What’s Wrong With “Social Justice”?

I had an interesting conversation with a student about this week where we were supposed to be talking about his work and I ended up hogging the conversation. He was asking me some interesting questions, though, about how I think about policy and intervention and research, and I was thinking through some things on the fly as I spoke.

At one point, I was trying to explain why I get a bit uncomfortable when a college or university (any of them) tries to use first-year orientation or other student life programs to encourage or even mandate attention to social justice, social responsibility or a range of related terms.

A little of my concern is about the extent to which those general and laudable-sounding concepts often end up treated as synonymous with a far more specific laundry list of political and social projects. But as I thought about it after the conversation, I realized I was uneasy for deeper if also vaguer reasons.

Let’s say an academic institution decides it wants its undergraduates to develop a commitment to social responsibility and that orientation is a good place to hammer that point home to them all.

It’s not so much that this is a case of political indoctrination. It’s more that a statement is being made rather than a question being asked. Yes, sure, I know that many staff and faculty at such an occasion are pedagogically savvy enough to use a kind of faux-Socratic approach. If you really mean it, however, you have to seriously leave room for, even encourage, someone to answer the question, “Should we pursue social justice or be socially responsible” by saying, “No”.

There are a lot of “no” answers that have a place at the table, in fact.

No, this is the wrong institution or place for us to be doing that.
No, you (or I or we) are the wrong people to be doing that.
No, this isn’t the right time in our lives to be doing that.
No, we don’t know what is meant by those terms.
No, we don’t know what we need to know to do that the right way.
No, I may want to do that, but I don’t want to do it by working with you.
No, that’s too broad a concept, or too complex an idea to boil down in one discussion.
No, I don’t think it can be done by collective effort.
No, those are private questions.
No, I know more than you do about what those ideas mean, so don’t try to tell me what to do. You should be listening to me instead.
No, this is an elitist institution that is just appropriating the language of social change for its own ends.
No, you’re just being conformist, trendy or offering slogans.
No. Is there a keg anywhere at this meeting?

I’m not saying I encourage any of those answers. I am saying that any time I’m talking about questions of policy or intervention or social action, any time the question “What is to be done?” is part of what I’m doing in class, or anything I’m doing with students, all of those no answers need to be allowable, possible, completely legitimate. When a university bundles something like “social responsibility” into an event where it is also talking about where to park, what your major might be, and how to use your keycard, there’s no space for any of those kinds of replies. I think an institution can lay out a minimal set of requirements for interpersonal behavior that includes mutual tolerance and civility, but it is important not to confuse that with an ongoing commitment to social responsibility.

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6 Responses to What’s Wrong With “Social Justice”?

  1. Doug says:

    Is there a part of orientation where Swarthmore introduces its Quaker roots? I can see an introduction coming in that discussion. The term is pretty slippery, though: one person’s social justice is another’s repeal of the inheritance tax.

  2. hestal says:

    Please think of me as another student, one who sorely needs the benefits of education.

    Your question, “What is to be done?” rang a bell for me. In the summer of 1786, John Jay wrote George Washington about the condition of the nation, especially about the ineffectiveness of the national government. He said that even though the war was difficult, he felt that they would be successful because they “had a fixed object,” and “justice was with us.” But, “The case is now altered; we are going and doing wrong, and therefore I look forward to evils and calamities, but without being able to guess at the instrument, nature, or measure of them.”

    Washington replied, “Your sentiments, that our affairs are drawing rapidly to a crisis, accord with my own. What the event will be is also beyond the reach of my foresight. We have errors to correct. We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. Experience has taught us that men will not adopt and carry into execution measures the best calculated for their own good without the intervention of a coercive power. … What then is to be done?” He also said, “I am told that even respectable characters speak of a monarchical form of government without horror. From thinking proceeds speaking; thence to acting is often but a single step.”

    In no time at all, Washington was President of the Constitutional Convention which produced the Preamble, “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, …” Justice was now a national goal, and the Preamble did not originate that goal. Throughout our history, starting at least with the Mayflower Compact the word “justice,” or words meaning “justice,” can be seen in other governing documents, including state constitutions.

    You know all this better than I ever will.

