Social Justice Usage
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. xviii.
To clarify our definition, let’s start with the concept “social justice.” While some scholars and activists prefer to use the term social justice in order to reclaim its true commitments, in this book we use the term critical social justice. We do so in order to distinguish our standpoint on social justice from mainstream standpoints. A critical approach to social justice refers to specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e., divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this.
The definition we apply is rooted in a critical theoretical approach. While this approach refers to a broad range of fields, there are some important shared principles:
- All people are individuals, but they are also members of social groups.
- These social groups are valued unequally in society.
- Social groups that are valued more highly have greater access to the resources of a society.
- Social injustice is real, exists today, and results in unequal access to resources between groups of people.
- Those who claim to be for social justice must be engaged in self-reflection about their own socialization into these groups (their “positionality”) and must strategically act from that awareness in ways that challenge social injustice.
- This action requires a commitment to an ongoing and lifelong process.
Source: Adams, M., et al. (2016). Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. New York: Routledge. p. 1.
An analysis of how power, privilege, and oppression impact our experience of our social identities. “Full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable” and all members of a space, community, or institution, or society are “physically and psychologically safe and secure.”
Source: Bell, L. (2013). Theoretical foundations. In M. Adams, W.J. Blumenfeld, C. Castañeda,, H.W. Hackman, M.L. Petrs, & X. Zúñiga. (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice. New York: Routledge.
“… social justice is both a process and a goal. The goal of social justice is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are psychologically and physically safe and secure.” (Bell, 2013, p. 21).
New Discourses Commentary
“Social Justice” is the ultimate “Trojan Horse” term, where it seems to mean one (good) thing as most people understand it—social justice, a more fair and equal society—but actually means something else. That something else is very specific, and most people, if they knew what they were encountering, would be unlikely to accept it. The idea advertised by the phrase “social justice” doesn’t match the ideology and worldview bearing the seemingly identical name.
This is because the phrase “social justice,” here intentionally left in the lowercase, means something that most people in society can get behind—more fairness, equality, egalitarianism, and less bigotry, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and the likes. There are very few people today who would say they don’t seek social justice, even amongst conservatives; any disagreements are about how to achieve it and what it would look like. This is because most people today (in the West, anyway) are broadly liberal in orientation (in the philosophical and true meaning of the word, not that in American politics). Indeed, social justice has been profoundly theorized, including in the liberal sense (e.g., by philosophers such as John Rawls), and has roots in religious interpretations of scripture that could be rendered compatible with liberal social politics (especially but not only when left-leaning) and liberal approaches to progressive thought.
On the other hand, “Social Justice,” here intentionally capitalized, means something more specific. As can be seen above, it means Critical Social Justice. This is, in fact, an ideology that very aggressively pursues the social, cultural, institutional, and political installation and enforcement of a very specific and radical understanding of social justice as derived from various critical theories (see also, Theory, critical race Theory, postcolonial Theory, queer Theory, gender studies, fat studies, disability studies, media studies, critical pedagogy, postmodern, Cultural Marxism, Post-Marxism, Marxian, New Left, and Neo-Marxism) and their specific analyses of socially constructed dynamics of systemic power (see also, social constructivism, structuralism, and poststructuralism). As such, they do not necessarily seek to achieve “social justice” in the broad sense or the sense that many people would assume of the term. Instead, they seek to empower and enforce their particular worldview that revolves around one narrow and authoritarian interpretation of the concept (see also, hegemony).
Much could be said about the various roots of the various philosophies of social justice—and about those philosophies themselves—but because the Theory-based interpretation of the idea is so narrow and specific, this exercise would mostly be a distraction from the point. The key thing to understand, and Sensoy and DiAngelo (quoted above) make exceptionally clear, is that “Social Justice” (in our terminology) refers to something they call “critical social justice,” and this entails and demands rather a lot—reaching well beyond a society that is “more fair.” Specifically, it requires developing a “critical consciousness” (see also, wokeness) and continually and willfully cultivating a habit of seeing the world through a critical lens. It cannot be overstated that Critical Social Justice is a cohesive worldview with roots in a variety of philosophical and activist traditions that don’t represent the views of many, if not most, people.
