When Justice Becomes Power

Updated on April 23, 2017

Justice: Just behavior or treatment; A concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for all people

This is the oxford definition of a word that has been the clarion call for many movements and revolutions. It is reason given for human actions ranging from trials and executions, to war and extreme violence against other groups. It is cherished as the intangible light in the often dark world of human existence, clung to by the oppressed and the wronged even when it cannot be physically achieved. Justice is spoken of in an away like it is somehow transcendent of the boundaries of human experience, covering it like an umbrella. Yet it is at the same time almost inescapably bound to human actions and interpretations as well.

We live in an era that is filled with clamor from various groups and individuals. They demand their rights and sovereignty be respected on the basis of either their liberties to their own lives and their domains protected from others intruding upon it. And this has inevitably led to clashes between the different interpretations. The violent protests in Berkley are a perfect example.

Head on Collision

The side of the ultra right claims the right of freedom of speech to speak on their conservative and racist views on the campus. While the ultra left claims to be shutting down those rights primarily because it’s racist and ultra conservative. Or as one teacher from the campus put it, “It’s just wrong.”

Both sides want justice, but that justice not only conflicts with each other, but has turned into a fight about something else.

Where I live, Rochester is known for being pretty liberal when it comes to its politics. And as such, I had spoken to several people of varying political views from LGBTQ rights and feminism, to pro-business and conservative. The most common theme that I hear from both sides is the need of control to protect themselves and their rights because of injustices that have happened to them.

Again, they want justice, but are diametrically on opposite sides. If we are going by the Oxford definition of justice that says it is a respect for all human beings, why is their problem? I think the reason lies in the next word below.

Are justice and power opposites or the same thing?

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Power: The ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular war; The capacity or ability to direct or influence behavior of others or the course of events; Physical strength and force exerted by something or someone

The impact behind this word is much more convoluted because of its various applications. Power can be different things to different people and they can have a different reason for wanting and using it. In the context of this article though, I am applying it to how it can subvert justice and how it is different.

Since the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the country, I have more and more often heard opponents of him, of varying ages and gender, talk about the need to gather more power to get him out of office…because of justice. Many had felt a collective sense of helplessness in the beginning of his term because the progressive, utopian dream they had felt we were moving towards was suddenly going in reverse and wanted it to stop it.

As the months went on, the talk of more power did not cease and it was often used synonymously with justice. Whether it was power in the courts and laws, power in self-defense against violent racists and homophobes, or power to stop the spreading of hate ideology like what we see in Berkley, there is an increasing desire to gain the ‘capacity of influence’ to create action.

Conversely, many on the opposite side of the field feel the need primarily for legal power. To have control in the government to remove policies they feel have been harmful to them, or enact policies that are more in their favor. Where there are violent confrontations, there is growing talk of gaining more forceful power through self-defense because of the battles with ultra-leftists.

So more and more, the nature of the debate is changing from a spirit of justice to a spirit of control.


Weak Links

The common flaw that all factions make when using either term in their revolutions lies in human interpretation. Looking back at the definition of justice, it was about just and equal treatment of all people. When we apply justice, we are applying it not in the context of all people, but rather to our individual communities, our personal domains.

As one person said to me when discussing a possible alliance between feminism and other causes going on elsewhere, “That doesn’t matter to me.” We are quick to claim the standard of justice when we feel violated, but not when it is outside our personal circles and passions. So, though it is spoken as heavenly law, justice loses it definition in the fury of passion and revolution. This is where power kicks in.

Since people want to either expand their domain, defend it, or preemptively block others from invading it, they need the ability to do so. They need action. They need power to make what matters to them a reality. Unlike justice, power is simply a tool. Power is amoral and has no ties or ethical allegiances to equality or domination: liberal or conservative. That is why it has been used in both so frequently.

That is why changing the law should not be seen as justice in and of itself. It is merely exchanging hands of power put in writing and can easily change ink with the next ruling party.

The use of power to achieve justice is not by itself, wrong. It becomes wrong when the reason for the fight becomes about achieving and maintaining that control for your party. Whether there was legitimate cause or not, the goal becomes to ensure that your side has control and is not threatened, whether that’s in our personal lives or society. When power therefore becomes the goal, then there will be no balance between all the factions because each one is only concerned with their own domain. If one side starts to feel that their control slipping, they will push back harder and take it back. This then causes the other parties to react in the same way, and on and on it goes. No mutual respect for others other than those in our circles.

This can be seen when comparing the civil rights movements of the 1960’s with its later descendants. They all have good reason for marching and wanting protection against persecution and an abuse of power. However the original movement gathered and tried to appeal to all people to join their cause so that everyone was equal. It was not trying to favor one side, or only concerned with and motivating Black Americans only. I feel that many of the movements, though they should happen, are also primarily motivated out of fear and wanting power to protect themselves, rather than equality and justice.

Justice isn’t just about watching out for one’s own ass. It is aware of the need for justice for everyone in order to achieve a total and just society. Fear of losing control, of losing power, while understandable, also takes away that mutual respect. It becomes ‘their problem’ and doesn’t matter, at least until a threat appears on the horizon that is helped by that very group because your equality ‘didn’t matter’ to them in light of their own.

And Justice For All

It maybe that we can never really separate justice from power, since it only takes one faction to disrupt the balance with…power. It might be also that it is impossible to rule out the human bias from the equation to achieve a pure justice. Looking out for the greater good is a higher functioning activity after all, and the plain truth is that most of us our not willing to risk that if meant giving up our…power.

Still, as long as the ideal exists, then there’s a possibility. Most of humanity’s achievements came about because someone had a vision of what could be. And even if they did not live to see it through, as was often the case, that thing eventually became a reality in some way. So yea, I do believe in true justice and the use of power to uphold that doesn’t favor one side more than the other. It’s just a matter of how long it takes for us to get there.

The symbol of justice: a blind person holding the scales of balance and the sword to provide equal justice.
The symbol of justice: a blind person holding the scales of balance and the sword to provide equal justice.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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