The words that stay with us the most tend to be imprecise.
In his ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail’, Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. says that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is, in itself, pithy and memorable; the stark contrast between the two presented poles stands out in the memory in a way that a more nuanced statement might not. We are, after all, drawn to absolutes.
Doctor King however went on to explain his views, saying “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This adds a degree of clarity to the original statement, not merely on the obvious plane (that the first statement is not intended to be taken directly and literally), but also the notion that the threat to justice everywhere comes in the same way that pulling a thread from a garment might unravel the garment, but would not directly take a pair of scissors to it.
With what may be considered a degree of boldness, and certainly foolishness, I would here disagree with this exact wording by Doctor King. Clearly, not for the popularity of pedantry over a Civil Rights icon, but because I think that the idea, fully developed, can be even more persuasive.
The most obvious argument against this quote is that it works best in bold strokes. True, the civil rights atrocities which Doctor King was speaking out against had the effect described; that the battle for civil rights was and is a systemic one, and that each step backwards resonated throughout the movement. But it can be easy to flanderize this position on its own strength; justice takes many forms, and necessarily some of these forms are mutually exclusive; the world of just process may be miles away from a more retributive sort of justice desired by the parties wronged in a quarrel, but the injustice against those wronged parties contribute to a more just outcome overall.
Further, it may well be said that perfect justice, some platonic ideal, is something for which we may strive but not attain. That if we view justice as being a question of freedoms, then the existence of a society means that some freedoms will be curtailed so that other ones will be protected. “My rights end where your nose begins”, as the saying goes. If we are to seek a just system, then we must know that in many cases a perfectly just conclusion may not be attainable; we cannot restore the dead to life, undo the harms caused, and thus we are forced to find compromises, small injustices intended to forestall large ones. From this perspective, the absolute rejection of injustice leads to injustice, as choosing ‘none of the above’ is still an act of choice.
All of this is to say that the spirit of this statement is true, but the wording is imprecise. Perfect justice may not be attainable by mortal means; we are all, to greater or lesser extents, imperfect providers of just results. However, accepting this is to do the harm that Doctor King describes; if we accept as writ that we will never be able to provide justice, if we cease to strive for an ideal that we know that we cannot reach, then we will truly have failed. The acceptance of injustices, even ones that we acknowledge to be necessary, holds the very real potential to do harm to the cause of justice, because it means that we will no longer be striving, with every breath in our body and fiber in our beings, to avoid injustice.
Living in a society with other persons means compromises; this we must acknowledge. Where there are limited resources we must share, where there are laws, we must try to make and interpret them to do the least harm and the most good, and where there is justice it is bound to be imperfect. But as long as we strive, each day, toward an ideal of justice that we know that we may never be able to reach, that ideal of justice is not imperiled. Leaving aside deliberate injustices – which we also should not accept, not even in a sense of cultural relativism – we do the greatest threat to justice when we despair for it, saying to ourselves that justice cannot be perfectly served and therefore we should cease to try. As Sisyphean as it may seem, it is in striving that we have the greatest chance of attaining the nearest thing to perfect justice that we can possibly render.
Doctor King, in saying that injustices anywhere threaten justice everywhere is correct; not because we are caught upon some slippery slope where one injustice necessitates another, but because we might give in to that threat of despair, and the cold comfort that it brings to cease to strive. But as long as we hold hope in our hearts and continue to push, no matter the odds or setbacks, toward a brighter future, then justice is rescued from that peril.
And while that may not be said in a pithy or memorable way, I can only hope that it will still inspire.