Spring 2023 (37.1) Review

Making Space for Justice: Social Movements, Collective Imagination, and Political Hope

Making Space for Justice: Social Movements, Collective Imagination, and Political Hope, Michele Moody-Adams (New York: Columbia University Press, 2022) 328 pp., cloth $120, paperback $28, eBook $27.99.

For a long time, mainstream Anglo-American political philosophy was limited to ideal theory, consisting mostly of arguments over principles of distribution rather than responses to claims of injustice as they appear in the world. There is now a growing chorus of nonideal theorists, including Amartya Sen and the late Charles Mills among others, pressing the value of forming visions of justice based on experiences of injustice. But even among nonideal theorists, there are still very few who work on social movements. That is a shame because social movements form and challenge political and moral conceptions in crucial ways. There are, for instance, important theories of human rights that claim that instead of coming from God or the state, human rights come from and are realized through collective political struggles. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, for instance, describes how Black rights have been birthed in and through the Black Lives Matter movement. So, I felt relief, joy, and inspiration reading Michele Moody-Adams’s important new book, Making Space for Justice. Moody-Adams clears the weeds for moral and political philosophy to take seriously the ethical insights of social movements.

Moody-Adams tell us that her thinking was shaped by the protests following the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, and she draws many of her insights from the civil rights movement and the feminist movements against sexual harassment and assault, from Catharine MacKinnon’s early work to the #MeToo movement. But Moody-Adams’s source material is vast. There are discussions of the international human rights movement after the Holocaust, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and slave narratives, among many other engaging historical case studies. She makes a compelling case for socially engaged research, the kind that involves deep commitment and risk, over detached category parsing. Commitment can come in many forms—financial support, activism, art, public writing, legislation—but it is clear that to understand the import of the holistic visions of justice within social movements, one needs to be involved.

Moody-Adams’s central claim is that progressive social movements, in their varied forms of expression—including public art and social criticism—teach us about justice and can promote democracy. In her account, progressive social movements can expand political participation, produce self-respect for participants, and reclaim identity and dignity. In the tradition of Iris Marion Young, who expanded the scope of legitimate democratic discourse beyond mere argumentation, Moody-Adams expands the bounds of public reason to include collective imagination and symbolic expression. Through art, protest, narrative, social scholarship, and public rhetoric, social movements can, in the way John Berger imagined, give us new “ways of seeing.” They can reframe cognitive biases, resist dominant narratives, introduce new language and concepts, articulate collective affinities, and promote new understandings. Because public art has democratic import, Moody-Adams gives a compelling justification for the removal of confederate monuments. When discussing the identity politics and cancel culture of current social movements, she gives an interesting distinction between civic grace and forgiveness, and a condemnation of Leftist politics of self-righteousness. In total, Moody-Adams argues that progressive social movements make democracies more humane.

One reason for a dearth of scholarship on social movements may be that they are amorphous. Moody-Adams acknowledges their complexity. Social movements’ political goals do not come in the form of bullet points from a central committee. The boundaries of their membership, as well as historical timelines, are fluid. They cannot be measured in the way of electoral or institutional politics. Theorists try to interpret their goals in terms of interests, but progressive social movements, Moody-Adams argues, are doing more than that. They are trying to secure dignity and respect. The language of “interests” does not capture their profundity.

The book hits many high notes. Conceptually, Moody-Adams’s idea of humane regard—a combination of respect and compassionate concern—should make a large impact for human rights discourse and relationships of justice more generally. Humane regard is a needed account of robust dignity. Human rights often rest on autonomy, but Moody-Adams shows that, even though human rights are inalienable, their fruition rests upon people’s compassionate concern and mutual recognition of humanity, which progressive social movements do so much promote.

Further, Moody-Adams draws from neglected or misunderstood American political movements and figures to develop her account. For instance, she gives important credence to the Black jeremiad tradition in social movements in the United States. The Black jeremiad is the tradition of lament from which James Baldwin, for example, theorized both impossibility and hope. It is difficult to be clear eyed about the depth of injustice in experience while at the same time imagining and demanding a more just world. The Black jeremiad tradition has been able to hold that contradiction in ways that Anglo political philosophy could not.

