“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” – Martin Luther King Jr.

What is collective justice?

Think of all the instances of oppression that come to your mind; whether it is racism, sexism, speciesism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism – what do all these views share? Ultimately, it is the “othering” of certain groups of people, the idea that differences in race, gender, species, sexual orientation, disability (etc) also confer meaning about superiority/inferiority of different groups within society. Ultimately, when anyone is advocating for any social justice cause, it is this mindset that we are fundamentally trying to dismantle. 

But this is obvious, right? And even if there is a common factor between all oppression, why is it important for specific social justice movements to keep this in mind when they advocate? What is even the point of collective justice, anyway?

To understand collective justice, it may help to understand the foundations that the concept is built upon. Collective justice is based on the theory of intersectionality, which was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor and social theorist, in 1989. Crenshaw noted, through studying the struggles of black women, that when people are disadvantaged, it is often through multiple sources of oppression. Since then, the idea has resonated amongst marginalised communities, not only as a theoretically correct concept, but as a foundation for practical change. See, if we do not think of oppression as linked, there is a risk of liberating some communities at the risk of others. For example, say we choose to talk about feminism but do not identify that the struggles of black women are inherently different to the struggles of white women, there is a risk that the group that is more systematically advantaged (in this example, white women) ends up being heard above the other group, thereby unknowingly contributing to their silencing. From one point of view, this may not seem like an issue; after all the feminist movement in general will progress, so does it matter which narrative is the one that is the dominant one? 

To answer this question, one needs to consider oppression and privilege more deeply. The fact is, society is set up in a way that systematically favours those who are more socially advantaged; this means that, even without intentionally choosing actions that are obviously oppressive, simply by “going with the flow” we can engage in discriminatory behaviour. To truly address inequity in society (not just inequality), we need to actively think about how our actions may unknowingly flow on to affect those less advantaged, and modify our behaviour accordingly. Otherwise, to varying extents, there will always be a group of people who is dominant over another group. If the goal of social justice is to ultimately end oppression of all beings, it is counterproductive to take a single-cause approach to social justice as unfortunately, you will end up (often unintentionally) simply rearranging the hierarchy of oppression, rather than dismantling it completely. 

It is at the advocacy level of social justice that collective justice comes in. Where intersectionality refers to identifying the multiple sources of oppression one can, and often does, concurrently suffer from, collective justice refers to the advocacy of social justice issues whilst being an ally towards all movements that are fighting against injustice. 

What does being an ally mean?

At this stage you may be thinking that collective justice is all well and good in theory, but what does it mean practically for advocacy? After all, if you’re an animal rights activist, shouldn’t your focus be on animals? They are already so neglected by general society and social justice activists alike, so wouldn’t it be doing them a disservice to broaden our scope to include other social justice movements?

It is certainly true that animal rights is a neglected cause, even amongst the social justice community. And whilst there is a need for organisations that look beyond the horrific treatment of animals, to the other human- and environmental- injustices that occur from our food system (such as Food Empowerment Project), there is also, absolutely, a need for organisations where the primary focus is the liberation of animals. 

A common misconception is that collective justice advocates want all animal rights activists to spend as much time advocating for human rights as animal rights. This is simply untrue, and in fact, being an ally is actually much simpler than this. 

Being an ally can be as easy as recognising that language is powerful; that trauma, and the triggers associated with it, is generational; that by choosing our words within animal rights with a little care, we can simultaneously respect the experiences of social minority groups as well as advocate for animals effectively (often more effectively, as a whole other community now feels safe to be included in the movement). For example, instead of using analogies that may be technically accurate, but divisive (such as slavery, the Holocaust, or r*pe), consider using less inflammatory language (such as mass exploitation/slaughter, or artificial insemination). As an aside, research has shown that using less jarring/click-baity language is also likely to be more strategic at communicating an animal rights message to a speciesist audience; in this way, being inclusive with our language has another benefit of possibly being more effective for animals too. 

Another way you can be an ally is by recognising your privilege as an advocate, and elevating people who are more disadvantaged in your activist community. This may mean sharing opportunities you receive with others who, for very complex reasons that have nothing to do with capability and everything to do with privilege, would not receive them otherwise. 

Sometimes it can also mean holding space for significant days or moments that other social justice movements experience. Though none of us want to miss an opportunity to advocate for animals, using, for example, Invasion Day to hold an animal rights protest that raises awareness about the number of animals eaten at barbecues across the country, though understandable, would be a case of stepping on another social justice movement to elevate our own. Again, this comes back to the principle of how total oppression can never be fully eliminated as long as groups are valuing themselves and their own priorities higher than others’. 

As an animal rights advocate, it can be tempting to do whatever we can to help animals. However, I have often thought to myself, even if we do manage to create a world where animals are no longer exploited, if it is still a world where humans are exploited, the fight will simply shift. In this way, being an ally is also playing a role in creating the kind of world I would want to live in, a world that is safe for all. 

Ultimately, it all comes down to privilege.

At a fundamental level, understanding collective justice involves introspection about our own levels of privilege. Reflecting on our own privilege can be disconcerting and confronting. After all, we have all suffered, and have all overcome personal struggles. Having someone point out your privilege can feel like a personal attack, like you do not deserve the accomplishments you have worked so hard to achieve. But while it is true that we have all suffered, it is equally true that everyone has varying levels of privilege, which is entirely down to luck. 

For example, I am someone who has suffered significant trauma in my life. I spent my late-teens and early adulthood on and off chemotherapy, and have spent the more recent years grieving the loss of my brother to suicide. I am also a brown woman, and with that comes certain difficulties that my white, male friends do not face (though also certain insights that they may never understand). However, I am also extremely privileged; I was raised in an affluent nation; my parents have careers that placed us in a high socioeconomic bracket; I had a fairly stable childhood; I am heterosexual; I am well-educated; the list goes on. Though I worked hard to become a doctor, ultimately, this is not the reason I am where I am today; the reason is privilege. Similarly, the reason I have been allowed to recover from my trauma is also due to privilege, and if other, more disadvantaged people were to suffer trauma, they might very well have a harder time recovering than I have had. Again, this is not a difference in capability, it is privilege. 

It is important to understand that you can suffer and still be privileged, and that privilege does not take away from your suffering. But it is also important to recognise that, if someone else who was more socially disadvantaged than you was faced with your struggles, it is entirely possible that they may not have fared as well, not due to differences in capability, but due to systematic differences in how society ranks and treats different social groups. By definition, you often have to be a part of a minority social group to properly understand what this is like, as, to an outsider, they are often subtle harms to detect, especially when compared to the level and scale of harms that occur to animals. In this way empathy, kindness, and believing people’s lived experiences, are also key to understanding collective justice.

Ultimately, it all comes down to privilege. When we recognise the privilege that has allowed us to be in the positions we are in, whether that be in the form of socioeconomic status, ability, gender, race, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic, it becomes easier to see all the systemic injustices that exist around us, that all share a commonality of “othering”. It becomes easier to see why it is not enough to just work on tearing down individual branches of oppression, but that the underlying roots must be ripped up too. 

Dr. Mehr Gupta

She/her Dr. Mehr Gupta is Kindness Project’s Director of Research and Strategy. Mehr has volunteered a huge amount of time to animal rights as an investigator, researcher, and fact checker. She played a significant role in the film Dominion and founded the non-profit Animal Liberation Tasmania. For the last two years Mehr has been working as a hospital doctor, volunteering her time on many research initiatives to improve the health of people around the world. She is currently studying a Masters of Health Economics and converting a bus into a tiny home.

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