Social Justice is not simply defined by who it stands against. It is not personified by expressions of frustration, or discontent in 280 characters. It is not about small grievances, petty complaints, or culture wars.
At its core, social justice is about improving the lives of the less fortunate, and giving appropriate weight to each stakeholder in a society. It is a deep-seated recognition that not everyone has equal opportunity or equal access to resources. It is about respecting worthy traditions that connect us to the best of our past and bind us together, while compelling us forward toward critical individual and societal growth.
It is choosing empathy over fear or hatred when succumbing to the latter is often the first inclination or learned response.
It is about being values- and human-rights driven. It is about caring for and accepting others, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or economic lot in life. In many ways, it is about striving toward those deep-seated values and ideals we define as Canadian, such as inclusion, acceptance, and compassion.
It is a firm recognition that not everyone is dealt the same hand in life, and an observing of where and how bias, prejudice, and discrimination seep into everyday life and institutions and work to disadvantage or advantage others.
Today, we are witnessing powerful social justice movements that are not only shaping society and compelling institutions to change for the better but also contributing to greater public awareness and understanding of the experiences of minority groups that simply did not exist decades or even a few short years ago.
Nevertheless, negative connotations around social justice and about being a “social justice warrior” persist in popular culture. A social justice warrior is sometimes proclaimed to be an overly sensitive, outspoken individual—the “triggered,” armchair, social media activist.
This overstated caricature is unfortunate and frames activism and contribution in a negative light.
It subtly diminishes the work of grassroots change-makers in our society. It attempts to undermine the work of peaceful protestors advocating for a more just and equal society—one that does not treat individuals differently based on the colour of their skin.
It takes away from the unsung, everyday community builders who tirelessly help others and fight against inequities—the community organizer who rallies people toward a meaningful cause, or the teenager who volunteers at the local animal shelter and advocates in small ways for animal welfare when the opportunity arises.
There are many ways that social justice works in society. The push to reduce the stigma around mental health could be the reason why someone seeks professional help for the first time. Attending a civil rights or climate change rally might seem like a small act, but collectively that thousand-person protest could be what finally pushes a politician to recognize popular opinion and vote yes on important legislation.
Social justice is about being fact-driven. It is about shining a light on issues of injustice and standing with strength in the face of ignorance, apathy, or neglect, because equality and equity are noble ideals or goals, even if they are not attainable in our lifetimes.
It is about not losing the lustre of idealism or belief in a better world, which can all too often fade, or worse, turn into a cynicism and distrust of humanity that prevents one from continuing to strive for better.
History presents innumerable examples of injustice. Nevertheless, there has, throughout history, always been a dual track of individuals pushing back against oppression, fighting for greater freedom, and working to create institutions that protect people.
Social justice advocates, change-makers, or community activists (whatever label fits) are realistic optimists. They see the good while recognizing what needs change.
Nobody fits in a box. Let us not let some people devalue being informed, engaged, and compassionate. The pursuit of justice and improvement of lives is among the most admirable of causes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Taylor is a Social Studies teacher at Hugh Boyd Secondary in Richmond, BC.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2020 issue.