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Month: March 2020

QCQ 14: No Future Without Forgiveness

Quotation:

“It was pointed out that we none of us possess a king of fiat by which we can say, ‘Let bygones be bygones’ and, hey presto, they then become bygones…the past, far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet, has an embarrassing and persistent way of returning and haunting us unless it has in fact been dealt with adequately” (Tutu 28). 

Comment:

In the aftermath of the apartheid in South Africa, there was great consideration as to what should be done to deal with the trauma that took place during that time. A barrier was those who had contributed to it, those “who opposed the trial option and suggested…that we let bygones be bygones” (27). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission would ultimately become the solution, where victims were encouraged to share their stories not to assign blame but to ensure “summum bonum–the greatest good” (31). 

I was very eager to read this story because last semester, my classmates and I watched the film Dawnland, a documentary about Maine’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commision (TRC) with the Native populations that live here. I don’t exaggerate when I say that film changed me. I learned so much and strove to share that knowledge with others. This quote stuck out to me, though, because it shows the problems that some people have with TRCs. 

One of the first stories that we hear in the film is from an older woman named Georgina, who was understandably frustrated with the idea of sharing her story. She asked, “some of the wounds are so deep, how do you propose that we’re supposed to be healing?” (Mazo & Pender-Cudlip). She shared how she and her sister had been put into a bathtub full of bleach by her foster mother, who was determined to lighten the color of their skin. She was far from the only one who had suffered, too. For this reason, like in South Africa, not all would “acquiesce in the conciliatory approach” (40). 

Georgina’s concerns, I felt, were valid. What she and others have gone through was horrific, and if someone had framed TRCs to her as simply a way to make nice with perpetrators, I think she would be greatly offended. History did indeed haunt her. I understand the point of TRCs, but I can see how the idea of having to essentially re-traumatize yourself by sharing stories from your past to strangers would be an uncomfortable one. Georgina was right to ask how this group was going to help her, especially when they were mostly non-Native and did not have that shared history of pain. Who may have been seeking a way to make themselves feel better rather than truly address their privilege. 

Apartheid was such a strong period of South African history, where hundreds were hurt and killed. Critics of TRCs may wonder how storytelling could fix that. How it could save Native peoples from their pain at the hands of white settlers and foster parents. For me, I resonate with that quote by George Santayana, “‘those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it’” (qtd. In Tutu 29). If we don’t hear these stories, not only is healing impossible but also, it helps outsiders see the wrong that was done very clearly. That even if they were not directly involved, they were still letting it continue. Maybe speaking up can’t rewrite Georgina’s story, but it can provide closure and a more favorable ending. It can reach others who need to see that they were not alone, and that moving forward is possible. 

Question: 

What do you see as pros and cons of TRCs?

Class discussion and impact:

My contributions: today I gave my opinion on Nadia’s article, saying that it did challenge people’s assumptions and also wondered about the impact of children seeing everything going on with COVID-19. I noted that, with Hayley’s quote, Tutu probably was being genuine in his idea that seeing everyone together is sort of like a scientific discovery. I shared my QCQ, as well as my conversation with my mother and the concerns that she had with TRCs, and I noted that a lack of acceptance within TRCs could be problematic for avoiding justice.

Others’ contributions: First of all I really wanted to highlight Nadia and her article, because it’s always great to see student work out in the public. She had some interesting points to share with us in class. Sinead’s QCQ prompted me to share my own because of her emphasis on accepting or acknowledging the past in order to move forward, which I appreciated. Finally, Jill made a point that having your past in the public record would increase the likelihood of future retribution.

I enjoyed this class a lot. We didn’t really dive deep into the content because of time but I like what we had to say about justice in amnesty. I don’t personally agree with my mother that amnesty means a completely free ride, but I shared her concern because I do think others could easily have it. I liked that Hayley brought up the idea of whether or not prison means justice, which again I don’t necessarily see. And Professor Cripps noted the financial strain all those trials might have caused too. A situation like Apartheid pushes us to consider our own conceptions of justice; are we righteous folks seeking punishment for the guilty, or do we simply desire revenge? And where, too, do we think that revenge is going to take us? I like that we read this piece because I got to dive back into former concepts from my other class, and I definitely want to watch the Dawnland film again. I will hang onto these conversations and this reading when I consider justice in the future.

QCQ 13: Rawls’ Theory of Justice pt. 3

Quotation:

“In arriving at the favored interpretation of the initial situation there is no point at which an appeal is made to self-evidence in the traditional sense either of general conceptions or particular convictions” (Rawls 19).