    And the education that I received on the way to college was delivered in a community that actually did not practice social justice. Religious fundamentalism, exclusion of people of color from an area of 20,000 square miles, and an active KKK were prominent elements of my world. Yet in the public schools I was taught about the Constitution as if the United States was uniformly the most liberal of nations. Social justice was pure. I was so stupid, of course, that I failed to see that it applied only to the people who were “like us.” I took my teachers at their word and happily believed that social justice was justice for all.

    My first contact with the actual facts happened at Baylor when the opposition to Catholic JFK burst forth. I actually had never seen organized anger and hatred. And it was during that time that conversations with my friends made me realize that people from other areas were taught something different. I was aghast at their certainty that Catholics should not be allowed to hold any office, not just president. They were aghast at my naïve insistence that there should be no religious test. When I quoted the Constitution as my proof, they responded that the Constitution did not apply because it was not “ordained by God.”

    Then I spent a summer in Carrollton, GA, and saw that “social justice” meant “white social justice.”

    So where do children, even college students, learn about social justice?

    By “political indoctrination” do you mean that social justice is just one political philosophy and there are others, even those favoring some form of social injustice, that should be given equal consideration?

    And shouldn’t educational institutions at all levels talk about the means by which social justice can be achieved?

    I hesitate to post this comment because you wrote about becoming a punching bag. I do not mean to punch. I just don’t understand. But if you want to ban me, I will understand.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Not at all, those are very legitimate questions.

    I do think that if you’re going to say to college students, “This institution assumes you have an obligation to pursue social justice”, you have to be careful about not saying (as Doug suggests), “This means you are in favor of S-CHIP, against the death penalty, for abortion rights, favor raising the capital gains tax”, etcetera. However, it’s entirely possible that a given course might put issues with that specificity on the table and ask students how or whether particular policies or actions are relevant to particular kinds of injustice. I’ve spent a lot of time in my Central Africa class this semester talking with the students about humanitarian intervention as a concept. When we get down to specifics, that’s where students learn about social justice: in their courses. Or in their own activism. Or from their peers. Or from what faculty and staff say within the public culture of a given university or college.

    But even if you avoid that level of specificity in a general exercise, I think you have to leave room for a student to respond to a call to social justice in any of the basic ways I described. I think it’s right to say to students, “We expect you to put your education to good use”, and to suggest that “good use” includes trying to act to make the world better than you found it, to develop what our college’s president calls “ethical intelligence”. I’m perfectly comfortable saying in an orientation, “Knowledge isn’t just abstract, it’s about acting and living in the world” and saying “Thinking about the ethical and moral implications of knowledge should be a constant obligation for you”. But there are a lot of replies a student might make to that call which I think are valid–I wouldn’t want to grind a budding Nietzsche under heel, for example. I think leaving room for those “No” answers is how you indicate that you’re actually serious about ethical intelligence. If you take a commitment to social justice as being as matter-of-fact an issue as “Always use your keycard and don’t prop dormitory doors”, then you’re in danger of being like a perky camp counselor telling the kids what a fun, fun summer they’re going to have.

  4. Annon says:

    When I read your post, I was reminded of this from Sol Stern at City Journal. It’s about William Ayers, the former Weatherman now in the news due to Obama. I followed a link from flypaper at edexcellence.net, but here’s the direct link:


    …As Ayers puts it in one of his course descriptions, prospective K–12 teachers need to “be aware of the social and moral universe we inhabit and . . . be a teacher capable of hope and struggle, outrage and action, a teacher teaching for social justice and liberation.” …

    I’m passing this on but haven’t really examined Sol Stern’s agenda, etc. Other than the over-the-top “left-wing indoctrination” remark. Anyway, it was interesting in light of your remarks, with which I agree.

  5. David Chudzicki says:

    Thanks. I remember being uncomfortable at some of the orientation programming (a few years ago), but I only thought about the specifics: “I don’t agree with that, but this isn’t the place for an argument,” or feeling like I was seen as somehow morally inferior for not getting someone’s jargon.

    But I hadn’t thought about social justice and orientation in any kind of generality.

  6. mralarm says:

    Beyond orientation, do you think the social justice question is different for those who teach history?

    I often argue against my Americanist colleagues who demand that US history courses should teach students to be “good citizens.” By good citizens, they essentially mean “aware of and concerned about historical injustice and they ways in which it informs social injustice today.”

    Next time I have that argument, I’ll enlist your list of “no” answers. Thanks!

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