defining social justice

One of the things each of my parents instilled in me at a young age was the importance of being a clear communicator. It’s hard to problem solve when we aren’t talking about the same thing.

We witnessed that in the aftermath of the George Floyd trauma. As our country engaged in increased, courageous conversation about ethnicity and race, people oft, unknowingly talked past each other, failing to recognize that two very different definitions of “racism” were in play. While embedded in the two is the idea that one race is inherently superior to another, one definition sees it as an individual belief; the other sees it as systemic. If individual, then we each have something to work on. If systemic, then only the people who hold the power, so-to-speak, have something to work on, as it would by definition, thereby be impossible for those with perceived lesser power to be racist. Hence, it’s difficult to make progress when our definitions are different — and when we refuse to listen sincerely or long enough to actually realize the definitions are different. We just shout louder, as if for some reason, turning up the volume would decrease the dissent.

I’ve noticed, no less, other concepts with similar, ingrained miscommunication.

Think “wicked,” for example. For some, that’s a direct correlation to evil. To others, it’s another word for “awesome,” something being “wickedly good”! (For me, in fact, it refers to my favorite Broadway musical.)

“Dressing” is another one. Is that something on top of salad or something stuffed inside our favorite Thanksgiving fowl?

There are obviously more (i.e. Does “pop” refer to our father, soft drink, or some explosive sound? And is “dope” really good or really bad?). 

Definitions matter, friends. And if we are going to be persons making positive societal contributions, one healthy next step would to be to ensure we are all on the same page, that we are communicating clearly, and we are utilizing the same definitions.

One area in which we thus struggle in our communication is with the frequently articulated concept of social justice; there is no single definition. Allow us to highlight a few:

From the United Nations: “Social justice may be broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth.”

From the National Association of Social Workers: “Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.”

And from the John Lewis Institute for Social Justice: “Social justice is a communal effort dedicated to creating and sustaining a fair and equal society in which each person and all groups are valued and affirmed.”

Key to comprehend in every definition — and necessary in order to avoid persons again unknowingly talking past each other — is the embedded distinction of opportunity vs. outcome — or as also stated, equality vs. equity.

Equality means everyone is treated the same, given the same resources or opportunities. Outcomes may vary, pending how resources and opportunities are used.

Equity means resources are allocated however perceived necessary to produce the exact same outcome for all. 

While it’s a significant distinction, let me suggest no one be quick to assume one is all right and one is all wrong. Let us recognize that many things are in play.

Circumstances matter; some life circumstances are most obviously, significantly harder than others. 

Personal responsibility also matters; some persons demonstrate significantly more initiative, responsibility, and ethicality in managing their own life.

So what’s compassionate? What’s responsible? What’s effective? What’s enabling? What works and takes all of the above into account?

Hence, both the individual and circumstantial angles are in play. It’s not so black-and-white. We would thus be wise not to ignore either. That is, if we really want to communicate…