Comment:

Rawls is wrapping up his section on the original position by clarifying that, when the principles of justice are being decided on, they are not decided on by someone’s personal ideas or evidence but rather a general understanding reached behind a veil of ignorance. If the people are meant to come to conclusions without knowing about themselves or others, that is considered to be fair in this particular scenario. 

I chose this section because it reminded me of a debate among social work researchers. It boils down to a question of whether research informs social work practice or practice informs research. It’s being made into a dichotomy, kind of like the argument of the chicken and the egg and which came first. Being a student, I don’t presume to know more than the several others who have tackled this issue, but generally I believe that both sides are important. For example, knowing how to help a certain population would require research, however that research wouldn’t exist without first hand experiences. 

In Rawls’ imaginary creation of society, individuals are meant to make decisions that are not based on others and that ignore aspects of themselves. He calls it the veil of ignorance. I mentioned in my previous QCQ how it might be beneficial to ease someone’s state of mind and eliminate bias, but now I question it more. I think the only way you can know what would be the best course of action would be through experience (i.e. practice). You can make a claim and then see that it is wrong, but you wouldn’t know beforehand. Whatever conclusion you reach won’t make the most sense, because you’re only basing it off of what you can think up and not what you’ve seen. Of course, we all have to start somewhere, as even children experiment and change their beliefs. But basing an entire society off of that seems unstable. 

I said I agree with both sides of the research debate in general, but with social contact theory, I can see the greater value of practice informing research (personal experience dictating decisions and agreements). With the specific principles Rawls determines, I think the second would be one where experience might alter precious views. For this reason I would circle back to another idea in this section that we should be able to “modify the account of the initial situation or we can revise our existing judgements” (18). I think that because we can’t truly know the specifics and complexities of a given situation without having experienced it at least briefly, we need to be able to change that original agreement of justice as needed. Or at least, make some kind of amendment. We might very well change our minds, but we shouldn’t be restricted by that original choice we made. And the first principle of equality shouldn’t be put at risk because of the limited information we had before. 

Question:

What are some specific examples where not having prior knowledge might cause harm?

Class discussion and impact:

My contributions: I asked a few clarifying questions, one being about what Rawls’ intentions were with the veil of ignorance and the other being about the diversity or lack thereof in the original group making decisions. I also shared my QCQ and wondered whether this imaginary society was still going to be a capitalist society and the problems that might create.

Others’ contributions: Anna made a very good point that it’s impossible to take ourselves and our interests out of the decision making process, as explaining things simply still boils down to, “well, what would you want in that situation.” I also just want to acknowledge Hayley’s willingness to answer my questions because she did clear a lot of things up and give me a new perspective. I like what she said about how, even in what appears to be a homogenous group, you will still see lots of variety in views.

I do feel like I learned a lot this class just in terms of what Rawls is trying to say and also how I personally feel about the world. Being a social work student and also highly empathetic, I know I tend to tense at passages that seem to favor certain negative lines of thought and a lack of acknowledgement of marginalized groups. The question raised about whether a person stripped of their peculiarities and identities could truly be a person really struck me and sums up my thoughts, but I do also see that other side of it. That you can know enough about a person or group and, along with the first principle of equal rights, be able to see basic rules that would not intend to harm anyone regardless of identity. I’m glad we got to take this dive into Rawls and I will try to keep him in mind along with Mill and the other literature we’ve read as we move forward.

QCQ 12: Rawls’ Theory of Justice pt. 2

Quotation:

“The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances” (Rawls 11). 

Comment:

Rawls is getting into the specifics of social contract theory and what it would look like. He uses an “original position of equality” to determine which rules would be made and accepted (11). In this hypothetical scenario, he states that the individuals should not know what advantages or privileges they have, which would include social position, class, or “natural assets and abilities” like intelligence (11). In his opinion, this is the most fair way to go about setting up principles of justice because everyone is on the same page, at least in terms of awareness. 

I’m currently in an ethics class, specifically for social work practice. This week, in light of the situation with COVID-19, we spoke about the idea of limited testing for individuals. We were given a list of five people, trying to decide who (if anyone) would be most deserving of the three tests available. The difficult thing was knowing that these were all vulnerable populations with different circumstances and levels of concern. 

I have to wonder, based on this quote, if it’s truly better not knowing before making a big decision. The idea of a blind pick, a lottery as it were, might seem appealing for the reasons Rawls lays out. No one is being considered as better or more deserving than the others based on their assets. It also would take our own biases out of the equation, for as much as we like to pretend we were free of judgement there will always be subtle beliefs that dictate your decisions.

