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Social Injustice

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Essay title: Social Injustice

Paper for the AHRC Centre for Law, Gender, and Sexuality

Intersectionality Workshop, 21/22 May 2005, Keele University, UK

Structural Injustice and the Politics of Difference

Iris Marion Young, University of Chicago,, April 2005

As a social movement tendency in the 1980’s, the politics of difference has involved the claims of feminist, anti-racist, and gay liberation activists that the structural inequalities of gender, race, and sexuality were not well perceived or combated by the dominant paradigm of equality and inclusion. In this dominant paradigm, the promotion of justice and equality requires non-discrimination: the application of the same principles of evaluation and distribution to all persons regardless of their particular social positions or backgrounds. In this ideal, which many understood as the liberal paradigm, social justice means ignoring gender, racial or sexual differences among people. Social movements asserting a politics of difference, and the theorists following them argued that this difference-blind ideal was part of the problem. Identifying equality with equal treatment ignores deep material differences in social position, division of labor, socialized capacities, normalized standards and ways of living that continue to disadvantage members of historically excluded groups. Commitment to substantial equality thus requires attending to rather than ignoring such differences.

In the context of ethnic politics and resurgent nationalism, another version of a politics of difference gained currency in the 1990’s, which focused on differences of nationality, ethnicity and religion. It emphasizes the value of cultural distinctness to individuals, as against a liberal individualism for which culture is accidental to the self or something taken on voluntarily. Most modern societies contain multiple cultural groups some of which unjustly dominate the state or other important social institutions, thus inhibiting the ability of minority cultures to live fully meaningful lives in their own terms. Contrary to arguments for cultural neutrality which until recently have been the orthodox liberal stance, the politics of cultural difference argues that public accommodation to and support of cultural difference is compatible with and even required by just institutions.

I read my own major writing on the politics of difference as emphasizing the politics of positional difference. Both Justice and the Politics of Difference and Inclusion and Democracy critically assess the tendency of both public and private institutions in contemporary liberal democratic societies to reproduce sexual, racial and class inequality by applying standards and rules in the same way to all who plausibly come under its purview. Each book also contains, however, elements that relate more to the politics of cultural difference. Justice and the Politics of Difference refers to cultural claims of indigenous people and speaks approvingly of movements of structurally oppressed groups to resist stigma by constructing positive group affinities, which I understand more as a means to the achievement of structural equality, rather than an end it itself.

Justice and the Politics of Difference was published earlier than most of work in recent political theory which I consider focuses on a politics of cultural difference. That body of work might be said to begin with Charles Taylor’s essay, “Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition,” and to receive its first book length treatment in Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship, which I will discuss later in this essay. Published after I began to see that different theoretical approaches to a politics of difference were solidifying, Inclusion and Democracy tries more self-consciously to distinguish focus on structural inequality from focus on injustice through cultural difference and conflict. While most of that book theorizes within the politics of positional difference, one chapter of Inclusion and Democracy articulates a relational concept of self-determination, to contrast with more rigid notions of sovereignty. Here I intend to contribute to discussions in the politics of cultural difference. One motivation for my writing this essay is to sort out these distinctions more.

In this essay I first lay out and distinguish these two versions of a politics of difference, which I call the politics of positional difference (PPD) and the politics of cultural difference (PCD), respectively. Both versions share some concerns. They both challenge a difference-blind liberalism. They both argue that where group difference is socially significant for issues of conflict, domination, or advantage, that equal respect

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