Recognizing Injustice Isn’t Enough. We Must Also Imagine Alternatives.
Last week we reviewed how capitalism has altered our society over the course of many decades, to eradicate communal relationships in favour of market transactions. But there’s another aspect of this that doesn’t get enough attention and that we must recognize if we’re to truly build a fairer and more equitable world.
Capitalism and the broader social structures that result from it have not just normalized the marketization of more aspects of our lives — they’ve also normalized the harms and inequities that result from such a transformation.
I think that can sometimes be hard to recognize because when we perceive something as being natural, it can be difficult to take a step back and see how, actually, it doesn’t make much sense when we think about it more deeply. I know this is really abstract, but bear with me.
Obviously, I believe great reporting can make us aware of these harmful normalizations, but that doesn’t always work. Think of the people who denied the cancerous risks of cigarettes despite the evidence for years, or people today who deny climate change or, more likely, deny the scale of action that must be taken to truly address it.
Maybe it’s a bit naive, but I feel that stories can also help to serve this purpose, and may be able to get around some of the barriers people may have to straight facts. That doesn’t mean all fiction can do this — there’s a lot of commercial fiction that doesn’t try to challenge the ruling ideology — but one of my favourites is the late American science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin.
In an essay written in 2004 titled “A War Without End,” Le Guin examines why oppressed peoples don’t rise up more often against their oppressors and the tools that exist to challenge them. Near the end, she writes that, “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”
I think it’s a very compelling statement. If people don’t know their workplaces can’t be organized so they don’t have to submit to a boss, why think it’s possible? If they can’t recall that there wasn’t always so much inequality, why imagine it to be achievable again? If a high number of deaths are simply considered the norm, why think it needs to be changed?
On that last point, in particular, I often think about a short story she wrote called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” where she writes about a seemingly idyllic city which has one major drawback. (You can pause here to read the story if you want. It’s only four pages long.)
Le Guin describes Omelas as a joyous society with no king, slaves, stock market, ads or secret police. It’s a place where children play, people get around on trams and trains, and the summer festival is just beginning. It sounds perfect, but then Le Guin introduces the dilemma: In the basement of a building somewhere in the city, a child is being tortured, and its torture must continue for all of those good things to continue.
She explains that children are shocked when they first learn of this — some even see the child for themselves. But over time, many begin to justify this harm in their minds and go on living just like everyone else. The few that cannot justify it leave; they’re the ones who walk away from Omelas.
This story, in my reading, forces us to think about the harm that has been normalized in our societies to make our own good lives possible. As we discussed in a previous issue, one of the key examples for me is how our communities have been reoriented around automobiles, how we’ve normalized the consequences and how many people find it hard to imagine an alternative.
Thinking about last week’s issue, there’s a lot of concern today about the safety of children. People talk about how it was safer for children in the past — they could be gone all day, their parents wouldn’t know where they were, but they didn’t worry.
The present-day threat is usually presented as kidnappers or pedophiles, but the truth is that vehicles are the biggest threat to young people. In Canada, they’re the leading cause of death among children and youth under the age of 19. Across the whole population, 1,922 people were killed by motor vehicles in Canada in 2018, while 9,494 people were left seriously injured.
I would argue these people aren’t sacrificed so we can get around easily; they’re sacrificed so certain companies can maximize their profits selling automobiles and suburban homes. But that’s not the only problem with cars and the communities they’ve created.
We’ve discussed how they’ve eroded community bonds, but they’re also incredibly expensive to taxpayers (that’s all of us) — services still need to be provided, but with lower population density over a larger area, that costs more than dense communities. They’re also personally expensive, costing between $8,600 to $13,000 a year. Meanwhile, being so spread out also forces us to waste more time commuting — whether in cars or on transit.
And then what about the car itself? We know it’s contributing to climate change with its tailpipe emissions, but it also creates local air pollution that causes health problems and even death. The extraction of the oil that powers those vehicles also causes environmental destruction and often harms local communities in countries around the world.
Electric cars are presented as the solution, most recently in the Throne Speech, but they won’t make any difference to road deaths, little difference to local air pollution and will create a whole new range of supply chain issues. Building those batteries will require a lot of mining, and that will mean a lot more environmental damage and community harm.
It would be much better if we reoriented our communities around public transit, but how many people find that nearly impossible to imagine after a few decades of knowing only suburban life, and being told that cities are dangerous, crime-ridden places?
The imagination is important, but so too is simply looking deeper to see what’s actually happening, like with cars (and SUVs and trucks), but also in the workplace and in our broader society. In her essay, Le Guin writes, “The shift from denial of injustice to recognition of injustice can’t be unmade. […] Once you see the injustice, you can never again in good faith deny the oppression and defend the oppressor.”
That accurately describes a lot of socialists, and our challenge is not just to make people recognize that injustice (as many people do), but to understand what the alternative looks like and how the reasons they’re given by powerful people for why change can’t happen are designed to maintain the system they benefit from — not make all our lives better.
Perspectives from around the world
Seth Klein, author of A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, writes that climate action must also combat inequality.
John Clarke, a retired organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, warns us not to fall for the progressive rhetoric of the Liberals’ throne speech.
Yves Engler, a Montreal-based writer and activist, asks why the media isn’t questioning the use of taxpayer funds to promote arms exports.
Rawan Abdelbaki, a PhD candidate at York University, writes about the Weston family’s history of ripping off workers.
Jerrad Peters, a Winnipeg-based writer, explains how QAnon is infiltrating Canadian conservatism.This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I speak to writer and former tech worker JS Tan about how China developed its domestic tech industry and why Silicon Valley is embracing nationalism to combat the threat to its global dominance.