My rite of passage was not a grandiose event. It did not come with a celebration. There were no parties or gifts or anything of the sort. My rite of passage was watching Trayvon Martin’s killer, and soon thereafter Mike Brown’s killer, get acquitted. My rite of passage was the somber realization that lives like mine were not deserving of dignity, that the criminal justice system saw no value in my life.
Similar stories abound in America. We have separated families at our borders, restricted the bodily autonomy of women and subjected incarcerated people to indentured servitude. Our country is devolving into a failed state. The idea of justice we cling to in our patriotic rhetoric falls flat as we write and enforce legislation that violates human rights. And the facade we put up comes with a cost: the life and liberty of those we lie to about our nation’s values.
But each time we are forced to confront the flaws of our country, to reckon with the harms done by our state, we find ways to justify our complacency and uphold the status quo. We acquiesce to the social movements of the time, then erect new systems and social customs that continue to divide our nation. Slavery is replaced by Jim Crow is replaced by mass incarceration. Colonialism is replaced by imperialist foreign policy is replaced by racist immigration policy. We are married to a vague conception of justice created by our founding fathers –– who themselves lacked the probity to hold true to their convictions.
In recent history, we have even started to wholly disregard justice. We endured four years of a president who, with no remorse, twisted the meaning of justice to fit his own ends. As a result, our body politic has become increasingly obsessed with power instead of principle, with influence instead of integrity. If we continue on this path, we are sure to cause irreparable harm to our democracy.
It is easy for us to dissociate from the outside world and regard our nation’s values with indifference. We have problem sets to complete, essays to write and corporate jobs to nab. Even for those of us who passionately engage with politics, we sometimes let the concept of justice go unexamined, allowing it to exist simply as a vague virtue we all agree to hold in high esteem. But people are suffering –– they have always been suffering –– and we cannot in good conscience continue to allow that to happen simply because we cannot be bothered to meaningfully scrutinize our conception of justice.
It is past time that we all deeply consider what it means to be just –– not only on the institutional level, but also on a personal level.
To find our definition of justice, we must ask ourselves: What matters to me? To find the answer, we must search for the virtues our hearts and minds are drawn toward. What actions make our stomachs churn, our hearts ache and our bodies squirm? What words do we refuse to accept from others? What do we love and hate about our society?
Once we define justice for ourselves, we must continually challenge that definition by seeking out perspectives that differ from our own. Our definition of justice should be in a constant state of revision as we engage in dialogue with those who define justice differently from us. But that constant state of revision should not preclude us from using our notion of justice to guide our actions. We must still be willing to stand in defense of our principles whenever we witness injustice. It may sound cliche, but at Yale that means challenging the actions of our administration, faculty and fellow students by speaking up for what we believe in. It also means volunteering time with student organizations and community organizations that fight for the principles of justice that align with our own. And as we engage with America’s social institutions more intimately upon graduation, it is incumbent upon us to continue the fight to root out their injustices.
We owe it to our society to commit to defining and pursuing justice, because when we do that, we can begin to transform society for the better.