The Case for Social Justice in Ma’at

Discussions regarding what is and is not a part of ma’at, the central focus of the ancient Egyptian religion and the modern reconstructions of said religion, have proliferated over the years. The only consensus to be found tends to be merely that ma’at is best translated loosely as balance. However, it is in fact far more than simply a matter of the vague concept “balance” and the maintenance thereof (whatever that ‘maintenance’ could be said to be, since “balance” is such a vague term it all but removes any actual morality from the equation), but an action, or series of actions, that requires us to come to the aid of marginalized and oppressed peoples.

As one researches the basis of this ancient religion, the scholarly sources regarding ancient Egyptian philosophy and culture tell us that equality and equal treatment (x x x x), caring for and protecting the vulnerable (x x x x x x x x x x x), and being mindful and proactive with our speech and actions as well as being considerate to others (x x x x x x x) are all intrinsic parts of ma’at, the kemetic ideal of goodness and justice. A concern for others and for one’s community is so central to the concept of ma’at in antiquity that it’s safe to say that to suggest to the ancients that modern day kemeticism isn’t concerned with other kemetics or society – that “politics have no place in your religion”- would strike them as ludicrous:

Ma’at was not only a concept that affected social, spiritual, and environmental domains, however, but the philosophy that all of these domains were irrevocably linked:

As is the case when humans come together in any setting, there is dispute about what constitutes justice, protecting the vulnerable, moral wisdom, and mindful speech. This post is an attempt to argue the case of social justice being an inherent part of just, fair, and mindful behavior, and thus fundamental to acting in ma’at in our modern age.

Despite its many flaws and many opponents, social justice is just; “social justice” is, in whatever small or large ways we are capable of, a system of tactics aiming to feed the hungry, fix what is broken, and right what is wrong in our society -as well as tactics to oppose prejudice, oppression, inequality, and hatred (in all their forms, large and small)- all of which sources of isfet. The argument that since inequality was part of Ancient Egyptian society, it is therefore part of ma’at, is flawed for two reasons. First, ma’at was clearly meant as a moral ideal one models their actions by, not a portrait of literal reality. When one says “justice”, for example, they don’t mean a literal, existing judicial system; they mean an ideal of fairness, equality, and reciprocity for both wrongdoing and rightful action. To assert that the ancient Egyptians thought their society was a perfect example of ma’at is to willfully ignore the things they actually said about ma’at, and their own ability to recognize that it was not reflected by their material surroundings. Secondly, any real understanding of the reality of oppression allows no illusion as to the fundamental injustice and harm it causes. It is known that the Egyptians considered murder isfetic; why, then, would they not consider the wrongful murder of unarmed black people isfetic? It is known that the Egyptians urged moral sensitivity to the point of “not making another cry”, implying sensitivity to emotional harm; why then would they consider disrespect to another’s culture, ethnicity, race, or gender (and so on) acceptable? The idea that the Egyptians would accept such behavior as ma’at both misunderstands ma’at as “status quo” and silence rather than justice and peace, and disrespects the ancients by suggesting they were too ignorant and cruel to recognize that harming their fellow human being is unacceptable.

Besides the point, while modern kemetic polytheists may be reconstructing a religion and moral ideal from the writings of ancient Egyptians, the fact remains that they are simply not them. Even hard reconstructionists will never fully reconstruct the ancient religion, because to do so would necessitate reconstructing the entire society that first held it. We have the benefit of several thousand years of history, learning, and progress while we come together to create a new Kemetic religion. Let modern kemetics aim not to imitate every tradition from antiquity, but to carry the old traditions into the modern day with more compassion, justice, and righteousness than before, and collectively consider prejudice and oppression as fundamentally unjust and therefore fundamentally isfet. Let it be known that we are obligated to oppose and crush it wherever we see it, as agents of Ma’at.

