We are wired to cheer for the underdog, but do we empathize with the weak? Not necessarily —as long as they do not feel unfairly mistreated in front of us: the sense of injustice and our rejection of it runs deep no matter the era, the culture, or the set of values.
Take, for instance, the open letter published on January 13, 1898, on the cover of French newspaper L’Aurore: J’Accuse!
In it, Émile Zola rebels against the public sentiment and institutions who had jailed Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer of the French army, for treason, despite the solid irregularities around the process.
Zola knew his public gesture would carry heavy consequences for him. He was prosecuted for libel one month after the article’s publication, and soon after, he fled to England. But, as an intellectual, he was also conscious that modern society could only fight injustice by influencing the public sentiment through the mass media of the time: newspapers and their front pages.
Before we trusted universal codes
Humanism and the Enlightenment brought up the principal ideals of positive rights, and philosophers such as Emmanuel Kant considered that we share universal ideas.
Even when we are not experts nor we have not studied a topic, we recognize what is good and bad, what is fair and unfair, concepts that would precede academic knowledge and that, according to Kant, exist beforehand, forming an intersubjectivity “a priory,” a meaning before the fact itself.
In the Middle Ages, such concepts were not considered universal but related to informal institutions such as military knighthood. The chivalric code blended the warrior ethos with Christian codes and a strict sense of what is honorable and what is not, what needs to be fought for versus all else, considered suppletory. Or, as Walter Scott puts it in Ivanhoe:
“Chivalry! – why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection – the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant – Nobility were nothing but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword.”
Perceived injustice and Quixotic aspirations
Our fascination for Don Quixote as an archetype is his anachronistic view of the emerging modern world, with its utilitarian cruelty devoid of any sense of honor and individual bravery. Hence Quixotism will design in the contemporary world a tragic sense of heroism that only rogue desperados could incarnate in bureaucratic, institutionalized modern societies.
In such societies, romantic chivalry and desperado Frontier characters become a powerful symbol of freedom and individual will against the odds, fighting what they perceive as systemic injustice. As the co-founder of Greenpeace Rex Weyler has explained, we respond to issues and perceived injustices not by rationally reviewing the cold data and their derived consequences, but through relatable narratives:
“We were focused on the fact that you can’t just recite the data, you have to tell a story that society changes through narrative.”
At sea, pirates and buccaneers prey on commercial ships belonging to European empires, often considering their actions as heroic, on the popular chivalric narrative of Robin Hood. Wandering minstrels will explain across the English countryside the actions of Francis Drake as “honorable,” while at the same time, their attacks against ships of the Spanish Empire will be considered in Spain as despicable pirate boardings. Hence, Drake will become a knight and a sir in Britain, remaining a lawless corsair for Iberians.
Concepts such as honor, duty, or justice are as ambivalent as the actions of Robin Hood and Francis Drake.
In modern times, when it comes to fighting injustice, rogue characters and organizations face the same contradictions by creating actions of protest that try to raise awareness in the abstract realm of public opinion, which today has reached high levels of polarization as media fragmentation makes it difficult for any given population to share views or topics of interest.
On feeling responsible
French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote extensively about the world that emerged after the collective horror of the Holocaust and the nuclear bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Of Lithuanian and Jewish ancestry, Levinas fought in World War II against the German invasion of France in 1940. Yet, he didn’t seek to demonize German soldiers but to confront any human (perceived friend or perceived enemy) to dissipate the artificial barrier that separates us from “the Other.”
To Levinas, any survivor of World War II shares a sense of duty and the responsibility to fight injustice or discrimination, especially when promoted at a mass scale and with the precision of modern bureaucracy. Other philosophers of his time, though, considered that if humans could find common ground with perceived enemies to fight or mend injustice, this primordial empathy did not manifest when it came to protecting nature from relentless abuse.
It was as if modern society, self-aware of mass-scale horrors and of the new risk of nuclear obliteration, could not rebel publicly against big-scale “injustice” inflicted on ecosystems. Why? Do we only see injustice when it’s inflicted on other members of our same species?
