Monday, July 21, 2014

What IS Social Justice anyway?

Sometimes I struggle with the fact that there doesn't seem to be an English word or phrase adequate to sum up what "social justice" means to me. As I encourage parents to introduce social justice issues to children, it would be helpful to have a concise and child-friendly way to describe it as a starting point. 

business dictionary I looked up says social justice is "The fair and proper administration of laws conforming to the natural law that all persons, irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, possession, race, religion, etc, are to be treated equally and without prejudice." I like some of the concepts there...laws, fair, treated equally, without prejudice. But I wish we had a phrase with something more of a dash of personal responsibility that can even encompass our living world as well.

There are two concepts I borrow from other cultures that come closer to defining social justice as I understand it and as I live it. "Tikkun Olam" from the Jewish faith and "Ubuntu" from South Africa. As I am neither Jewish nor South African, do please bear with me with a dose of patience as I describe these concepts as I've come to understand them.

Tikkun Olam 
Tikkun Olam is a Hebrew phrase for a Jewish ideal often referred to as "repair of the world" or "healing a broken world." It involves working toward a time of peace, which doesn't mean just ending war, but achieving prosperity, health, and justice for all. It is a purpose in life for humans and the reason for mitzvot (the plural of a word more commonly heard, "mitzvah"). Mitzvot are more than just good deeds we do to be closer to G-d. They are actually commandments to act.

Personally, it appeals to me to think that Tikkun Olam and the doing of mitvot are commanded by G-d. That might not be everyone's cup of tea if you are not of a faith that believes in a creator or if you are just a person that doesn't like to be told what to do. But even without religion, one can still respect that the Jewish faith isn't just saying "Hey, G-d's got it covered and is going to take care of everything. Sit back and enjoy the ride." It seems to me to say quite the opposite. As a mom, I see it as a reflection of my own attitude towards my kids when we brought home pets, "I gave you a great gift and now it's up to you to take care of it. It's yours. I'll help you, but you are the hands that have to do the work for this wonderful responsibility." So far, that's working for the kids. I'm not so sure it's working for humanity. 

Ubuntu is an African worldview coming originally from the Bantu people and popularized during political transformation in South Africa. I've seen it translated to "human-ness" or "humanity towards others," but that falls short of the mark. Essentially, it's saying that a person is a person only in relationship towards others. In "No Future Without Forgiveness," Bishop Desmond Tutu describes it as a common bond between people such that when one person's circumstances improve, everyone gains and if one person is tortured or oppressed, everyone is diminished. There is strong idea of ethical responsibility with this notion of shared identity. For example, if someone is starving, we are all collectively responsible.

Ubuntu has a humanistic approach that gets at the heart of responsibility that I embrace. In both Tikkun Olam and Ubuntu, responsibility for the world and for humanity rests firmly at our feet. If something is your responsibility, you don't just randomly throw scraps of your excess money or used clothes at it for charity. If it's your responsibility, you treat it like a job...make it a priority, come up with a strategy, address it smartly and effectively.

I like "Tikkun Olam" and "Ubuntu" better than "Social Justice." Maybe they roll more exotically off the tongue and make it seem more hip and attractive to me, but I think it's more than that. There's something more poetic about those notions that suggest a oneness of the human extended family.

What is your favorite way to describe social justice? 


Rose Rouner said...

This strikes a chord with me, specifically what you said about Ubuntu. My husband's dissertation was on Personhood (among other things), and the idea that Personhood is defined through other people, to God, etc. It's a concept in Christianity as well, and I see it in the trinity, and also in the Chatholic ideas that the church IS the body of Christ and that "works" are important. Anyway, "Ubuntu," it's a good word.

You asked how others might define Social Justice. I can't stop thinking about the word "deserve". I believe that Social Justice is protecting each others basic human rights, the things that everyone deserves. I think the trouble with agreeing on a definition has to do with deciding what those things are and where efforts and resources are best spent.

CCYL said...

Thank you, Rose!