Having shown that oppression and inequality is isfetic, it is important to also prove that the inequality and oppression social justice tactics oppose exists in the first place. A summary of all the social ills we are currently facing is another post altogether -or rather, another entire book, or several- so I will focus on one of the most topical, anti-blackness (despite the fact that discrimination and oppression also exists against LGBT+ people, non-white people in general, the disabled, and women). Evidence suggests that general institutionalized racism and more casual covert racism go unnoticed unless it is pointed out. The rebirth of the civil rights movement – a movement that only achieved a modicum of the dream that Mr. King once spoke of, the same dream that many non-marginalized groups quote often out of context – (many people think that the civil rights movement from the 60s was fully successful and that people are whining because they just want more instead of actual equality) is simply titled Black Lives Matter, and yet there is significant backlash to even that simple statement. Even other marginalized groups participate in racism (especially towards black people), and the casual appropriation of black culture is commonplace in white America. Economic injustice in the black community is well documented and our justice system, from sentencing to the writing of laws to the actions of police officers, is fundamentally racist. The history of Western culture, especially America, is characterized by white supremacy, and needless to say, its effects are still felt today. (If you only click on one link in this paragraph, make it the last one -it is a gold mine of information.) Suffice to say, there are very deep problems that need addressing.

A wave of reactionary hate, publicly referred to as the “alt-right” but who are in fact Neo-Nazis and the groups of Trump supporters who claim their vote for him was not because of his racist propaganda but due to his “plans” to fix the failing infrastructure, is symptomatic of the way our society conditions people for prejudice by promoting these twisted views; denying that these views (and their champions) exist at all, or that things reinforcing these behaviors and ideas are “actually racist” (rather than “political correctness gone wild”); and finally, when there is no doubt that the white nationalist you’re talking to is indeed a white nationalist, by insisting rational and decent human beings give them the time of day with cries of “free speech” and “tolerance for all creeds”. These groups see their prejudice as their right and to view those who threaten their “right” to act on that prejudice as dismantling their very way of life. They also have ultimately developed a blind spot to institutionalized racism and its proponents by virtue of not being targeted by it, nor knowing intimately anyone who does, and frankly because of the sense of comfort one gets when able to tell themselves they already live in a free and just society for all -no need to fight or struggle or work toward anything, all is well -if only those damn upstarts would quiet down and let us enjoy it, right? This is also known as “social privilege”. Fellow kemetics should not reject social justice and become complacent in these social ills for similar reasons. The documented changes in society, most often seen by those who view social justice in a negative light as everything “suddenly becoming offensive” in recent years is actually due to the fact that oppressed groups are now able to speak more openly and to a wider audience about why certain ideas and statements are harmful to them. Somebody asking you to recognize you are speaking from a place of privilege -and therefore, ignorance to minorities’ lived experiences- isn’t the marginalized people trying to exploit their status as once-oppressed to win an argument.They’re asking you to respect them and their experiences enough not to speak over them. They’re also expecting you to both acknowledge your position of social privilege and do what you can to relinquish that undeserved position of power over others. To privileged people this often feels like “reverse discrimination“, when in fact it is closer to justice. Treating people around you with respect isn’t some superfluous act of “political correctness“. It’s doing your basic duty to them as a fellow human beings.

The appearance within our current community appears to show that there are many kemetics who are willing to accept the existence of such oppression and isfet in our lives, but who do not feel obligated to think about it or act against it. We are all here because of a shared religion, after all, not to discuss politics. The loudest arguments proposing that we should accept isfet as a part of the status quo is most often stated along the lines of: Shouldn’t kemetic spaces be reserved for pictures of altars and of the gods, avoiding all uncomfortable discourse on morality and therefore, politics and political action? However, an analysis of the ancients’ concept of ma’at shows that this is simply not acting within ma’at at all. A responsibility to not only be vigilant and listen and learn about what the right thing is, but to do that right thing once we know of it, is as central to ma’at as not doing the isfetic thing in the first place. Violence in the Service of Order, Muhlenstein, pg. 221-222, reads:

“Hence we can assume that even a failure to act against the Isfet enclave of conspirators was construed to be an attack on Ma ‘at, probably because it could be assumed that a failure to report the conspiracy denoted complicity with its ideas.”  (x)

Another text reads:

This is in line with the social justice concept that “silence is violence”; if you choose to do nothing in times of injustice, you have sided with the oppressor. It is our job as servants of ma’at to stand against isfet wherever we see it, in whatever ways we can.

