Jonathan Wolff discusses injustices in society, hope for the future

Ceci Taylor

Professor Jonathan Wolff from the University of Oxford visited Colorado State University March 6 to discuss institutional injustices and what needs to be done to fix problems such as racism, sexism and poverty.

Ben Withers of the philosophy department at CSU introduced the professor.


Jonathan Wolff from the University of Oxford discusses institutional injustices and what needs to be done to fix problems such as racism, sexism and poverty March 6 during a visit to Colorado State University. (Ceci Taylor | The Collegian.)

“His work on disadvantage, poverty, disability and inequality displays deep interest and concern for what makes us uniquely human,” Withers said.

Wolff started his lecture by saying that institutional injustice is tricky to solve in society, because society’s actions tend to repeat and reinforce roles. He explained this by describing how women tend to act in society.

“Many women object to the norms of beauty and makeup, for example, that they have to follow, but find — as many roles in life — they would be punished if they don’t obey those norms,” Wolff said. “By reinforcing those norms, it becomes harder and harder to break.”

Wolff said the reason why institutional injustices are so difficult to break is that people are ridiculed, thought less of or even fired from their jobs for rejecting societal norms or attempting to break them.

He also said that institutional injustices are hard to fix because we all can’t help looking out for our own best interests.

“If you’re in power, even if you’re trying to be even-handed, you may leave others out. You may forget about other people, but you will not forget you or people like you,” Wolff said. “Not because you’re selfish, not because you’re deliberately trying to do anything wrong, but because your own interests come before.”

Wolff compared societal injustices to a birdcage. He explained how birds are trapped in the cage by many wires designed to keep the bird inside.

“You can remove any one of the wires, and the bird, most likely, will remain,” Wolff said. “You can remove quite a lot of the wires, and the bird will still be trapped. You need to remove a combination, you need to undo quite a lot of things to make any progress.”

He said that we can all make efforts to change and fix injustices in society, but a combination of actions need to happen in order to make any difference.

Wolff cited leadership and celebrity influence, for example. He described the time a photograph of Princess Diana shaking the hand of someone infected with HIV became popular. Before, Wolff said, people wore hazmat suits around those with the disease. But, after the picture, people viewed them differently.


He also said that changing language and coming up with new terms is incredibly useful, using the phrase “sexual harassment” as an example. Wolff said that the word was invented in the ’70s to describe a woman’s experience in the workplace. The phrase is now commonly used in the English language.

“Using new terms is a way of making people understand,” Wolff said.

An audience member asked Wolff if it’s actually possible to fix anything and asked him what society will look like in 500 years.

“Even if you remove one problem, often more will come,” Wolff replied. “An egalitarian utopia is out of reach.”

However, Wolff said that nothing is impossible and things can certainly get better, even if it is unlikely that everything would get better institutionally.

“If structures are like the cage, it will be many actions before considerable change is apparent,” he said. “But, that doesn’t mean nothing’s happened. As long as the birdcage doesn’t keep repeating or repairing itself, some progress has been made.”

Ceci Taylor can be reached at or on Twitter @cecelia_twt.