According to scholars exploring the topic, there are deep evolutionary reasons that arise our sense of empathy when we see others facing injustice to the point we can feel seeing abuse inflicted on others as if the aggression was on us.
Pass me that ginger root: on trees and rhizomes
Metaphorically, if we think of philosophy as a tree (according to hierarchical thought, as Neoplatonists like Porphyry envisioned), or rather as a botanic rhizome (organic self-assembly that allows for multiplicity), the concept of injustice sits among those that nurtured our pursue of making sense of what it means to be human.
Those who thought being human is a historical and cultural construction of the self, and those who tried to liberate themselves from the constraints of social and cultural conventions, from Nietzsche to deconstructivism, acknowledged that there are powerful human drives, from our survival and family protective instincts to the visceral rebellion most feel against perceived grievance.
Our study of existence, reality, and the world around us (let’s call it philosophy) is always partial and subject to interpretation. Some of our drives and intuitions are so close to the otherworldly inspiration that even the most rigorous thinkers have highlighted time and again the need for speculation about the causality of things and why reality manifests the way it does (let’s call it metaphysics).
To French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, as humans, we feel the world and its mysteries (“nature”) is an infinite sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere. Paradoxically —Pascal will consider just like Socrates and others before him— the more we know, the bigger the boundaries our “sphere of knowledge” will share with the boundless unknown.
We perceive injustice inferring there is a fundamental duality that also allows for the existence of injustice’s opposite, justice. But logical philosophy has struggled, though, in defining “positive” universals. It is very hard — philosophy of language states— to define justice unequivocally. Still, we all can feel and even experience a sense of injustice viscerally, even if we belong to a society with informal codes.
Finding just one black swan
Both are very fond of the interrelation between abstract concepts and mathematics, analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and critical rationalist philosopher Karl Popper, vindicated the ancient use of logical propositions for the practical advancement of human knowledge so it can tap in the improvement of reality and be liberated from pure speculation.
For example, the “modus tollens” (in Latin, method of removing by taking away: if P, then Q; not Q, therefore, not P”) tells us that, while it’s impossible for us to state a conjecture is universally true, we can at least refute it by finding its weakest flaw: we only need to find one black swan to corroborate that not all swans are white, whereas it would be impossible for us to check all swans that exist and have ever existed to make sure all of them are the usual color.
Even though we sense the universal substance or essence of what can be fair and unfair, justice and injustice are ambivalent and are subject to custom, values, and locality. Usually, sacred texts, epic literature, and the mythology that nurtures them rely on parables that amplify the possibility of interpretation: old quarrels among gods, the cruel fate of characters that don’t deserve the calamities they suffer, or stories of injustice serve as a pretext to express morality.
In his short story collection Guadalajara (2001), Catalan satiric writer Quim Monzó plays with the ambivalence of mythology. In one of them, we revisit Robin Hood as he famously reacts against the injustice of the dispossessed, as explained by the old story issued from English folklore. As a skilled archer and swordsman returning from the Crusades, Hood will assault the haves to give the booty to the have nots.
In Monzó’s tale, Robin Hood soon realizes his social redistribution master move backfires: the have nots become wealthier. At the same time, the old privileged face poverty, so he tries to mend the externalities of his rogue action to confront structural injustice by taking again from those who just got wealthier and returning some of it to the old haves (now dispossessed). In this satire, the politics of injustice become a nightmare to Robin Hood.
Ecologists before ecology existed
Yet our difficulty to make nature a subject that needs to be protected from systemic injustice is one of the topics of philosophy after World War II. Recently, a court in Ecuador has recognized nature’s “rights” to prevent mining in a protected rainforest area, yet the decision is perceived as controversial and contrary to the country’s economic interests.
Modern law had no issues in attributing individual rights to non-human legal entities such as companies (who legally behave as de facto legal persons, with their duties and rights), yet nature and non-human living entities were never granted the same status.
