The Paradox of Seeking Justice Through the Arts

Artists need to shut it down while holding it together, burn bridges while bridging divides.

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"Cycle (TC 5)," by Irene Tejaroxy Hoss (Kittenclaw), via Flickr.

A journey towards justice often calls for resilience, retribution, retaliation and/or revolution. It can take a certain amount of disruption and disobedience. Or justice sometimes can be achieved through stubborn non-violence, turning the other cheek or not giving a single fig. Whatever the route is, the journey towards justice is not an act of peace-building.

Both Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones (specifically Season 8, Episode 3) have me thinking about the complexities of justice and peace and how they can’t happen at the same time, or at least not well. What has come out of all that thinking is the following article, which is more questions than answers, and (hopefully) more ladders than chutes.

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There’s a line where the fight for justice crosses over into violence. This is the line where the door swings back the other way, where the oppressed becomes the oppressor, where violence and distrust become reciprocal, elevated and inherited. Think about North America in the 17th and 18th centuries; think about Armenia from 1915 to 1917. Think Cambodia 1975 to 1979, Rwanda 1990 to 1994, Bosnia 1992 to 1995, Darfur 2003 to today. Think about the Holocaust. The annihilation of human beings is the greatest violence humanity can perpetrate onto itself, and it’s explored in two different documentaries on Frontline on PBS: The Last Survivors, focusing on the youngest survivors of the Shoah, and The Trial of Ratko Mladić, called the “Butcher of Bosnia” by some and the defender of Serbia by others. When discussing how the environment and a culture of violence felt all-encompassing in her childhood, Holocaust survivor Susan Pollack put it very succinctly:

Evil rages. Evil rules.

As Johan Galtung describes in his Violence Triangle theory, violence is three-prong: direct, systemic and cultural. The Nazi Party of 1930s Germany used all three of these in horrific coordination. Cultural violence was then, and is now, a tenet of harming others. The online publication WHAT explains it pretty clearly:

Cultural violence is a symbolic violence that is expressed in countless media and serves to legitimize direct and structural violence and to inhibit or suppress the response of the victims. It even offers justifications for humans to destroy each other and to be rewarded for doing so.

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While cultural violence can be harder to recognize than direct or systematic violence, it has a deep, pervasive impact. Sometimes it is in your face and sometimes it is subtle — almost subliminal. We must be on alert for instances of cultural violence in the arts and media; our vigilance also must not squander our activism. Here, some of my questions now arise:

  • How do we reconcile strong art addressing injustice with preventing cultural violence?
  • How do we state grievances through art without heating hatreds or triggering traumas?
  • If hatreds or traumas are unleashed, how can the arts facilitate productive processing?

These questions come into play with an issue such as anti-Semitism. Apartheid, restricted mobility and oppression are never acceptable, whether instituted by the Israeli government or anyone else, and art can achieve a great deal to confront such injustices. Yet, this leads me to more questions:

  • How do we fight for justice with, and for, the Palestinian people without dehumanizing their occupiers or expanding the threat to Jewish people globally?
  • How can artists criticize the Israeli government, the Trump administration, or any political leadership, without legitimizing violence against them and their supporters?
  • How do you call out one individual or group for their crimes without putting others of their race, ethnicity, religion or nationality in harm’s way?

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There’s a tension where political criticism and cultural violence meet and blur. This is where we’re confronted by the comments of Rep. Ilhan Omar and a New York Times cartoon, now pulled, of Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.

On Apr. 29, the West Wing Reads email featured a quote from The Washington Times:

The New York Times deleted a political cartoon over the weekend after acknowledging that it contained ‘anti-Semitic tropes,’ an episode decried as the latest example of rising anti-Semitism on the left.

Both the West Wing Reads email and The Washington Times made sure to emphasize this failure of the Times:

In a statement, the American Jewish Committee said it would not accept the non-apology. “How many @nytimes editors looked at a cartoon that would not have looked out of place on a white supremacist website and thought it met the paper’s editorial standards?”

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In a Facebook group, a fellow alumnus from the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations International Fellowship urged me to consider the historical perspective on this topic:

Most people who have taken a Holocaust class or two, regardless of their attachment to Israel, would immediately see a similar connection to the propaganda cartoons published in Germany before and during the Holocaust.

Artists and arts leaders need to acknowledge the inherent conflict between seeking justice and seeking peace. Both sound nice, but in reality, they often run counter to one another. One is uncompromising: unwilling to accept injustice, unwilling to normalize. The other makes artistic practice of compromise and intergroup engagement, creates a new normal and — as Bryan Stevenson articulates — rewrites the narrative.

Artists and arts leaders need to find a new way to do these two things simultaneously: to cause a stir while folding everyone in; to shut it down while holding it together; to burn bridges while bridging divides.

Anyone have ideas?