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The Rectification Of Names In Social Justice
What an ancient Chinese scholar can teach us about modern social justice.
"If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant;
if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone;
if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate;
if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion.
Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said.
This matters above everything.”
When asked what the first thing he would do if he achieved power was, the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius replied that he would give things their proper names. This concept became known as The Rectification of Names and is still employed today by modern political leaders.
The importance of names is a value shared throughout spiritual and philosophical traditions. In the Biblical book of Genesis, Adam’s first act after being given dominion over all of Creation is to name the animals. Many occult traditions believe that to know the name of a thing is to have power over it. The power of names continues today in critical social justice in the form of hermeneutical injustice and power/knowledge.
Hermeneutical injustice is a form of epistemic injustice described by Miranda Fricker in her book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Hermeneutical injustice is defined as the inability to communicate or understand one’s own experience due to a lack of concepts available to define the experience. In other words, not having the words to describe the injustices you experience is itself an injustice.
The example of hermeneutical injustice Fricker gives in her book is the invention of the term “sexual harassment.” Prior to a court case brought by Carmita Wood, women had no way to articulate the injustice of unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. What was happening to them wasn’t rape, but it also wasn’t nothing. “Sexual harassment” gave them a word to articulate the injustice they were experiencing, creating hermeneutical justice
The concept of hermeneutical injustice implies that there might be injustices we experience today, that we still don’t have names for. As Confucius pointed out, “if language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone.” Social justice is only possible with the right language, or hermeneutical justice and the Rectification of Names.
Language also creates power. This is what French theorist Michel Foucault articulated when he coined the term power/knowledge. In Foucault’s view, every system of power rests on a system of knowledge or language, which in turn reproduces a system of power. If you control knowledge and language, you can achieve power.
We see the modern application of power/knowledge in social justice itself. Language like “diversity, equity, and inclusion” create knowledge and ways of knowing, which in turn creates power for those who wield it. The control social justice activists have achieved over various parts of society is only possible through a complex knowledge and language system known as critical theory. By rectifying the names and calling some things “racism” or injustice and other things “equity” or justice, critical social justice activists wield power over society and are able to accomplish their moral vision.
By contrast, those who are out of power often lack the language to articulate the injustices they perceive. For example, if you look at the “anti-woke” resistance to critical social justice, they often use the terms “fascist” and “Marxist” interchangeably to describe what they perceive as the totalitarian control of critical social justice. Those terms have different meanings and the problem they face is not exactly either. This is a bit like Carmita Wood describing her experience as “rape” prior to the invention of the term “sexual harassment.” The “anti-woke” face a hermeneutical injustice problem where they lack the language to articulate the issues they face.
At the same time, they also face a power/knowledge problem. Many of the “anti-woke” identify as former leftists. They call for a return to “classical liberalism” or the “original” definition of racism and Civil Rights politics. These ideologies contain the same language as critical social justice will therefore reproduce the same forms of power that gave rise to critical social justice. If the “anti-woke” actually wanted power, they would have to articulate a new system of knowledge and language different from the terms of critical social justice.
The next time you face a problem, see how much simply finding the right name for that problem resolves the issue. To know the name of a thing is to have power over it. This has been true since Biblical times and the time of Confucius all the way to our present day.
Read this post on BrendonMarotta.com here: