The Problem With The Idea Of ‘Social Justice’

Flickr / JD Hancock
Flickr / JD Hancock

The first time I heard the term “social justice,” it was from my intercultural communication professor during my junior year in college. At the tail end of the semester, he left us with a few words of wisdom expressed through a bulleted list in a poorly formatted .docx online attachment. His final plea, in his own words, was for us as a collective student body to “become intercultural allies for social justice.”

I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. To me, it sounded so highfalutin and grandiose, like he was asking us to form a Power Rangers-like superhero crew. But much more than that, I simply didn’t understand what “social justice” resembled in his eyes. Of course, he never clarified that in a follow-up document, nor did he explicitly inform the class what “social justice” resembled in his pre-finals farewell speech. All I got out of his declaration, I am afraid, is that my entire generation was supposed to put aside our historical and cultural differences and form some sort of multicultural blob to fight…uh, something, I guess.

Since then, however, the term has been pummeled into my skull by a litany of advocates, activists and hyper-progressive politicos. Despite the term’s ubiquity today, I still sense the same problem I had back in my intercultural communication class: that at heart, social justice is just too damn vague a doctrine for anybody to intelligently support.

Of course, the ideological problem of social justice is something I see with practically every contemporary philosophy; chiefly, the fact that nobody these days can seem to adequately describe what it is they oh-so-vehemently believe in.

It’s just as much a problem on the right as it is on the left, as I’ve yet to encounter a single self-described “libertarian” who can explain to me in less than 8,000 words what their perceived definition of freedom is. However, this social justice enigma is an especially interesting case, since it not only seems next to impossible to define, but next to impossible to concretely demonstrate in the real world.

According to the National Association of Social Workers (not to be confused with the National Socialist Workers’ Party), social justice is “the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.” Per the New Oxford American Dictionary, the same idea means “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” And lastly, the Center for Economic and Social Justice defines the term as “the virtue which guides us in creating those organized human interactions we call institutions.”

The troubling thing is not that all three definitions seem to be describing wholly separate concepts, but the fact that none of the definitions above spell out anything concrete about how social justice actually works. OK, so there’s some stuff in there about equality, but not total equality, because that would mean “communism” and probably some sort of despotic, tyrannical government to make sure everybody gets what’s coming to them. So how does one go about creating that finer, more equitable social-justice utopia?

Interestingly enough, none of the definitions above even go anywhere near that. Instead, we’re treated to a buffet of “ought-tos” and “should-bes,” sans anything resembling a physical action one can do to turn “social justice” into a verb. To me, the term seems intentionally vague, leaving considerable wiggle room for folks to basically do whatever they want to and chalk it up to “social justice” later.

The one thing that does seem fairly clear about the concept of social justice, however, is that it is something that is not—nor can ever be—legally codified. It cannot be meted out in a courtroom or inked up by legislators; instead, it’s an unspoken pact the entire social system shares in order to promote some sort of greater, and poorly defined, collective good.

Perhaps you can see the problem there. If someone donates money to a charity that helps the poor in a community, that’s social justice. Similarly, if a disaffected youngster chucks a brick through the window of a gas station because he feels like he’s being held down by the man, technically, that’s social justice, too. Basically anything an individual does to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots can be construed as social justice; unfortunately, that seems to entail bringing people down just as much as it entails bringing people up.

The whole idea of a cultural law residing outside our actual laws reminds me a lot of the old “frontier justice” days. Social justice, despite its cheery, flowery connotation, is really just a stone’s throw away from vigilantism and just a few rows down the path from fascism. As much as you may hate to consider it, the Ku Klux Klan were very much a group driven by a weird sense of “social justice,” of a commoner’s law that superseded the ACTUAL law. You can say the exact same thing about McCarthy and his kindred during the Red Scare—technically, they couldn’t arrest people for being communists, but they could destroy the careers of their political rivals and make sure they never had a means to support themselves or their families ever again (a tactic that bears an uncanny resemblance to today’s leftist quest to eradicate “hatefulness,” as the blacklistings of Mel Gibson, Donald Sterling and Anthony Cumia clearly indicate).

Without getting into the morality or immorality of the issue, the sheer logistics behind a true “social justice” crusade seem implausible, if not impossible. Outside of erecting the most expansive and expensive social engineering campaign in history, there’s nothing government can do to guarantee that people wind up with equal outcomes. Even if the financial variable was the same, how exactly do you ensure that two people end up having the same quality of life when they are 40, anyway?

That’s ultimately the big problem with social justice, in both theory and execution. At the end of the day, you just can’t have true equality and true individual freedom at the same time. If you’re going to have a perfectly equal society, that means you’re going to have to establish some kind of mechanism that keeps people from going under or above the middle rung at all times—which requires that a small elite must live above the perfectly equal society to enforce the status quo. Furthermore, the entire ideology rests on the assumption that all people deserve the same treatment, regardless of their effort or ability; if the ends are the same no matter what, then why even bother being productive, or ethical, or even caring about anything at all?

While we can all agree that discrimination is bad and that too many people are maltreated in the justice system, proponents of “social justice” seem to be forgetting a key piece of information: 99 percent of the time, people falter in life NOT because of a lack of social equality, but because of bad personal decisions. Yeah, inner city schools and schools out in the sticks may not have the same resources as those in the suburbs, but the kids nonetheless have an equal opportunity to crack open their respective textbooks and learn something.

Frankly, the reason why suburban children tend to succeed academically isn’t because they have money and higher quality school choices, but because they grow up in a social climate that emphasizes, encourages and rewards doing well in school. Even if you spent the exact same amount of money on all schools and staffed them with the very same personnel, the outcomes wouldn’t be equal; the kids in a culture that values education would still succeed, and the kids in a culture that doesn’t value education will still fail miserably.

Even with equal opportunities offered, it is foolish to expect truly equal outcomes for everybody. Along the way, people mess up and get distracted and become unmotivated and make a conscious choice to not care anymore. Yeah, a lot of people born into wealthy families succeed without ever trying, but by that same token, a lot of people born into wealthy families wind up failing miserably because of their own bone-headed blunders and unapologetic apathy. The same can be said of those born into low-income families; a lot remain just as stagnant as their parents, but many jump up quite a few rungs on the socioeconomic ladder because they make a concentrated effort to do just that.

For social justice to ever become a practical idea—let alone one that can be implemented—you don’t just have to control for outcomes, you also have to control for actions. While individuals still have the right to make their own decisions, good or bad, you are going to have discrepancies in economic outcomes; to guarantee otherwise would mean nothing less than the complete elimination of free will itself. TC mark

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