What Is Justice?

On What All of This is About

Justice, injustice, trauma

1. Justice is a need. Any time something has been done that shouldn’t have been done, we are in need of a response. The nature of the response we need or want depends on a lot of things: the nature of the transgression, the impact it had, the values of each individual or the specificities of each situation. Many times, we don’t even know what we would need to be done. But, nonetheless, even when we cannot imagine what form an appropriate response could take, or what goal it should aim, we feel the need to react to the transgressive act.

2. When something has been done that shouldn’t have been done, we are all in a situation of powerlessness. The past cannot be changed. Even when there are no material consequences, or when they can be easily reverted, it is impossible for the wrongdoing to not have been done, no matter how hard everyone wishes it. When the act has lasting and dramatic consequences, or when we feel we could have prevented it, we resent this impotence with even more bitterness. For a part of it, we need something satisfactory to be done in response because we need a balm to ease this feeling, to feel like we are now in control over the situation, to reclaim our power, our integrity, our honour back. This need is similar to the one we feel when facing the death of a loved one. We offer the dead beautiful rituals for many reasons, but one of them is to feel, at the end of the day, that we have correctly responded to the crisis. Once we free ourselves from having to do something, then peace returns and we can begin to grief. Part of our need for justice comes from the same place: we need justice in order to say, or hear, "it's over".

3. The need for justice also comes from the equivalence we often make between how strong the reaction to the transgression and how much the transgressive act is actually considered transgressive by the community, its members, and even ourselves. We need a response to, symbolically or practically, reaffirm the boundaries of what should not be done, and stress how much we are committed to the enforcement of this boundary. We need justice in order to say, or hear, "we care".

4. Injustice is a state of unmet need for justice. It is what exists between the impact of the transgression and its just response. It is a time when everything is stained by the unresolved crisis opened up by the transgression.

5. Injustice is a feeling of urgency to suspend the course of normal life to seek justice. Fueled by powerful negative emotions, such as fear, anger, shame, pain or disgust, it is a tension that makes us feel like we should not live "as if nothing happened". The continuation of normal life – and especially the joys of life – looks like a lack of reverence for what has been violated and for the suffering inflicted to the victims, when there are some. Injustice makes us feel like nobody is allowed to live normally anymore.

6. Injustice says that we should not look away from what happened. It forces us to stay focused on the fact that a wrong has been done. The stronger this feeling is, the more we define ourselves, as well as others, by our relationship to the transgressive event – as victims, suspects, culprits, accomplices, witnesses… Injustice is a feeling that keeps us inside the social drama opened by the transgression. At its best, it is an incentive to address it, to care, to confront, to face, to overcome, to change. At its worst, it is a trap that keeps us in personal pain and collective conflict and prevents us from being something else than who the transgression made us to be.

7. To achieve justice is to end injustice and to restore peace.

8. Trauma is embodied injustice.

9. Healing is embodied justice.

Individual and collective

10. The need for justice – for something to be done – is both individual and collective. We need to do something for us, to do something for others, and for others to do something. We are conscious that others may have needs too and might either want to do something or expect us to do something.

11. Injustice, therefore, is both a individual and collective state of unrest. The crisis opened by the transgression is social in nature.

12. Justice, finally, is both an individual feeling and a collective agreement. Everyone has to feel it, and to feel that everyone else feel it, for anyone to feel it at all. Justice is harmony returned. We cannot feel that justice has been done, for example, if we feel like the perpetrator thinks he successfully tricked us into avoiding it, or if we feel like someone still feels wronged.

10. As there is no burial that can raise the grieved one back from the dead, or completely ease the pain of the loss, there is no justice that can erase what shouldn't have be done. Justice is not a matter of providing a response perfectly satisfying, but a response satisfying enough so that we may allow ourselves to resume the course of normal life. What is or isn’t satisfying enough, then, does not only depend on what the response is, but also on what we are inclined to accept as a valid response to the transgression.


  1. Justice has been stolen from us. Oppressive structures and rulers (states, lords, armies, mafias, churches…) have claimed, and often obtained, the right to do justice. By doing so, they changed the meaning of justice itself. They gave themselves the right to deal violence to whoever violate their rules, equating justice with violence towards the perpetrators. Moreover, they gave themselves the right to say when justice has been done. Under oppressive structures, justice ceases to be a collective agreement and is transformed into a decree from a specified authority. We lost the competences, arts and traditions needed to achieve justice at the same time we began to think justice is something that is obtained from above, by rightfully dealt violence.

  2. Since we still feel the need for something to be done, we often undertake individual initiatives in search for ease this need.

Under oppressive structures of justice, one who feels injustice has a limited set of options: either ask justice from the state, try to individually achieve it, or give up on the possibility of a proper justice, try to let it go and allow themselves to resume normal life anyway (or, to be more specific, allow themselves to start a new normal life, away from what has been stained by injustice). These are not exclusive options. As an example, one victim of rape may file a complaint, with no hope of it having any consequences, but as a ritualistic way to internally feel that they have done something, then try to make a fresh start in their life by moving to another city.

  1. Victims are not the only ones seeking justice. Any bystander can feel the need for something to be done, which can only translate into the need to personally do something. When a transgressive act has been done and publicized, we often see bystanders taking individual initiatives (expressing support to the victim, confronting the perpetrator for explanations, physically assault them, cutting ties with them, relaying the information, etc.).

  2. Perpetrators of transgressive acts also may be in need for justice. They share with the victims the powerlessness to change the past. They may deny that they did anything transgressive at all as a way to avoid this feeling of impotence, or as an attempt to avoid social consequences for their behavior. But when they do not, or when their denial is ineffective, they also share with the victims and the bystanders the longing for something to be done that will allow injustice to end and peace to be restored.

  3. We saw that justice is harmony returned, that justice needs a collective agreement. For an individual or a party, perpetrator, victim or bystander, to hope to achieve justice on its own, reducing every dissonant voice to unheard silence is needed.

13. Unheard silence is the state of the voices we have silenced, then forgotten we have silenced. To reduce a voice to unheard silence can be done by killing, excluding, running from or silencing, by any means, the discordant voices. One then has to forget he had silenced these voices for the peace of justice to be truly felt. But such a peace is feeble, since we can be reminded at any time of what we were trying to forget. This is not achieving justice, but concealing injustice.

  1. Bad attempts at achieving justice either are ineffective, or, often, create more injustice. At some point, it is possible that every party involved feel prejudiced at some degree by the other parties, even when they recognize they caused prejudice themselves.

  2. Injustice lingers and adds up. Any injustice is a badly-closed wound, just waiting to be re-opened by the next one or salted by a triggering memory.

  3. We all bathe in injustice.

  1. Justice is not forgiveness, and does not require forgiveness. It is, most of the time, the reverse: justice is a requirement to forgiveness.

Paths to justice

  1. If the need of something to be done – justice and injustice – is universal, this need may take different forms, depending of the emotional states, the political or spiritual convictions, the interpersonal bonds of the persons involved. It also depends of the situation itself. People feeling injustice may need the perpetrator to recognize their acts and their gravity, they may need guarantees that it will not happen again, they may need the suffering of the perpetrator or
  1. Justice is not forgiveness, neither does it require forgiveness. This is the other way around: usually, forgiveness requires justice.