But there are problems with this as well. Sometimes history and background are very important to consider. I know Rawls’ theory depends on a considerable lack of a former society, and these imaginary people have been brought together to make decisions are not privy to knowing any other way of life. But in this scenario that I was presented with, I knew it wouldn’t feel right leaving things to chance because there were some in more critical states than others that I wouldn’t want to risk harming further if they didn’t get picked in this blind system. 

For example, one woman was living in an abusive household, and so a test would either mean she is free to get away or that she would need to find resources to help her (two very important paths). Meanwhile, there was also a man who was homeless and with no place to quarantine, so if he tested positive you would want to know so that you could actually find a place for him and stop the spread of the virus. The others all had similar pressing matters. On the one hand, who am I-in my position in life which I am constantly aware of and cannot ignore-to decide the fate of these individuals? On the other hand, can I ignore that some are at higher risk of harm than others and therefore should be considered before anyone else? 

I don’t have a clear answer for all of this, and I’m not sure if Rawls would either. I actually appreciated that one of my classmates bypassed the decision altogether to look for more tests. I can see both sides of the problem, which is what makes it harder. In a way I envy these people in the original position of equality, because they have the luxury of going in fresh. But I cannot, as my social work education has pushed me to never forget history and hidden privileges and oppressions. Of course, I don’t see this as a bad thing, but it certainly does make ethical decisions that much more difficult. 

Question:

I turn this ethical dilemma to everyone else. What’s better: giving all people careful consideration and then deciding something for them, or letting fate and a veil of ignorance do the work for you? 

Class Discussion and Impact:

My contributions: Other than sharing my QCQ from last class, I noted that I agreed with Nadia in that mistrust can be important to create social change, that it’s important to have a clarification on who a ‘rational’ person is, and I provided my opinion on why people should make decisions in that original agreement based on themselves (even if it wasn’t entirely on the mark).

Others’ contributions: Jill shared aspects of her QCQ from Tuesday (context of gender, 12 Angry Men connection), and Josh shared his QCQ for today as well as the idea that it’s human nature to want to better oneself.

I’m starting to notice a pattern in that we as a class will flag statements that we either agree with or are confused/conflicted about, and then we go over what Rawls’ intention was. It’s not necessarily declaring him as right every time, but it gives us more context and information to our arguments. I really enjoyed what everyone had to say regarding the issues of privilege and how not everyone should be assumed as altruistic at the outset. I’m interested to keep going with Rawls and learn even more from him.

QCQ 11: Rawls’ Theory of Justice pt. 1

Quotation:

“The basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start. The intuitive notion here is that this structure contains various social positions and that men born into different positions have different expectations of life determined, in part, by the political system as well as by economic and social circumstances. In this way the institutions of society favor certain starting places over others” (Rawls 7). 

Comment: 

This quote comes from the second section of the first chapter in Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. In this particular paragraph he introduces social justice, which focuses on the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. Problems arise when “major institutions define men’s rights and duties and influence their life prospects” (6). Rawls therefore writes that one’s identity or starting place can have a large impact on their life. 

As I read through part one in Rawls’ book, a major issue I was having was with his two conditions of a well-ordered society: that everyone can accept what justice is and act on it, and that institutions will honor those beliefs. This quote calls both of those conditions into question, and implies that they cannot be fully possible or realistic. 

It can be said that a large group of people being born with an inherent ‘free ticket to ride’ is unjust, because it goes against Aristotle’s pleonexia. Sure, those people couldn’t control the situation into which they were born, but they were still seizing advantages from others in a general sense. They have a great deal of privilege, and part of it is not having to realize that you have privilege. In that sense, those people can easily deny that they are part of an unjust system, thereby disagreeing with others and losing one understanding of the principles of justice. Also, even within marginalized groups-those with unfortunate starting positions-there are varying degrees of consensus on what justice truly is. For these reasons, I don’t think society (at least not an American society) is capable of coming to the exact same conclusion.

Further, many institutions, such as the school system and the political system, do not and cannot ever fully honor the peoples’ beliefs on justice. Not how they are currently, anyway. They make it impossible because they were created by, and intend to favor, certain individuals and groups. To borrow from Audre Lorde, they were built with the master’s tools and were intended for the master’s use only. It is these institutions that give way to those sacred starting positions of privilege, that ensure their survival even with the creation of new laws and norms. In fact, the isms themselves-racism, sexism, heterosexism, and so forth-can be called institutions themselves, so how could they honor the ideals of social justice? Of justice in general? Therefore, I also cannot see Rawls’ second condition being put in place. 

