Political debates are never innocent or inconsequential. They contribute to the societal recognition of various groups, legitimate problems ‘worthy’ of state intervention and reflect the social mobilisation on behalf of a group or issue. Bearing this in mind, we engaged in a study on the construction of justice, representative justice in particular, in political discourse in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Our analysis of recent electoral campaigns and selected justice-related debates showed how representative justice (understood as a real opportunity to participate in democratic debate and exercise influence on the way society’s norms, laws and regulations are being set) is intertwined with other dimensions of justice, and caught in the language of equality, rights and recognition.

Furthermore, it showed how the very meaning and desirability of (political) representation differs from one group to another. For example, while political participation of ‘ordinary people’ (understood most often as native majority) is usually constructed as a self-evidently good and desirable thing, the issue of minorities’ political participation is often either silenced or problematized. There are also differences between the imaging of minorities’ formal participation in democratic process, for example as voters or party members, and their presentation as participants of protest movements and initiatives. While the former might be in some countries – the UK and the Netherlands – being taken for granted, the latter is often problematized, in particular by the more conservative political actors, as a form of anarchistic troublemaking rather than legitimate political involvement.

Minority claims to justice seem to be discussed in four distinctive ways. Justice as book keeping sees justice as a balance between rights and obligations, benefits and burdens, freedoms and responsibilities, where rights, obligations, benefits, burdens, freedoms and responsibilities are all determined by the majority. Minority groups may have a say and exercise some influence on the way society’s norms, laws and regulations are being set, but only when perceived as successfully integrated in the majoritarian way of life and as long as their claims are compatible with the majoritarian norms.

Justice as majoritarian rule not only reserves the right to define the societal norms, values and the way of life to the national majority, but also sets minority members apart as a source of threat. Even if formally included in the political community, for example as citizens, minority members are seen as alien to the national community and denied the right to co-define or question the existing social order.

Justice as freedom from oppression presents the point of view of the minorities. Minorities are seen here as fully-fledged members of the society with the right to co- or even re-define the community’s normative core, where required, via acts of resistance and civil disobedience. Crucial here is the emphasis given to grievances experienced by minorities and their vision of a good life and the common good. Proper attention to minority claims is seen as condition sine qua non of a just society.

Finally, justice as responsibility seeks justice in the harmonious accommodation of both majoritarian claims and the claims of minority groups. Whilst offering neither tools nor routes to pursue claims that are not compatible with the majoritarian creed, it argues for an agora – a space of debate, where the various claims can be presented by their proponents without fear of sanction or exclusion.

While the popularity of various understandings of justice among political actors seems related to their (self)positioning on the political scene, most of them draw simultaneously from two or three frames. Moreover, some political actors eagerly engage in the manipulative use of certain arguments, for example, to contest their dominant image as xenophobic and/or to demonstrate their readiness to accommodate various groups, and thus appeal to a broader public.

One of the most interesting insights of our study is the interplay between temporality as well as history in shaping ideas about justice. Historical memory is crucial to understanding the salience of certain threats. For example, in Turkey the memory of the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire gives an aura of reality to nationalist fears of the dismembering of the country. On the other hand, memory of past grievances, such as slavery, often underlies claims to restorative justice in Portugal or the Netherlands. In fact, in many cases, claims to recognition or representation can be understood only through the lens of history or rather, a specific memory of history. Indeed, certain historical themes or episodes are selectively remembered and interpreted differently by different actors on the political scene, thus reflecting differences in (political) outlook.


By Dorota Lepianka
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D4.2
Find the full publication at: https://ethos-europe.eu/publications