The view from Social Justice is one that sees people in terms of their social group membership (see also, identity, identity-first, and identity politics), the relationship of those social groups to societal power and privilege (see also, position), and the ways those “positionalities” intersect in a “matrix” of domination, oppression, and marginalization that promotes the interests of the dominant while excluding or harming everyone else. It is entirely focused on systemic power dynamics that it Theorizes proceed according to factors relevant to group identity and sometimes identifies itself as being interested in “group rights” instead of individual rights (see also, individualism). Its goal is to identify, expose, disrupt, dismantle, subvert, and overthrow those dynamics in a radical revolutionary process that seeks to remake “the system” itself in the name of its ideology.
That is, the primary and chief concern of Critical Social Justice is systemic power in society, which is the only lens through which it views both society and, in fact, our entire understanding of material reality (see also, science, positivism, and ways of knowing). When Critical Social Justice indicates that it is interested in group rights, what it is chiefly interested in is critically examining (in the sense of critical theory), challenging, and eventually overturning all unjust systems of power in society, as it sees them, i.e., social revolution. These it seeks to characterize according to membership in identity groups—such as race and racism, sex and gender and sexism, cissexism, and cisnormativity, sexuality and homophobia and heteronormativity, body weight status and thinnormativity and fatphobia, and ability status and ableism and disableism—and so on, all to be understood in terms of unjust systemic power dynamics at the level of group identity and utterly unmade.
Critical Social Justice is often misidentified as a “liberal” phenomenon due to its associations with liberal approaches to social justice and with left-wing social politics and progressivism more generally. This issue is especially pronounced in the United States where “liberal” has erroneously been rendered synonymous with left-wing. It therefore comes as a surprise to many (at least in that milieu) to discover that Critical Social Justice as an ideology is openly, explicitly, and even aggressively anti-liberal and blames liberalism for most of the problems of society.
This surprising orientation results because Social Justice adopts a critical orientation, which has from the beginning (reaching back into the 1920s, at least) blamed liberalism for the problematics of society. As explained by Sensoy and DiAngelo:
These movements initially advocated for a type of liberal humanism (individualism, freedom, and peace) but quickly turned to a rejection of liberal humanism. The ideal of individual autonomy that underlies liberal humanism (the idea that people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate) was viewed as a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger structural systems of inequality. In other words, it fooled people into believing that they had more freedom and choice than societal structures actually allow. (p. 5)
Social Justice is also frequently associated with a push to increase equality or egalitarianism in society, but it views both of these in a similarly cynical fashion. Both, in fact, are considered within Social Justice ideological constructs of the dominant used to blind the oppressed to their oppression (see also, individualism, universalism, human nature, meritocracy, liberalism, equality, and melting pot). “Critical consciousness,” i.e., the specialized awareness provided by Critical Social Justice and an orientation toward it and its activism, is posited as the only possible remedy to this state of affairs (see also, false consciousness and consciousness raising).
Social Justice does not advocate for equality either, which it also sees as an oppressive ideology. Instead, it advocates for equity, which means something different and is often measured with a mind to “historical context.” The commitment to equity, not equality, in Social Justice is evident once one learns to recognize how often advocates of Social Justice specifically talk about “inequity” and “inequitable” systems (see also, equity and equality). Equity means “adjusting shares so as to make citizens equal” (i.e., equality of outcome), and “historical context” in this circumstance refers to using equity not only to create “equality of outcome” but to do so aware of and giving reparations for historical injustices. Equity is often pushed in concert with two other concepts central to the implementation of Social Justice at an institutional level: diversity and inclusion, both of which are also Trojan-Horse terms that mean something more specific and different than what people tend to expect.
As is made evident by Sensoy and DiAngelo (above, and repeatedly throughout their book and DiAngelo’s other writings, among those of other Theorists), Social Justice is not just—or not even—a concept. It is a mindset and commitment to action, both in terms of internal soul-searching and in terms of social activism in the cause of Critical Social Justice. These it doesn’t ask for but demands.
Being an activist and taking up a “lifelong commitment to an ongoing process” of soul-searching (“engaging positionality”) are minimum baseline requirements for Social Justice. This is often phrased as being a commitment to “self-reflection, self-critique, and social activism” (see also, antiracism). These lifelong commitments are where Social Justice begins, not where it ends. Further, one cannot opt out. As they often say, there is no neutrality. One can either side with Critical Social Justice—that is, become woke—or side with oppression. You must take sides, and only their side is acceptable (see also, right side of history and cancel). Furthermore, you can never stop: “no one is ever finished,” they admonish. One may notice that this tends to make Critical Social Justice look rather like a godless faith, and that’s more or less precisely what it is.
