3 Questions: 4 Levels of Injustice


Often times, when people attempt to have discussions about injustice, assumptions are made. A game of who has suffered a particular injustice, and who has not is part of the discussion even if this is not apparent. Then, among those who have been determined to have suffered a particular injustice, a game of who has suffered worse begins. These games may be very overt, they may be part of an undercurrent, or they may exist anywhere in between.

Do we know what experience any person may have without asking?

Probably not.

The reality is almost everyone has experienced some form of injustice at some point in their life, and the injustice experienced can be broken down into at least 4 levels.

What Are the 4 Levels of Injustice?

Think of an injustice, and complete the following sentence. This injustice:

  1. has never happened to me.
  2. has happened to me one or more times, but not a lot.
  3. happens to me on a fairly regular basis.
  4. is my daily existence.

Why Do These 4 Levels Matter?

These 4 levels matter because if we do not take into account that some of the injustices we have experienced have been experienced by others in our group, then we cannot have the empathy needed to move the situation forward.

True, for any given injustice, the level a particular person falls into may be different from our own experience. Empathy is not about who is higher or lower on the levels of injustice; rather, empathy is about being able to relate to the experience. Once a person can relate to another person’s experience, they can imagine what it may be like at a different level on the scale.

If we do not think others in a group have suffered a similar injustice to our own, then we may expect that they have no authority to speak on a particular issue. The reality may be many people in the group have the authority to speak on the issue because they have suffered a similar injustice. What they may not have is the depth of experience that others in the group may have around that particular issue.

An example of this is one from my own life. If the discussion is about workplace environment, many people do not know that I have been sexually harassed by a boss. This is something that happened to me many years ago when I was in my twenties, but it was a case where my female boss came up to me, pulled my shirt out, looked down, and said she just wanted to see my chest and my body, and what shape my body was in.

Of course, at the time I was stunned and did not really react other than to stand there dumbfounded. The situation never escalated beyond that, nor do I recall any future issues with that particular person, so I am not claiming some kind of “poor me” type of situation. The point is many people would never think that sexual harassment could happen to a 6 foot, 1 inch white male. Many think I cannot possibly know what it is like to be sexually harassed. And if I do not know what it is like to be sexually harassed, I cannot participate in the discussion. I cannot possibly understand. I cannot empathize.

There are several other instances of sexual harassment I have experienced throughout my professional life, but the story I describe is the first one I recognized as sexual harassment. I am not trying to minimize the pain and suffering others have gone through or are currently experiencing. I am saying I have direct experience with being sexually harassed.

Referring to the four levels of injustice, I would rate my experience with sexual harassment as a number 2. That is to say sexual harassment “happened to me one or more times, but not a lot.” Why bother telling a story like this to a group working on workplace environment? The reason is so people in the group understand I have some direct experience with the topic as opposed to a theoretical understanding of the broader issue of workplace environment. I may be lacking this direct experience in the current workplace, but my story still helps to develop empathy among all involved, and this can move the group forward.

What Can I Do?

The first thing to do when considering your own stories and where they fit into the levels of injustice is to make sure that you are not trying to prove you have suffered more than others whether you have or not. The idea is to be able to find a connection with the rest of the group so the group’s energy and efforts may be put toward solving the situation and/or changing the culture. The goal is to make life better.

Whether in a group setting or with another individual where you are trying to address some kind of injustice, keep the 4 Levels of Injustice in mind and ask yourself:

  • What have they experienced that I have not?
  • What have they experienced that I have experienced?
  • How can I use their level of injustice to develop empathy?
  • How can I use my level of injustice to develop empathy?

Introducing your experience to someone else or a group does take a sense of timing on your part. Be careful not to introduce your experience when:

  • it may appear you are starting a game of who has suffered worse.
  • you may appear to be minimizing the experience of someone else.

If I am not guiding the group, but I am participating as a member, I wait to introduce my experience until I am challenged by someone else in the group. It is possible the group may be accepting of my participation without hearing my story. If I am challenged, I tell my story without any intent of knocking down the person who challenged me. Injustice can wound people to their core, so I take them at their best. My experience has been they respond positively to my stories.

If you are guiding the group, you may ask for volunteers to tell a story from their lives, and you may offer yours to open the discussion. Do not force anyone to talk if they do not want to. The 4 levels of injustice have dramatically different impacts on each person, and no 2 people experience the same level the same way.

Keep in mind the ultimate goal is to move the situation forward in a positive manner. Life should improve rather than get worse.