Iris Marion Young

Justice and The Politics of Difference

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Justice and The Politics of Difference Summary

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In Justice and The Politics of Difference (1990), feminist scholar Iris Marion Young argues that social justice is more than about redistributing goods; it is about understanding the unacknowledged ways that seemingly nice institutions favor some groups while holding others back. Young proposes that the path to real justice is to look at society through the lens of oppression and domination, restructuring power dynamics to stop domination and oppression from continuing. This major work of theory received academic praise for not only forwarding a more nuanced understanding of justice but also, by examining contemporary power differentials between a wide range of social groups. The book spearheaded studies and activism in cultural pluralism, oppression studies, and political participation.

The book’s themes include community building as a means toward justice, the charade of equality and meritocracy, and the need for more accurate theories of oppression. Above all, Young maintains that the recognition of social groups, not just individuals, was a critical step toward the eventual equality of that group and the combat of structural inequality.

Young writes that since the 1960s and 70s, the idea of oppression has become more nuanced. Thanks to various civil rights movements, oppression is no longer a matter of a government oppressing a specific people, as it had been during tyrannical rulers in the middle ages or as some Communist rulers had done in the 1940s and 50s. In a democratic society, as in the U.S. and Europe, injustices happen even when a group is mostly well-intentioned.  These injustices are allowed to continue when assumptions are left unquestioned. Structural injustices, then, are harms that everyone in society takes part in to varying degrees. Even in an “enlightened” society, no one is innocent when there is structural inequality.

Real justice is more than people having (or appearing to have) equal access to goods and services. True justice ensures that societal institutions help people develop to the fullest of their capacity, empowering collective, community action. This sort of justice won’t be reached by changing political leaders or adopting new laws, because the same power dynamic continues even after shuffling power.

In the second and most cited chapter in Justice and The Politics of Difference, Young introduces what she calls “the five faces of oppression.” Larger or more dominant social groups can control minority groups through one of five major ways: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural domination, or violence. Nearly every group that has been identified as oppressed in the modern area can relate to these five aspects of oppression.

Young writes that many political philosophers have looked at social groups as simple associations or associates. Young claims this doesn’t capture the true nature of social groups, in that individuals—because of how they are commonly treated due to a shared trait—will have similar histories and similar reactions to the world. Social groups can become pillars of one’s identity. These social groups can also be considered social bodies that, like humans, will grow over time and are subject to harm or great success. Each group is oppressed compared to one group, yet privileged when compared to another. Young agrees with scholars who suggest that in this world, then, no group should be rated as the most oppressed, i.e. no group should consider its oppression to have “moral primacy.”

Young compares her idea of social responsibility to that of political theorists David Miller and John Rawls. These philosophers believed that the government plays a major role in remedying injustice; if the government cannot regulate it, then it behooves individuals to find a way to right the wrong. Thus, it is the responsibility of the aggrieved party to fight for its own justice. Nevertheless, Young supports what she calls a “social connection model of responsibility,” where all individuals – whether or not they receive a benefit – play a role in dismantling unjust situations. For Miller and Rawls, there are parties at fault. There are people to blame. However, this makes some people seem innocent, even though they take part in unfair, systemic injustice.

In chapter six, “Social Movements and the Politics of Difference,” Young looks at feminist, black, and disabled groups that have worked to disseminate positive images of their respective groups in public. This social intervention changes what individuals in each group believe they are capable of and the rights they should receive (namely, the same equal rights as a majority group). This new identity also encourages larger groups to rethink how they perceive the body of a woman, black person, or disabled person. Social groups are then agents of social change.

Though some people claim to be equal or fair, they could be trying to obscure structural differences between social groups. Young examines debates in bilingual education and American Indian rights. Young says that it is vital to acknowledge the unique differences of each group before the goal of undoing oppression can be reached. Privileged groups, especially the most privileged, often have the power to claim they are neutral judges. However, their way of thinking is so pervasive through society, that it becomes the “normal” way of judging things though there is nothing normal about it.

In chapter seven, “Affirmative Action and the Myth of Merit,” Young looks at affirmation action. While supporters of affirmative action tend to say it’s fair to implement this to correct the injustice and crimes of the past, Young takes the new position of supporting affirmative action because it helps diminish oppression against black people by thinking “white” thoughts are the only way to go through life. That it also helps remedy the sins of the past is good, but not the essential purpose of affirmative action. In fact, it unwittingly supports two unjust concepts, meritocracy and hierarchy. By its existence, affirmative action acts as if people really do earn what they work to achieve, and that hierarchies are valid, two concepts that Young spent much of Justice and The Politics of Difference debunking.