Having shown the existence of these social illnesses, and after having come to the conclusion that they constitute isfet and kemetics are bound to oppose it, it’s important to point out that although “social justice” as a political concept is flawed and should not be the basis of progressive – or radical – politics, it is grounded in a desire to a) educate about the social ills that constitute oppression and discrimination, and b) protect and empower vulnerable minorities. It is our best practical tool toward living in ma’at on a day-to-day basis (that is, without getting involved in more radical politics such as protesting in the streets or donating to radical causes. Obviously, kemetics should do these things when and if they can, but this essay is concerned with “social justice” in the sense of regular, daily actions and speech). Social justice, in the colloquial sense of the term, is often concerned with things people say and how they say them, which was a big concern of Ma’atian ethics in antiquity:

The ancients also had moral stipulations on inadvertently causing harm, or even harming others emotionally:

There is a common misconception among those who oppose social justice and “identity politics” that the concern of social justice is only to protect people’s “feelings” or to prevent people from being “offended”. The reason that people insist on attention to even the smallest act of prejudice or ignorance is that small, seemingly innocuous actions like misgendering a trans person or telling racist jokes -or, for a kemetic-specific example, culturally appropriating from the Jewish people by talking about a Jewish story as if it were about the ancient Egyptians rather than the Jewish people themselves- play a crucial role in upholding status quo; it implicitly tells people around you that these ideas are socially acceptable for them to hold – and the ideas we hold are precursors to actions that we take.

Therefore, social justice advocates ask that people critically examine the things we do and say and how they may implicitly endorse these unjust social constructs such as sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, as a crucial step toward a world where these constructs no longer float around in the back of everyone’s mind. Acts such as these can contribute to, say, voting for a candidate that explicitly states things that people have accepted as ‘common sense’ long ago because they’ve heard so many jokes about it and seen the ideas go unchallenged for so long, and seen a whole society shaped around the ideas in almost imperceptible ways:

There’s also a common misconception that if someone isn’t actively hateful toward a group -such as holding overt views that white people are superior – that one isn’t discriminating against them. That’s where we get phrases like “I can’t be racist, I have black friends/spouses/family/etc” or “I’m not racist, I voted for Obama”. This kind of logic is operating on the fundamentally flawed concept of racism and other “isms” as matters of purely personal views and prejudices rather than acknowledging the cultural and institutional power imbalances necessary to create these oppressions and the inherent privilege that are direct results of said oppressions. This kind of logic overlooks the fact that we can hold biases subconsciouslyeven against ourselvesthat we consciously would not endorse:

Social justice as a collection of social practices and ettiquettes -listing one’s pronouns in a blog header or insisting white people not use AAVE are two now-infamous examples that come to mind- aims to keep people conscious of these power dynamics and implicit biases in themselves and others, and aims to require participants to actively challenge these ideas on a day-to-day or even moment-to-moment basis. Since ma’at includes being proactive in our pursuit of justice and righteousness (x x), we are obligated to do our best to abide by these practices under Ma’at. Social justice strategies are faulty, and admittedly more of a step toward day-to-day politeness and refraining from psychologically brutalizing one another in our current society than a step toward liberation; we see from the recent election, for example, that liberal identity politics aren’t enough to guarantee progress. However, I would argue that curating an understanding of the social ills that motivate and shape cultural oppression and privilege, as well as a sensitivity to these ills and a sense of personal responsibility to address and heal these ills where we reasonably can be expected to, is a good first step toward truly progressive thought and politics. Besides, this makes our communities more pleasant, safe, and therefore accessible to minorities who otherwise might not be among us. Isn’t that reason enough?

