Justice is a Gravity Lens

You know that Dr. King quote, about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice? For me, this quote always triggers an image of distorted light streaking around a gravity lens. As if justice is this massive object that, depending on your vantage point, has the ability to obscure, distort, and magnify all at once. If you’re aligned perfectly, you’ll see what’s on the other side, amplified. You’ll see every injustice so clearly that it’ll drive you into a productive rage or demoralized depression. Some of us are fixed to that alignment. We have no choice but to stare it down, day after day. But others can just drift, a light year or two off course, until the injustices become unnoticeable. 

That’s my attempt to give meaning to what’s probably a nonsensical random association in my head. But, maybe that’s alright, because, like justice, that image is just what I make of it. And, if the analogy holds, justice moves and changes in its own right. Gravitational lensing can be caused by a massive, violently churning galaxy or super massive black hole. Forces that are hardly constant or stable. Maybe this holds for justice as well.

That’s a disturbing thought. It’s comforting to think that justice is universal and constant and that it’s just our understanding of it that changes overtime. But really it’s just an imperfect clump of mass that’s tumulting and churning through the universe as it interacts with external forces. And we’re  the primary external force. We, or rather a small subset of us, have the power to forge justice or chip away at it gradually. 

In Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology, Benjamin makes the fundamental point that race itself is a technology. It’s a human-made classification system used to power a huge component of our societies. Racialization is an engine calibrated with weights and values. It takes people within our society and outputs decisions about what should be done with them. About what opportunities should be provided to them. About where they’re allowed to live. About who they’re allowed to marry. About what they’re allowed to do with their lives. 

It’s important to remember that with every machine, with every system, there’s an intended user that’s going to reap the benefits of the output, so let’s think of justice as technology, or at least something we use technology to shape and manipulate. We have to continuously ask the questions: who are the intended producers and consumers for justice served in a society? Who is justice designed for? Who are its designers? What are its designers hoping to obscure, distort and magnify? Where, in the view of society, do they place the lens of justice? Who and what do they allow it to examine? Who do they allow to walk by unnoticed? 

And when all that is decided, what technologies are developed or co-opted to enable and enforce this justice? 

In the anthology Palestine +100: stories from a century after Nakba, writers were asked to imagine what life in Palestine would be like in 2048, 100 years after the massive expulsion of Palestinians from present day Israel. None of these stories imagine a great deal of hope for the future of a physical Palestinian state, but all of them explore how technology will continue to be used to restrict their lives and presence in physical spaces. However, many also imagined how technology would be used to carve out virtual spaces through the advancement of AR/VR. Bleak as it is, some of these writers imagined that, if there were any justice to be had in the future of Palestine, it’d be sourced through AR/VR. Almost as if justice in the physical world could no longer be reshaped. 

In the US, the recent ubiquity of smartphones and police body cameras have played a weird role in justice. While they’ve exposed a great deal of injustice disproportionately perpetrated on the Black community by police, they’re also a voyeuristic tool  readily exploited by capitalist media enterprises. The Black community has been pleading to the rest of us for decades to pay attention to these injustices, but it has only become a mainstream news topic when there’s footage of Black people being harmed. Yet, when footage is mysteriously unavailable, the issue doesn’t quite dominate our news cycles the same way.

Since we’re so intrigued by this type of  footage, why not strap body cameras to people with the most power in our world? If cost is an issue, let’s start small and buy just enough for the president, vice president, cabinet members, congresspersons and senators. Systemically, these are people who can do a great deal more harm than any single police officer. So why not require all their professional dealings, the rooms where it happens, backroom conversations and all, be a matter of public record? This extreme level of transparency sounds intense, but given the massive scale of influence these people have on the world at the moment, I’m not sure it’s entirely unreasonable. 

But what if, instead, we just scaled this influence down? In Infomocracy, Malka Older explores this by restructuring the world’s governments with centenals, “microdemocracies” with constituencies of no more than one hundred thousand people. The system works on the backbone of Information, a massive tech company that has taken over basic bureaucratic functions which enable the global electorate to not only vote, but to stay informed on what and who they’re voting for. This is key, as the story explores how such a system is made vulnerable when its technology is infiltrated and subverted. But even without any foul play, political parties that get elected in these centenals might ladder up to larger conglomerates with an inordinate amount of power. While Older shows justice in this world of microdemocracies will continue to be imperfect, she demonstrates their potential to move us toward a more just global union. 

No matter the shape of our systems, how we measure their success says a lot about how we think about justice. Over the last one hundred years, gross domestic product (GDP) has been the gold standard for measuring societies. Of course as a country’s GDP rises we see improved standards of living, but it doesn’t measure how even those improvements are. It’s just an average that could be masking massive wealth inequalities. For instance, the US has the eighth highest GDP per capita but the fourth highest wealth inequality in the world. GDP then seems mostly useful as a metric for investors in a country to gauge their return on investment. In Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth imagines a more just set of metrics that would instead seek to keep societies in a carefully calibrated doughnut between fundamental civic needs (health care, education, social services, infrastructure, etc) and practical ecological realities (resource management, environmental impact, climate change, etc). 

It sounds frustrating to think of justice as ever changing, massive and complex. How can we constantly construct the most perfect tools and systems to reshape and harness this gravity lens to solve problems and protect the vulnerable? But, it might be the only way to deal with how clever yet short sided and selfish we can be as a species. Inevitably, we find ways to circumvent systems of justice, either to overcome the oppression these systems were designed to enforce or to bend these systems to favor some over others. And, perhaps as long as matter in the universe continuously churns, accretes and disintegrates, so will justice.

Sameem Siddiqui is a speculative fiction writer currently living in the United States. He enjoys writing to explore the near future realities people of South Asian ancestry and Muslim heritage will face in the coming centuries. His stories explore issues of migration, gender, family structure, economics and space habitation. He’s attended the Tin House and FutureScapes workshops and his stories have appeared in Clarkesworld and ApparitionLit. Some of Sameem’s favorite authors include Kurt Vonnegut, Octavia Butler and Haruki Murakami. When he’s not writing, Sameem enjoys reveling in fatherhood, watching 90’s Star Trek and tinkering with data and music. You can find him on Twitter @s_meems or at sameemwrites.com.

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