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  • Beryl Aidi

Social Justice: Progress for good, a pie in the sky, or something else?

Updated: Feb 22


Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street,Canton  Photo by Jason Sung|Unsplash


Fairness, livable wage, access to good housing, healthcare and a right to participate are all good things anyone would be happy to have. These are just some of the issues social justice addresses.

 

According to the Human Rights Careers website, “Justice is the concept of fairness. Social justice is fairness as it manifests in society. That includes fairness in healthcare, employment, housing, and more.”

 

So, ideally social justice is a concept that helps correct the imbalances and excesses in a society that predisposes certain groups and individuals to adversity.

 

It therefore implies that building a fairer and more equitable society sounds like a noble thing all societies should aspire to, right? Wrong.

 

Not everyone believes in pursuing social justice. At least not by the sentiments of those who view it as a leftist ideology that only serves to cause economic stagnation. Some of the loudest voices opposed to social justice, most of whom are evangelical Christians and generally mostly right leaning groups, lump it together with everything wrong with progressive policies they don’t like.

 

But why is social justice such a divisive issue? And most of all, why are Christians who are supposed to be pious and driven by compassion opposed to social justice? After all, social justice  runs on the idea that with a just and more fairer society extreme poverty can be eradicated.  

 

I may not get it, however, in the society that I live in, I’ve began to see signs of cracks between the more privileged versus the underprivileged with the introduction of government affordable housing programs. And there could be an explanation to this.

 

I bet many of us have seen the meme that shows the difference between equality and equity that has been doing the rounds on the internet. No doubt, the meme has been useful in understanding these concepts that are frequently thrown around. Round about 2013, I saw the meme and shared it with my colleagues from the Equality and Non-Discrimination team as food for thought. The other colleagues from the Economic Rights and Social Justice took note and used it in their training materials.

 


 Explaining rather humorously how the meme came about, business professor Craig Froehle, shares numerous renditions of the meme while attempting to explain the difference between equality, fairness, justice and equity. As I looked at a plethora of different renditions, I noticed something I had been missing.

 



Original Equity Meme as seen on the WIRED Image | Craig Froehle


While Froehle humorously shares about the various additions or improvements on his original illustration, he also mildly takes issue with a couple of the renditions that added the boxes needed to achieve equity. Here, the problem is that achieving equity and fairness seems to send a message of needing more resources which in turn is highly demanding. Aha! Achieving equity, justice and fairness puts a strain on resources, so maintaining the status quo does not harm those who are already fine and we don’t get taxed more to support the underprivileged. Fair enough, or maybe not.

 

In the original illustration, a box was taken from the tall individual who had a box and didn’t need it and was given to the short one who needed a boost in order to see over the fence and see the match. So, this corrects the concept of equality by applying the principle of equity. Those who already have enough resources do no need to be given the same resources as those who are disadvantaged. On the surface, this looks like taking from those who do not have challenges to boost the most disadvantaged ones. And therein lies the conservatives’ problem!

 

In a heavily capitalist society, this looks unfair. Perception is everything! The short guy also just wants to see the match like everyone else, but if you take from the guy with a lot to boost the short guy, the guy with a lot sees unfairness, despite his already advantaged height! This is what conservatives perceive as the problem. The government is creating scarcity with its social programs by giving special attention, if you like, affirmative action, to the disadvantaged which is not fair to those who have worked so hard to get to where they are and this seems to be part of the reason some people would be opposed to social justice.

 

However, there is a school of thought that says, hey, if you removed all the barriers in the first place, we would have no resource problems. In other words, equity can be achieved by removing the barriers that deny access, participation and fairness. So if the government reduced the tariffs that drive up the cost of doing business such cost of buying land and cost of materials, then the programs would be less costly and perhaps it wouldn’t need to take from privileged or use unnecessarily more resources to meet its objectives. 

 

Posted to the University of Sydney's School of Physics web page: 2016 ORIGINAL SOURCE UNKNOWN


But it is not as simple as that. Froehle noted that in one of iterations, there were criticisms of the liberal illustration noting that the people behind the fence were just freeloaders who should have bought tickets to the game.


I suspect that this is the position and motivation for those opposed to social justice. Why can’t everyone just work hard for what they need instead of freeloading on people who work their behinds to get what they want?

 

Indeed, equity need not be resource intensive nor does it need to reward those who are already privileged. There is a weird phenomenon in Kenya which illustrates how equality is not usually justice. The Older Persons Cash Transfer Program ( for seventy and above) is a social protection program that is supposed to cushion old people without a source of income from extreme poverty and want.

 

The irony is that pensioners, some of whom have investments to boot and have an income much better than the average working class Kenyan, also receive these funds. This is totally unnecessary! This is one of the ways in equality becomes resource heavy and in the end doesn’t even achieve equity.

 

Elderly people being sensitized on the Older Persons Cash Transfer Program in Kenya Photo|Nation Media Group


The fact that social justice means everyone’s human rights are respected, protected, and promoted, is probably a reason many far right conservatives find it a repulsive concept given that it takes into account not just respecting and protecting but also promoting the rights of everyone. That is scary if you are conservative. Implicit, in addition to seeking fairness for the less privileged, is the idea of promoting the sticky issues of sexual and reproductive rights and this might be a pill too bitter to swallow. The inclusive nature of social justice may be problematic but there is a higher calling to love the unlovable, whatever your definition of what  ‘love’ and the ‘unlovable’ is.

 

Ultimately, we each to have grapple with the idea that the more unequal the society gets, the less pleasant it is to live in. Your affluent neighborhood next to a ghetto isn’t any more secure than the ghetto because if there is no peace and security there, there will be no peace and security for all of us.

 

Even if we erect high walls with electric fences at the top to boot and add security cameras, we do not live in isolation. The immediate problems, difficulties and even danger the less privileged among us may not hit us but there is a ripple effect. Poor neighborhoods next to affluent ones bring the property values down. Poor public health systems mean you have dig deeper into your pockets or do difficult fundraising to access good health care when serious disease strikes.

 


Some solutions to these gaps do not need to be resource heavy. For instance, the gender pay gap that has negatively affected women can be addressed especially at the company or industry level. Governments need to address wastage and corruption that bleed out billions from different countries’ economies to provide for the necessary social services in order to protect, promote and fulfil the economic and social rights whose deprivation are some of the root causes of extreme poverty.

 





Acknowledge your privilege Photo by Jon Tyson|Unsplash


Is a more socially just society a pie in the sky impossible to achieve? Not really. Remember the tall guy on a box, just like the short guy? That sketch is also an illustration of greed, where the rich get richer when you try to give everyone the same resources.

 

Barriers such as greed, discrimination, prejudice and denial to access can be brought down and they do not have to be costly.

 

Countries that have adopted social protection policies and have tamed corruption have been able to achieve better outcomes for lives. This is possible, not utopian.

 

Sadly currently Mark Abraham’s iteration of Froehle's meme is the stark reality for most societies. 

 

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