Opponents of social justice also claim that it’s “too mean” or “too divisive”; that naming specific people and holding them accountable is wrong; that when social justice advocates ask others to reject oppressive behaviors in their fellows, they’re being unreasonable, irrational, unpragmatic, or intolerant of others; that it’s wrong to refuse to listen to every single voice of opposition, no matter how prejudiced. There were a few conversations on the matter over on Tumblr lately that summed up the problems with these views quite nicely:

Certainly, proponents of social justice have their own faults. It can be downright maddening to be well-learned on this topic (despite outward appearances and/or others’ assumptions), to be passionate about the cause of improving life for all involved, and to be doing your best to inform someone that they’ve committed a faux pas and ought to apologize…only to be shot down with condescending retorts about “social justice warriors” or “violating free speech” -and as one may expect, an argument full of name-calling often follows such an interaction. Social justice spaces are prone to become performative or merciless, with people being more concerned with shouting each other down or proving someone they don’t like is “problematic” rather than with the more just cause of making the community more accessible and accepting for all. They’re also likely to hold people of the “one strike and you’re out” policy; not allowing for others to learn and grow, not accepting any later apologies and attempts to reconcile as legitimate or sincere, and focused only on ruining their enemies’ reputations and leaving them feeling isolated and unloved, as revenge for crossing the person involved.

These behaviors are indeed counterproductive, but kemetics ought to face these problems not with “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” so to speak by shunning all social justice, but rather by collectively trying to make their community’s version of social justice better than the flawed ones they’ve already seen. Kemetics need to make social justice mandatory -being racist, anti-Semitic, or any kind of discriminatory (even accidentally) is not acceptable and will never be acceptable- but also create a climate of understanding, forgiveness, and education. Kemetics need to collectively strive to keep their goals in the arena of social justice concentrated on the good they’re trying to do, not on browbeating their opponents with the authority of a widely-accepted social requirement. It will be difficult, to be sure, and there will be mistakes made, but if nothing else, it’s worth a shot; and in all honesty, better than the alternative of becoming a “safe space” (if you will) for racists, anti-Semites, and other fascists. These types of arguments against social justice effectively boil down to respectability politics, which in all honesty need to be left in the past.

Finally, on to the social justice concept that is central both to online political arguments and the bulk of social justice work for those of us who are privileged; for example, the grand majority of the kemetic community (and even the larger pagan community) are white, and therefore we all need to recognize and accept that the fact that we are coming from a place of privilege prevents us from knowing what the oppressed know about their oppression. This is not only a matter of common sense, but a matter of abiding by Ma’atian principles. Humility and a willingness to listen to others is praised as wise and Ma’atian in ancient Kemetic thought:

An aspect of social justice that many people seem to take issue with is the way that activists ask people with privilege -the affluent, white people, straight/cisgender people, abled/neurotypical people, and men are those most commonly involved- be willing to listen to oppressed people about their experiences, and that their voice (as the people negatively affected by the social conditions we’re aiming to change) be prioritized above those without that experience. This includes not “speaking over” them and not arguing about what does and doesn’t constitute prejudice or microaggressions. The definition of ‘microaggressions’ is, put most simply, any unintentional act of discrimination. Explanations on how this is both possible, and harmful, can be seen above in the portion outlining subconscious bias. This is how well-meaning and seemingly innocuous actions and statements can in fact uphold systems of oppression, and why it is so vital that when “called out” for something, one makes learning, understanding, and apologizing for their transgression their priority, rather than protecting one’s reputation or claiming that “this is political correctness gone wild!” All of these things fundamentally involve being humble enough to listen to others, and being considerate of their views and needs, which has already  been shown to be a central part of Ma’at.

So, how can you act with consideration and humility, with kindness and justice, with wisdom and ma’at in this world with so very much wrong with it – particularly when our communities are almost entirely online-based? How can you do your part in the campaign for social justice in our society? It’s not easy.

Being an ally is a constant job. Becoming socially conscious means looking at oneself and realizing one’s biases and ignorance, coming to terms with times we’ve been casually cruel or callous to our fellow human beings. It means admitting when you’re wrong and apologizing. Maybe worst of all, it means learning more and more about how very deeply fucked-up our world is and leading to the sobering realization that even all the effort you are capable of will not be enough to fully solve this world’s problems, and fully end the unjust suffering that makes up so much of so many people’s lives.

This realization is why this piece needed to be written. The community will need every person possible to join this fight for what is, in a word, the soul of the human race – to determine if we as a species will stand for oppression and injustice or for community and love. It is not a job for a few, but for all. One person alone can never heal all the sick and feed all the hungry, but then, ma’at was, and still is, a community effort, not a one-person job.