Moody-Adams also gives deserved credit to Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, for her role in the civil rights movement and her impact on ideas of dignity and justice. Mrs. Till-Mobley is sometimes seen as a figure within the Black jeremiad tradition but also, more broadly, a progenitor of the civil rights movement. Scholars and artists who depict the life and work of Mrs. Till-Mobley often do not engage with her important autobiography, Death of Innocence, but Moody-Adams gives this work a close, insightful reading. That may seem a small point, but it is one that I think speaks to Making Space for Justice’s carefulness and depth of scholarship. Moody-Adams does not hold up her moral exemplars as simple symbols. She reads them, in their complexity as human beings, and encourages the rest of us to do so as well.

Moody-Adams also gives central importance to the ideas of justice that come from slave narratives in U.S. history, such as Frederick Douglass’s. Within emancipation movements, it was the personal account of former slaves that announced their own freedom and gave permission for others to dream of that freedom. These slave narratives birthed new visions of justice into an unjust world. These narratives are unparalleled sources for understanding the harm of the slavery economy and U.S. national character, and are extraordinary examples of self-validation and self-respect. Performance artist and theologian Tricia Hersey, for instance, reads the slave narratives as the foremost jumping-off point for her critique of racial capitalism.

Finally, I was very moved by Moody-Adams’s discussion of how Raphael Lemkin, the legal scholar who coined the term “genocide,” advanced the understanding of it in service of international human rights. Lemkin lost many relatives in the Holocaust, and afterward insisted that the terms “mass murder” or “barbarity” did not capture what Winston Churchill called “a crime without a name.” Moody-Adams argues that Lemkin did more than “conceptually engineer” or improve the representation of a concept. As an engaged moral inquirer, Lemkin’s project was to “improve the world,” not only to represent it accurately. Without a term for genocide, it could not be prosecuted in international law, and could not be understood or prevented (pp. 168–72). Moody-Adams frames Lemkin, Douglass, and Till-Mobley as moral exemplars, and is interested in how these exemplars advance moral progress. Her description of Lemkin’s and other moral exemplars’ work provides a model for facing injustice, and the positionality required to do so.

Moody-Adams writes that it is only progressive social movements that advance ideas of justice and moral progress. She distinguishes progressive movements from movements of xenophobic backlash on the grounds that progressive movements expand the circle of people and beings to whom justice applies, and they operate from hope instead of fear. Those are good distinctions to make, but nonprogressive social movements have had a nonnegligible impact on so many people’s working ideas of justice. Backlashes, like the Tea Party movement or the men’s rights movement, are social movements too. Moreover, I have heard many politicians equate movements like Black Lives Matter with the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol and claim both kinds of groups are responsible for the weakening of democracy. Even liberal political theorists like Mark Lilla lump all identity politics together to bemoan a lack of national unity, and do not make fine distinctions between the visions of justice that come from them. Just as Moody-Adams makes space for justice, her book opens further lanes of study that could distinguish social movements from one another and refute these kinds of claims.

I have few criticisms of Making Space for Justice—mostly enthusiastic additions. In reading the civil rights movement, Moody-Adams looks mostly, though not exclusively, at the work of Martin Luther King Jr., and what she terms the movement’s “classical phase,” which for the most part excludes groups like the Black Power movement. Her aim, she notes in the book, is not to give a whole history of any one social movement. Yet one person who would have been a great resource for Moody-Adams’s account of social movements is Ella Baker, the organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The Black Lives Matter activists with whom I am in discussion in my local context (Brandi Holmes, Carie Cauley, and Secunda Joseph in Houston, Texas’s ImagiNoir/BLMHTX group) express that among civil rights figures, Baker is the person from whom they draw the most inspiration. It was Baker who stressed most of all the “internal goods” of social movements—that is, the community and self-esteem that the activists themselves build regardless of external policy outcomes. Social movements’ goals can, as Baker taught, give power to the people. Generational empowerment and self-regard last long after any electoral advantage or legislative victory. Baker’s methods could add even more to Moody-Adams’s already-robust account of social movements’ internal goods.

Making Space for Justice is a project of orientation. Moody-Adams orients political philosophy toward social movements. The book is successful on its own terms: it legitimizes the ideas of justice that come from progressive social movements. My hope is that it inaugurates a new generation of social theorists who are up for the task of doing the hard but important work of looking not only at electoral politics, institutional norms, or principles of fairness, but also at social movements. As Moody-Adams shows, social movements can remake the world.

—Johanna C. Luttrell

Johanna C. Luttrell is a political philosopher at the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. She is the author of White People and Black Lives Matter: Ignorance, Empathy, and Justice (2019).

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