she is working so her family can survive. Most children working in factories and fields around the world do so so that their family can put food on the table. Taking a stand for what is right in those situations is messy. One can’t call the situation unjust, force her to return to school, and prosecute the field owners without causing more injustices along the way.

Imposing one idea of justice shouldn’t cause more injustices, but sometimes in the short run, that is unfortunately what happens. Cultural habits or just what one has to do to survive in a culture clash with other culture’s ideas of justice. I personally don’t think we should ever excuse any injustice as inevitable or “just the way things are.” But sometimes seeking justice in diverse cultural setting will require us to look at the bigger picture and not just the moment. I believing rescuing individual children from dangerous situations is the right thing to do across cultures, but it must be done alongside of actions that address why that child was in that situation to begin with. Imposing laws without understand doesn’t help. Working for large scale healing can.

So we have to ask – if these families were being paid fair wages for their work, then perhaps they wouldn’t have to choose to send their children to the fields. If the U.S. didn’t impose harsh stipulations for foreign debt repayment perhaps children in other countries could leave the fields and go to school as well. Or if a religion wasn’t teaching that women are inferior if the girls would get an education and not be cast aside to literally die in sweatshops or brothels. We must work within the systems, understanding them, asking the hard questions to see justice work across the board.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. November 6, 2009

    I think you’re right to say that we can’t fix the problem without considering what caused it and finding the solution for that.

    Here’s the question that I wonder from time to time – if we get too focused on buying local and not causing hardship to the environment by shipping over long distances, etc, are we taking away jobs from the poor in other countries who make the goods we import? I can’t figure out a way to compare American jobs and third world jobs because of the vast difference in economies.

  2. November 7, 2009

    Just is just. I don’t think justice, itself, can ever be seen as relative. And yet, the application of justice is always relative. And, in our ‘small world’ context, nearly always complex.

    I “worked” as a child. I had chores around the house. I spent evenings and weekends weeding the household garden. We grew quite a bit of food in our backyard and many hours of my childhood were spend in that patch of dirt. No one would have considered it to be “child labor” in the sense of a child being “forced” to go to work “in the fields.” And yet, what was the real difference? I did the work because I was told to do it. And it was right for my parents to require the work of me.

    At the same time, I was going to school and had some (appropriate) time for recreation and social activities. I spent a lot of Saturdays working when I would have rather been playing with my friends, but I’m not sure this idea we have that children should be free to play however they like is all that great a concept.

    The question I would ask of “child labor” are questions of exploitation, wholeness (are they getting any sort of education or are they used as machines who eat, sleep, and work?), and health. But these aren’t questions just for child workers, but for any person who is working. There are issues of justice that should always be raised and addressed, but I don’t think those issues translate nearly so easily as some (and I’m not suggesting you’re doing this, Julie) into statements such as, “Child labor is unjust.”

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