In The Roots of Heaven (1956), French writer, aviator, and member of De Gaulle’s Résistance during the war, Romain Gary, depicts the anti-hero Morel, an eco-terrorist avant la lettre that has lost his faith in humanity after the mass horrors of war.
But Morel finds a cause worth fighting for: saving African elephants from poaching and ultimately extinction, as the animals get caught in the dialectic of African development and independence from European colonial powers.
The rogue Morel, a “desperado” (word used by Gary to describe his anti-hero) who defends the unrecognized rights of another species, is a radical ecologist before even the word ecologism had widespread use among public opinion in the West; yet, the character is aware that the only chance to succeed in his Quixotic enterprise depends on the work of field journalists and photographers who will bring his story to magazines and newspapers.
Pirates and rogue desperados fighting injustice
Morel’s compromise with elephants cannot be compared with Ted Kaczynski refusal of modern society as a whole. In the preservation of the last marvels of megafauna, Morel envisions one last opportunity for humanity to find inspiration for the future, for only Quixotic endeavors can bring the long-term mentality necessary to address systemic, civilization-scale threats.
The “pirate” model of protest against injustice inflicted upon nature, with its own pseudo-chivalric codes, incarnated in the late sixties when individual citizens began organizing to protest against perceived injustices and threats. It was the Cannikin underground nuclear test the United States planned on the island of Amchitka, Alaska, the event that spurred a protest born in British Columbia that did not prevent the nuclear essay but established Greenpeace.
Formally founded in 1971, Greenpeace found supporters across North America, Europe, and ultimately the rest of the world to Quixotically oppose structural externalities caused across the world by governments and newly emerged multinationals.
Yet activism remained vague and mostly symbolic: as organizations such as Greenpeace spurred all over with support from citizens and extensive media coverage, the model’s limitations became more and more evident: did protest and indignation against pervasive environmental abuse (or “injustice” towards non-human entities) deter specific damage?
For decades, global activist organizations grew their main generalist and symbolic scope. Small environmental victories did not hide their little influence shaping environmental, agricultural, or energy policies.
Ecology and pragmatism
The new century finally made eco-pragmatism mainstream; old and new activists faced some contradictions, and organizations reviewed early positions concerning controversial topics such as the use of already functioning nuclear energy reactors. In 2009, Stewart Brand, the legendary editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, published his essay Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.
It has taken decades to transform activism protesting against perceived injustice into an era of pragmatism and action capable of delivering positive outcomes at a local and regional scale, if not yet global.
Some of the calls to action comes even from the very founders of modern activism: Greenpeace’s veteran Rex Weyler has manifested in a speech (Design, Activism and Impact) that the world doesn’t need just protests but “designers that become activists,” helping create the necessary systems and tools capable of “reducing the human footprint”:
“Design and architecture can play a role by really redesigning, rethinking, reimagining what it means to be a designer or an architect.
“Somebody has to retell the story of design in the same way that Greenpeace attempted to retell the story of humanity on Earth. Designers could take a lead in helping to reshape and retell this story for the whole world.”
Weyler specifies we need to build “what’s needed, necessary and helpful”:
“I think that the design community can contribute to by saying, Look, we not only have our careers, our job, our careers, our art to build things, but let’s build what’s needed, necessary and helpful, rather than just build what’s ostentatious, huge, and award-winning.”
The new race to build eco-pragmatic systems, designs and tools will depend on the ability of storytellers to find the most effective and relatable narrative. New materials, a circular economy, more efficient mobility, food with less impact, and the acceleration of the energy transition are just happening right now.
Instead of focusing on abstract, boring, cold data, projects such as The Ocean Cleanup show how huge multilateral issues no government wants to deal with, such as plastic polluting the oceans, can be tackled by building systems that accelerate ocean surface cleaning.
Some other initiatives could even turn issues into work opportunities for the least employable in a world in profound transformation. Maybe, we are beginning to recognize we can feel empathy and feel the urge to take action when the subjects of injustice are not human and need somebody to channel their survival urge.