I realize that in a ramble about a deluge of anthropological and sociological concepts, I never even answered the question that I posed last week: Is social justice a social construct?
I must’ve been around eight or ten years old when I learned what social justice was. I don’t remember the exact moment, but I can safely assume it was within some event or RE class in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in which I was brought up. Unitarian Universalism is founded upon social justice values, so they were introduced to me as a very integral part of the society I was entering as an inquisitive young woman. To someone that young, the want for social justice seems so obviously good. I think some of the first projects I took part in were Trick or Treat for Unicef and A Guest at Your Table, which both happen during the time of year that in American culture is very inspired by the idea of giving. These sorts of causes that I began to care about were the easy ones– nearly every person can agree that starving children should have food. Poverty, hunger, and children are sort of the gateway social justice issues.
As I grew up in this religious institution, (a contested term, as most UUs aren’t really religious, but I think it’s the most fitting description), my awareness to social justice issues also began to grow. I met two very important friends in my life through my adolescent experiences as a socially conscious Unitarian Universalist. When I was fifteen, I attended the Girls Leadership Workshop at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill, which exposed me to a world of people who believed in social justice and human rights as I did. I was hooked!
I’ll save you a full biography by saying that my social justice involvement exploded in the latter half of my high school years. But I began to have a nagging sense of cultural supremacy. I do remember the first time this happened– I was at a STAND conference learning about the genocide in Darfur, and I suddenly realized how sad and useless we were: all these high school and college students learning about the issue and trying to convince people to help, but most of us had never been to Sudan or even spoken with someone affected by the crisis. How could we ever attempt to help, or to even understand the complexities of such a situation from the comfort of our desks in our warm homes in the United States? These doubts continued to manifest; I had begun college at sixteen and my thoughts began to rapidly change as I became exposed to the field of anthropology. I distanced myself from STAND, (though I still support the organization and think it is a well-run student group) and began to question the very existence of humanitarian aid. Could social justice actually be harmful?
I haven’t come to many conclusions yet. I am just beginning to understand the problems that face anthropology as an academic discipline. Can we ever really understand another culture? Is it fair to study a culture and then assume you are an expert who can make objective statements about their lives and realities? Do we have the right to decide what other people need? Do the ideas of human rights and social justice perpetuate a colonialist notion of “us” and “them”?
I think I do agree with that. Social justice is very much a Western notion. Our value of life is rooted in a Judeo-Christian belief system that most people in Western cultures adhere to whether or not they actually belong to those religious traditions. To borrow a term from Margaret Lock’s Displacing Suffering, we seem to be surrounded by a “fetishization of life.” This is not necessarily a bad thing– in fact, I personally think that valuing all existing human life is an important idea in anthropology. Social justice comes out of that social construction, that value that people are important, and that are lives should not be “nasty, brutish, and short,” but that we should be entitled to “life, liberty, and [property] the pursuit of happiness”.
The problem arises when political ideologies begin to mix with this idea. In my lifetime, social justice has become tied with the idea of liberalism. As the fundamentalist-Christian-conservative political ideology grows in our country, I believe we can see a collapse of social justice as we know it. Instead of standing for a value of human life and equality, the term is beginning to hold connotations of liberalism, pacifism, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage beliefs. This strengthens social justice from my personal point of view, but effectively ostracizes nearly all conservative-leaning peoples (Meghan McCain is perhaps an exception…)
I don’t think we can say that social justice is an accepted cultural more because it has become such a source of conflict and debate for us. How can we say that some people are more deserving of life than others? Didn’t we decide that utilitarianism was scary a while ago? There are cultural regimes in the Western world and outside of it which still practice eugenics or value certain kinds of people over others. Sadly, this most likely happens in your own community and you don’t even realize it.
I believe that if we can define social justice for our particular historical moment and somehow separate it from political ideologies, the idea may survive. I am quite pessimistic, however, about the future of social justice. I don’t think it is winning this current debate between religion and secularism in the US today. (A debate we shouldn’t even be having, but that, my friends, is another blog for another day.)