None of this is to say that people and institutions cannot change, but it cannot be done without serious efforts. The master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house, after all. I believe our conception of justice should be fluid, even if I recognize that we must start from somewhere. Context and history matter, even if everyone can come to agree about justice. And overall, I think we can’t move forward unless we acknowledge those who have and those who have not; the different starting positions in our lives and the major role that they play. 

Question:

Given this critique of Rawls, is it possible for us to settle on principles of justice while we still play a part (active or passive) in injustice? 

Class discussion and impact:

My contributions: I brought up my main issue with Rawls and how it’s difficult to all agree on justice, especially when institutions conflict with individuals. I also pointed out that even reactions to injustice like the Declaration of Independence excluded a large portion of the population. There will always be conflicts.

Other’s contributions: Sinead called into question social contract theory, how it’s all well and good to imagine making rules but that we will always have been born into an already clear set of rules, and that we will have to go along with them. Anna wondered about individual versus societal definitions of justice, and also noted that that whatever rules we have in place harm will always be caused either by those rules or by people going against them.

I really liked this discussion because many of us were saying similar things. We were wondering about the validity of Rawls’ views when thinking about conflicting conceptions of justice and problems within institutions. It was important, though, that we addressed social contract theory, because that gave me more of an understanding of where Rawls is coming from. In my QCQ I sort of accused him of not being very thoughtful about issues of privilege and systematic oppression, but I see now that he was just trying to set up a basic line of thought for a just society. It’s just difficult to separate what you know of reality and what theories people come up with. I will hold onto my hesitancies about Rawls but will try to remember which theory he is working off of and how that lead him to have certain ideas.

QCQ 10: Mill’s Utilitarianism

Quotation:

“In the first place, it is mostly considered unjust to deprive anyone of his personal liberty, his property, or any other thing which belongs to him by law” (Mill 129).

“Thirdly, it is universally considered just that each person should obtain that (whether good or evil) which he deserves, and unjust that he should obtain a good or be made to undergo an evil which he does not deserve” (Mill 130). 

Comment:

Mills is going through various ideas about what is just or unjust. They’re all slightly different, but still hold the idea of “a wrong done, and some assignable person who is wrong” (134). In the case of these two lines of thought, the first would indicate that no matter what, the wronged is the one being targeted for something that he has, and the wronged in the second being the one deprived of something that he deserves. 

Throughout this chapter, I found myself transported back to my highschool ethics class. One particular day, we had a discussion about a dilemma wherein a man with a very sick wife was being overcharged for the medicine that would save her, and so he thought to steal the medicine. The idea was that how you viewed the situation implied a certain level of ethical understanding (though I don’t remember all the levels clearly). I myself felt that the husband was justified, but one boy disagreed, adamantly stating that the store owner’s property was his and his alone, and that any damage to his property was the most wrong thing. I remember being very frustrated with him for being so inflexible, because he hadn’t thought for very long about the situation before jumping to that conclusion. 

I plucked these two understandings of just and unjust because the first made me think of that boy, Brian. Or at least, how he was in high school (he may have changed his views). The second appealed more to me during that time and still how I feel now. Both of us had clear ideas about the justified person, being on opposing sides in a sense. I felt so strongly that the store owner (who normally charged a certain amount but was suddenly upping the price when he saw how much the man needed it) was in the wrong. I felt that the husband and his wife deserved to obtain that good. Brian felt that the store owner was being harmed, because the medicine was still his to sell. Perhaps, while I was putting myself in the husband’s shoes, he had put himself in the store owner’s shoes, thinking that if he ran a shop he wouldn’t want people to go around stealing from him just because his prices were unfair to them personally. 

In a sense I can understand where he was coming from now, but even more so I understand that it is a just thing that each of us can have our own thoughts without facing penalty. I almost want to add that to Mill’s list. I may have thought how Brian approached that situation was wrong, and he probably felt the same about me and everyone who disagreed with him. There are many people today that I believe to be wrong. But on the flip side those people think that I am wrong. We get the right to disagree with one another, but I believe it’s just how we act that determines who the wronged truly is and who is the one doing wrong. 

Question:

Which of Mill’s five statements about justice appeals the most to you and why?

Class discussion and impact:

Towards the end of class we listened to that long paragraph from Mill, which made me think of LeGuin. The idea that what’s best for us supersedes what’s best for you. Also, Hayley’s point that what’s just or unjust is heavily dependent on society and not its own individual sensation resonated with me. My QCQ reminded me that everything is subjective, and that we will never have one right answer about what’s best and what causes the most pain.

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