Ableism; Antiracism; Cancel; Cisnormativity; Cissexism; Consciousness raising; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Cultural Marxism; Disability studies; Disableism; Dismantle; Disrupt; Diversity; Dominance; Empowerment; Equality; Equity; Exclusion; False consciousness; Fat studies; Fatphobia; Gender; Gender studies; Justice; Hegemony; Heteronormativity; Homophobia; Human nature; Identity; Identity-first; Identity politics; Ideology; Inclusion; Individualism; Injustice; Intersectionality; Liberalism; Marginalization; Marxian; Matrix of Domination; Media studies; Melting pot; Meritocracy; Oppression; Neo-Marxism; New Left; Position; Positivism; Postcolonial Theory; Post-Marxism; Postmodern; Poststructuralism; Privilege; Problematic; Progressive; Race; Racism (systemic); Radical; Revolutionary; Right side of history, the; Queer Theory; Safety; Science; Sex; Sexism (systemic); Sexuality; Social construction; Social constructivism; Structuralism; Subversion; System, the; Systemic power; Theory; Thinnormativity; Universalism; Ways of knowing; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Lemisko, Lynn. “Unpacking Presuppositions for Social Justice.” In Educator to Educator: Unpacking and Repacking Generative Concepts in Social Studies, Todd A. Horton and Lynn Lemisko (eds.). Sense Publishers, 2015, pp. 193–194.
What is meant by the term ‘social justice’? Why have we added the word ‘social’ to the concept ‘justice’? Is there some fundamental difference between the notion of ‘justice’ and the notion of ‘social justice’? If citizens of a democracy are expected to uphold personal rights and freedoms while actively upholding the rights and freedoms of everyone, is the embracing of democracy not enough ensure ‘social justice’?
To the last question posed above, my simple answer is: “No”. While I think that democracy does encompass the notion of justice, I also think that the idea of democracy, with its requisite focus on the right of each citizen to have voice in public decision-making, is mostly about ‘individual justice’ rather than ‘social justice’. While citizens of in a democracy need to uphold personal rights and freedoms as well as actively upholding the rights and freedoms of everyone, I call this ‘reciprocal’ justice – that is, a kind of justice which involves the idea ‘I uphold your rights and freedoms and in turn you uphold mine’. I have no problem with this kind of reciprocity, but I do not think this is what social justice is about.
If democracy is about individual rights (justice for individuals), then social justice is about group rights (justice for groups). And for me there is a fundamental difference between the general notion of justice and the notion of social justice. While each person in a democracy like Canada may well have protection for her/his personal rights and freedoms, this protection of individual rights does not actually ensure that an individual will receive just treatment. This is because there continues to be inequity in the treatment of people related to their group associations, including race, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic class, abledness, sexual orientation, and so on. So, although individual rights are protected under the law, the upholding of these rights is not evenly distributed. White people, wealthy people, and heterosexual people are more likely to experience favourable treatment as compared to people of colour, poor people or gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-gendered people. Because of the imbalance in power among social groups, the protection of individual rights does not ensure justice for the members of particular social groups. This is what social justice is about. Social justice includes the understanding that protections of individual rights and freedoms is not enough. Social justice requires understanding of notions of ‘collective’ rights and freedoms – of believing that we must ensure that everyone receives just treatment, no matter to which groups individuals belong.
Social justice requires that citizens have both a sense of ‘reciprocal’ justice and a sense of justice; this includes taking an active role in reducing harm to or exploitation of others by confronting the societal power structures (stories and discourses) which reify or normalize status quo hierarchies. Social justice in a democracy requires that ‘the people’ learn to critique authority, engage in well-reasoned public discourses and nurture a sense of justice that encourages active participation in public decisions that challenge and change societal institutions, systems, and ways of thinking that are unjust. Hence, social justice requires ‘social action’ and is, therefore, a ‘generative’ concept – generative of transformative societal change.
Revision date: 2/24/20