Sovereignty and Injustice

Sovereignty and Injustice - Racial and Gender-based

You'll be back, soon, you'll see
You'll remember you belong to me

You’ll Be Back, by Jonathan Groff from Hamilton:

George III to his North American subjects

What is the difference between being a citizen and a subject? The latter has surrendered their sovereignty to a monarch; the former is a sovereign citizen of a country.

Right, it’s not as simple as that, but roughly speaking, power lies in the hands of the monarch in a kingdom and in the hands of the citizens in a democracy. Where power lies, so lies sovereignty.

Two most precious aspects of our human life are our consciousness and our sovereignty. They run on parallel tracks. They are both our heritage as human beings and our means to accomplish our purpose in life.

Yet, in some ways, we have surrendered both to other powers. Although we are ‘sovereign citizens’, we have surrendered some of our personal sovereignty to government which retains for itself the legal use of violence. We have surrendered our personal consciousness to that of others: mass media, religious doctrine and/or culture and the arts, which can, if we are not vigilant, occupy our minds and usurp our awareness.

Some of this is voluntary; much of it is not. We suspend our own awareness in the depths of a good novel, for example, putting our minds into the hands of the author who takes us where she wants us to go. There is pleasure and edification in this for us. There is also some loss of freedom.

We suspend some of our capacities as sovereign individuals to the sovereignty of the whole to protect ourselves from ourselves. This might be necessary to coordinate activities as a polity, but again we forgo some of our freedoms. In a democratic state, there can be a beneficial balance between the rights of individuals and the responsibilities of the collective, but it's a hard balance to achieve and maintain.

Danger comes when an individual’s sovereignty is usurped malevolently, as in the case of domination of some individuals over others or in the collective domination of some by others. This occurs on small and large scales.

It may be domination within the family, such as one spouse over another, or by parents over children or by children over elderly parents. It can be domination by one class of people over another, as in racial inequities and injustice.

The manifestations of these are formulae for universal suffering as happiness comes not to the victim or the perpetrator. Both are subject to the negative impact of injustice.

Justice would be the ideal state of balance of sovereignties between individuals, and between the individual and the collective.

It follows then that racial injustice is the violation of the sovereignty of one group by that of another; where individuals of one group are vulnerable to the domination of individuals of another.

James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates and many others write brilliantly on this matter. My limited experiential understanding as a white man is that people of European descent have usurped the sovereignty of those of African descent; Black people have been robbed of sovereignty over their own bodies. White people can dominate Black people in a way that they cannot dominate other white people or that Black people can dominate whites.

In the light of slavery and Jim Crow society, this seems obvious. Slavery still is the total usurpation of physical sovereignty and is maintained by violence. Slavery may not still be legal, but it does still exist. And its residue clings to our behavior, is resident in our consciousness; it is a matter of social conditioning.

This sovereignty issue also frames the debate over abortion. Often, a woman’s right to choose is thought to derive from the right to privacy. Ruth Bader Ginsburg framed it differently. She claimed the issue was sovereignty. Who has sovereignty over a person’s body? In the case of a woman considering an abortion, does her husband have sovereignty? Her father or mother? Her pastor, rabbi or imam? Her government? When was it that women voluntarily surrendered their sovereignty?

When did slaves? These sovereignties were not surrendered voluntarily. They were taken by violence, either physical or mental. Domination comes in many guises.