My sister Debbie has an impulse to pull people away from the edge if she thinks they’re too close. I have an impulse to shut garden gates when I see them swinging open. Different impulses, but ones we manage to control.
There’s one impulse that we both share, however, that is much harder to control. In fact, we are rarely successful at controlling it.
It is an impulse for fairness and justice. We are aggrieved when we experience, and when we see, unfairness and injustice, when things aren’t right.
When we were younger, and complaining about something that wasn’t fair and wasn’t right, our mother would say and neither is a black fella’s left leg*.
Mum was clearly saying that nothing could be done about the situation that sparked our feeling of injustice: let it be because that’s just the way life is. There was an inevitability, a finality about this aphorism that niggled away at me.
Why do I have to clean the bathroom again when Debbie’s never cleaned the bathroom, my 12 year-old self would wail. It’s not fair!
My mother would chant her now familiar refrain about left black legs. I got that being left, those legs weren’t right, and being black they weren’t fair, but my ‘rights’ and ‘fairs’ were of a completely different nature that I deeply felt weren’t being taken seriously.
I would slump off to the bathroom to scrub it clean, bemoaning (loudly and vociferously) the injustice of this situation. Things didn’t have to be the way they were. We could change things. Surely we could … or else …
I could never finish the ‘or else’, never get to why it was important to challenge the way things were. They didn’t have to be the way they were, I knew that intuitively, instinctively, but I was not able to articulate more than that. It just felt wrong that things had to stay the same, particularly when those things didn’t feel (or weren’t) right. It didn’t feel right that life was a series of inevitable situations that I had to simply accept for what/how they were.
Situations like the men at the local railway station drinking out of bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. It wasn’t right that men should live like that; surely something could be done? It wasn’t right that the children I met when doing work experience in Year 10 had been taken away from their families and forced to live in a community headed by an angry white man. It wasn’t right that someone cut the tail off a Labrador and then abandoned the injured dog by the side of the road. It wasn’t right that I be sent to the principal in Year 12, as a 21-year-old student, for failing to attend the sports carnival and for encouraging others’ non-attendance. (I explained to the principal that I had run a study group instead of the 400 metres, and he agreed, with only a small dose of exasperation, that it was a much better use of my time and, looking me over, my capabilities.)
Fast forward many (many) years and a senior colleague advising me: Sharon, if there’s a choice between peace and justice, always go for peace.
But … but … 12-year-old me and 15-year-old me and 21-year-old-me came rushing back.
But … choosing peace meant accepting things the way they were, and that didn’t feel right to me, not when those things were not right and not fair. Why do others get to make decisions about things that don’t impact them, but impact others (others I care about), and I don’t get to have a say in that decision? When the course my team of colleagues and I had spent two years developing was suddenly scrapped I fought against the injustice and unfairness of it. It had implications for students, implications for staff, it meant accepting something less, something inferior.
Go for peace.
But I couldn’t. I was angry. I felt disempowered. It was as if those making the decisions didn’t value my work or the work of my colleagues, at least not enough to allow it to continue; they didn’t value the ways we’d developed relationships with our students and the meaning and significance of those relationships to the lives of those students. They threw out our work as if it didn’t matter … but it did matter.
Go for peace.
I visited Debbie on the weekend and even though the decision that will change her professional life was made some time ago, she’s still angry. She feels disempowered. The decisions that others made about her work and the work of her colleagues has not been valued, at least not enough to allow it to continue; the relationships with her students and the meaning and significance of those relationships to the lives of those students have likewise not been valued. They threw out her work as if it doesn’t matter … but it does matter.
Deb works in a correctional centre – a gaol (jail if you’re in the US). In May this year, the NSW state government decided that inmates don’t need qualified teachers to teach them, and so Deb, a senior educational officer, and her team of teachers will all be out of work by the end of the year.
Debbie is angry. She still feels the sting of this decision months after it was made. She is fighting for justice and cannot settle for peace. She could walk away, not get involved, accept the inevitability of the situation, the finality of the decision, but she’s fighting for others. She’s fighting for inmates who require expertise and experience from their teachers.
Misty Adoniou, writing in The Conversation recently, concludes by arguing that “we claim that professional, qualified and quality teachers are crucial to improving learning outcomes, and the economic health of the nation. But we pursue policies that don’t put these teachers in front of our most marginalised students”. Misty is talking about students learning English as an additional language, and those with disabilities. But she could just as easily be talking about inmates in the country’s gaols.
Debbie feels the injustice of the decision to remove qualified teachers from NSW gaols deeply – it goes against what she knows is right and just. And she rails against it, wanting it to be different, knowing that it could be different. She doesn’t want to settle for the way things are … but it’s more than that. It’s a deep-seated impulse, a value deeply held, that when things aren’t right we shouldn’t stand back and let them happen. We should fight for others and for what we believe. It’s part of the fabric of her being; it’s who she is.
Peace or justice.
Does peace sound too much like giving in? Giving up? Not fighting for what is right and fair? Is that why I’m uncomfortable with that choice?
Is it because it’s presented as a choice, as a dichotomy? A polarised/polarising choice? Does it have to one or the other? Could we have both? Is that even a possibility?
There are bigger conversations to be had of course, more questions for me to confront– questions like right and fair for whom, and is wanting what is ‘right’ the same as ‘being right’, and does peace mean allowing the status quo to go unchallenged – but this is not the place for that conversation, for those questions.
I just know that when we are confronted with a situation that feels unjust and unfair our impulse will always lean towards justice.
That being said, Deb, I do hope that you will eventually find peace.
*This wouldn’t be said these days because someone stood up for what is right and what is fair.