So, given that there’s a lot of stuff and baggage pops up when we talk about social justice, how do we define what it means?
The word “justice” has a variety of meanings:
1. Just behavior or treatment: a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people
1.1 The quality of being fair and reasonable: the justice of his case
1.2 The administration of the law or authority in maintaining this: a tragic miscarriage of justice
1.3 The personification of justice, usually a blindfolded woman holding scales and a sword.
Now, for social justice. I’m going to start with the dictionary.com definition:
the distribution of advantages and disadvantages within a society
And the Oxford Dictionary definition:
Justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society
The words I’ve highlighted, I think, are what’s important. Basically, justice should speak to respect for people and treating them fairly, and maintaining laws (whether legal laws or socially defined laws) that support respect and fairness. Going by this, social justice should speak to respect for people and fair treatment when it comes to wealth, opportunities, and privilege.
The definition as I’m creating it here does not, ideally, have any asterisks. There are no exceptions to justice due to race, class, religion, etc. It would seem, to me anyway, that by going by the dictionary definitions, it would be easy to make the mental leap that social justice covers those who are disadvantaged and marginalized in our society. For a good proportion of social justice movements, this is mostly true.
We also have people/groups who have a very narrow idea of what social justice is. For some, social justice is only for those who look like them or believe like them. This narrow focus transcends all political and religious identity. No human group is immune.
In some areas of the internet, “social justice” and “social justice warrior” have become a pejorative. You only have to Google things like GamerGate, Sad/Rabid Puppies, etc to see what I mean. The vitriol for this seems especially strong towards people of color, cis and trans women, gender variant, and queer people. The vitriol, particularly on the internet, in a lot of cases where “social justice” is being claimed can be way out of proportion to the supposed actions done that were deemed bad.
In practice, though, I just don’t think that social justice actually happens in any great capacity. The humans that make up our countries, neighborhoods, social groups, and families are really good at defining things in terms of “us” versus “them. Many of us who do a lot of work in social justice have a grand ideal of a time where we’re all equal and that we don’t have to fight about this stuff anymore. But, I think it will always be a constant struggle for something, even if we solve other problems. I don’t think it’s a worthless fight by any means, but I also know that we fail just as much as we win.
To put it another way, I believe social justice is the work of making sure that ourselves, others, and those in power are not being shitty to people. I also think it’s our own practice of being mindful of our own words and actions so that we don’t consciously or unconsciously be shitty to people, or perpetuate the systems and cultural traditions that make us be shitty to people.
I don’t think this is really that hard in principle, but for human beings, this is very difficult indeed.
This is part of a series of writings on social justice for 30 days. You’re welcome to join me.