Critical Theory: The Multiple Dimensions of Social Justice
by Maha Bali
I came across Feminist Frequency and the great work of Anita Sarkeesian by coincidence when I found out about #gamergate, given my interest in educational games. Since then, I have been addicted to her work.
But, this post is not about her or about #gamergate, not really. It is about the multiple sides of social justice. We as critical pedagogues, and even educators who do not necessarily label ourselves as such, often refer to social justice—that we advocate for it, that we would like our students to fight for it—as if social justice were black and white. We know it is not. We just sometimes fall into a trap of talking about it as if it was non-controversial.
Let’s take Anita’s videos on LEGO. I agree completely with her assessment of the gender stereotypes in LEGO games and ads. However, I have noticed a few other things not included in the video.
Those games with ancient Egyptian themes—where they blow up things—they are blowing up my national heritage as an Egyptian! Can you even begin to imagine how that feels? What kind of messages are people portraying when they teach kids in school about ancient Egypt, and then play games where they destroy those monuments? And besides, my postcolonial self would like to remind Westerners that they often have stolen and destroyed our “stuff,” as simulated in these games.
Granted, Anita is against violence in boys’ games in general, and I know she would understand my specific complaint as an Egyptian, maybe even say it someday. But she wouldn’t feel it how I am feeling it now.
Additionally, I noticed almost all the people in the LEGO ads are White (I actually don’t remember any non-Whites, but I might have missed something). LEGO’s “Friends” theme for girls has a token Black girl and a token Latina. I’m not seeing girls like that in the ads. I am seeing just one of each in the midst of many White girls. And by the way, where is the token Muslim girl with a headscarf?
You see where I am going with this discussion, right? Critical theorists approach things with lenses, and our lenses are always incomplete. As an Egyptian, Muslim, headscarf-wearing woman, I see the world in a different way; I see injustice upon women, postcolonials, etc. more clearly from my personal experiences than I see injustice against, say, homosexuals or African Americans. I can try to understand it from their perspective, extrapolating from my own experiences of oppression, but it is not the same. I have never experienced poverty, and without firsthand grassroots experiences, I would have been ignorant of the extent of it in my own country. And yet I have not lived it; I cannot speak for them.
I once posted the hashtag #ineeddiversegames. I said I needed diverse games so I could find characters that represent me. Someone responded with a list of games centered around Muslim females. How does he know I meant me, as a Muslim woman, rather than me as a university professor? Or me as a mom? Oh, right. He looked at my twitter photo, and did not read my profile.
But, it was a fair guess. I actually partially meant it as he took it. I do feel uncomfortable with lack of avatars who cover their hair. Playing a Muslim-designed game does not solve this issue. However, regularly having such avatars in all games would—but I don’t think he got it.
I am reminded of a South Park episode about racism where Token (the implied “funny” name for the token black kid) tells Stan he just “doesn’t get it.” Near the end of the episode, Stan said, “Now I get it. I just don’t get it,” to which Token responds, “Now you get it, Stan.”
So here are two important situations where I just don’t get it. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict looks to me, as an Arab Muslim, to be a clear case of oppression of the Palestinian people. But, I am sure there is a moral ground upon which Israelis justify their existence. Not being one of them, I cannot possibly understand the Holocaust or other oppressions Jews have historically suffered. Knowing about them does not help me understand why the Palestinian people are suffering because of them.
I don’t know enough about the history and politics of this conflict, but I sense it is not a matter of knowledge, but of perspective. That justice there might be more complex than I can imagine. I get that the Israeli need to protect their citizens and allow them to live in peace. However, I don’t get how killing tens or hundreds of Palestinians for each one or two Israelis is going to help achieve that goal.
Another issue even closer to home is the ousting of Egyptian president Morsi in 2013. I get why many Egyptians wanted him out. But I also get that the way it has been done has created more instability and violence. What I don’t get is why people supporting either side can’t see the oppression and injustice that has occurred to the other.
In my two examples above, I am talking about individual citizens, not governments. Governments have different calculations, which I doubt have social justice factored into them. But I tend to assume that citizens strive towards social justice. And yet we have a long way to go, especially if we keep talking about social justice as if the goal was clear, and all the difficulty was in the battle.
Maha Bali is an Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at American University in Cairo, Egypt (AUC). She teaches and researches a variety of things related to education and ed tech. She runs a blog: http://blog.mahabali.me; Twitter: @bali_maha), and is co-facilitator of www.edcontexts.org.
This post was inspired by:
Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297-324.