What Does Social Justice Mean?

How do we think and act on social justice?

How do we think and act on social justice?

Social justice is like the word beauty: We think we know what it means, but how do you define it? Feel it? Measure it?

Today we use the term social justice differently from its earliest permutation.

Typically we think of social justice as responses to repair injustices. For American Indians, social justice might refer to repatriation of bones and artifacts, recognition of tribal autonomy, and redistribution of wealth.

An illustration of a contemporary meaning of social justice is seen in the statement by the Secretary General of the United Nations, who notes nations “advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability” (Ban Ki-Moon).

The earliest record of social justice writing comes from a Jesuit philosopher, Luigi (Prospero) Taparelli d’Azeglio in 1843. But his sense of justice isn’t about actions we take.

Rather, d’Azeglio thought of social justice as a philosophical concept.

Social justice refers to the essential equality of people: “Social justice should therefore level all men in regard to the right given their humanity, since the Creator has equalized them by nature.”

Like Thomas Jefferson, d’Azeglio argues all men are created equal. When we compare one individual to another, however, humans are individually different: they are unequal.

Rather than heeding these individual differences, however, we should look at human beings in a macro sense, d’Azeglio suggests, and accept that we are all equal.

The starting point is one of philosophical and social equality.

Yet, in its application in North America, equality failed to include slaves, women and indigenous people.

As a result we are continually trying to catch up to the original definitions of social justice by smoothing over the inequalities that confront us all.

In effect, we have two concepts to wrestle to the ground.

One is Social justice, which I argue refers to the Jeffersonian notion that all human are equal.

The other definition invokes social Justice, wherein actions are applied to ameliorate injustices that have been suffered by individuals and groups.

Seems we’ve been playing political catch-up since settlers arrived, judging by attempts to repair what has been wrought by ignoring the very tenets that underpin the meaning of social justice.

Blog #15 for Native American Heritage Month

For more reading on social justice see the newly released book, Exploring Indigenous Social Justice (2014), J. Charlton Publishing, Ltd. Here’s the link: http://www.jcharltonpublishing.com/exploring_indigenous_social_justice.html

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
This entry was posted in Indian, Native Science, science, social justice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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