Culture justice: a new frame for free culture

I’m at the Students for Free Culture conference, catching up with old friends — including the current leaders of Florida Free Culture, which I realized is 5 years old this month. This morning a phrase popped into my head that I’d never heard before, but could be valuable to the free culture movement going forward: “culture justice”.

The term is obviously coined by analogy to “environmental justice”, an incredibly powerful idea that succeeds at articulating the costs of environmental degradation. Most simply, environmental justice is the concept that damage to the environment disproportionately affects the most vulnerable human populations. It’s an obvious idea once you think about it: if you’re poor, a child, elderly, disabled, or otherwise disadvantaged, you have fewer resources to cope with (or move away from) environmental perils in your environment. In some sense, it’s an argument against inequality per se (and rightly so), but it also accounts for the fact that some inequality will always exists and helps clarify the burdens that are inequitably distributed.

Culture justice is my attempt to do the same for topics that the free culture movement is concerned with. (The term “information justice” already has some traction, but I prefer a frame that includes access to and participation in culture, not just access to information.) This approach is particularly valuable to the free culture movement (with its roots in elite law schools) and SFC (with its roots at elite colleges).

In his presentation today, Eric Frank of Flat World Knowledge made the argument for open textbooks by pointing out that most of the growth in higher education has come from students with low-SES backgrounds, many of them first-generation college students, attending schools where they pay less than $5,000 in tuition per year. No one clapped. Unfortunately, most of the students in this room are not those students.

SFC’s base has been in the Northeast and West Coast. Although women have had important leadership roles, it’s always been dominated by men. Some panels today couldn’t find a single woman among the five participants. There is a significant place for higher-SES ethnic minorities, such as East Asians and South Asians, there’s a paucity of participation from lower-SES ethnic minorities, such as blacks and Hispanics. Most are training for high-status careers in IT. My point isn’t to smear SFC, but to point out some of its privileges. (I should point out, many of its leaders are acutely aware of them.)

To be fair, white male software engineers and tech enthusiasts have legitimate issues with public policy and dominant institutions. That’s my background in the free culture movement. But its claims will have greater resonance if they’re drawn more broadly. This has been a perpetual aim for SFC.

Culture justice takes this further by attempting to articulate a general framework for the role of social privilege in cultural policy.

One example is re-use of copyrighted material. Less privileged users will have less knowledge of their rights under the law, less ability to negotiate licensing, and in some cases even less protection under the law (see e.g. discussions of gender in fan fiction).

Similarly, Net neutrality is ultimately an argument about privilege and justice.

This is far from an exhaustive list, but it’s enough to make me think that culture justice (under whatever name) could be an important and valuable frame for the free culture movement. Freedom is an important frame, but so is justice. In some cases they may work at cross purposes, but they can also reinforce each other in important ways.

What do you think?

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