Social Justice is Rooted in Love, Not Shame

Josie Schuman, Op/Ed Editor

What is social justice? It’s an elusive concept, a buzzword at JCU and something the Jesuits seem to love. But, what exactly is it? Throughout my high school and college Jesuit education, I have taken numerous classes dedicated solely to the topic of social justice. I have even worked at a non-profit organization that advocates for a number of social justice issues. Yet, I still struggle to come up with a definition for the term when asked. 

Sometimes, the best way to define something is to first determine what it is not. I believe that the term “social justice” has garnered a bad reputation in recent years, especially due to the rise of “social justice warriors.” While social justice activism involves working for the common good, many “social justice warriors” have distorted this idea by adopting an overly aggressive approach. 

According to a Washington Post article about the evolution of the term, “social justice warrior” was popularized when it was first used as an insult on Twitter in 2011 to describe people with socially progressive views. This definition gained more speed after the Gamergate scandal of 2014, which centered on the role of women in the gaming industry. Those who held progressive views regarding the inclusion of women and people of color in the gaming sphere were resentfully labeled “social justice warriors,” in an attempt to undermine their credibility.

An Urban Dictionary entry published around the same time took this definition one step further: “a pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.”

Another Urban Dictionary entry paints a picture of a “social justice warrior” by describing a hypothetical Karen: “I understand and respect that Karen is a vegan, but every time we go out to eat, she calls me a monster for eating meat. She constantly talks about how ‘she is saving the world’ by being vegan.”

I am saddened by the way that people have distorted the term “social justice” by conflating it with so-called “social justice warriors” as defined above.  Advocating for social justice should not involve shaming people for the way they live, and it does not entail converting everyone to one lifestyle or set of beliefs. As evidenced by the internet backlash, people are not receptive to full-frontal attacks on their identities. 

Rather than empowering people to make a change, the dramatic approach to social justice espoused by so-called “social justice warriors” makes people feel attacked, judged and shamed. It undermines the very purpose of social justice activism.

Anne Marie Bonneau, creator of the Zero-Waste Chef blog, promotes social justice by reducing the amount of waste she produces in the kitchen. “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly,” she said. Although Bonneau refers specifically to environmental justice, I believe her words apply to social justice as a whole.

When we shame people for the ways in which they do not live out social justice, we demotivate them from enacting the very changes that have the power to uplift those on the margins of society — the ultimate goal of social justice. If no one believes they can make a difference, no one is going to try, and no change will be made. On the flip side, those who try to single-handedly take on the whole burden of social justice may find themselves burnt out before any change can occur.

While immediate social transformation would be fantastic, and is needed, it is not realistic. Not many people, myself included, are ready to completely uproot their lives because a “social justice warrior” told them to. Forcing people to do this, and shaming those who don’t, is unfair and counterproductive. 

We must recognize that every fair trade item we purchase, every plastic straw we turn down and every time we ask about someone’s preferred pronouns, change is being made. Therefore, rather than ridiculing someone for not eating vegan, we should applaud their choice to eliminate red meat from their diet.

I acknowledge that navigating a balance in approaching social justice is difficult. In some cases, it is necessary to use radical words and actions in order to call people’s attention to injustice, shocking them out of their bubbles. However, we still must be respectful and sensitive to other people’s lifestyles and beliefs, or we risk isolating those who desire to work toward a similar goal.

One common way that people work for justice on JCU’s campus, and many Jesuit universities, is through immersion trips. These domestic or international experiences are meant to promote social justice through firsthand encounters with people’s history, culture and social realities.

After participating in one of these immersion trips, my friend explained that, rather than feeling inspired to fight for social change, she felt motivated to spread the love she discovered in Ecuador. Although she experienced a completely legitimate response, my friend felt ostracized and shamed by others who demanded that the only valid reaction to the immersion experience was a fiery passion for social justice. 

My friend may not have felt compelled to knock on the doors of the Oval Office, but she still developed a thorough understanding of the political, social and economic situation in Ecuador, which motivated her to act with love. What’s wrong with that?

While social justice does involve examining the root of social ills by critiquing power structures that perpetuate racist, classist and sexist ideologies, it is also rooted in love — an idea that many people forget. 

Hanging on the door of a Campus Ministry office, a quote by clergyman and activist William Sloane Coffin Jr. reads, “Compassion and justice are companions, not choices.” Justice and love are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are intrinsically intertwined. When we fail to acknowledge this, we risk devolving into extremist “social justice warriors” who mindlessly complain without a cause and thus bring down those working for positive social change. 

While some work for justice by protesting at Capitol Hill, others work for justice by serving people within the local community. Both types of action are needed for the other to be successful. Both types of action contribute to change. 

Rather than referring to Urban Dictionary, I invite you to consider my definition of social justice, which is one that uplifts rather than shames, includes rather than ostracizes, and aims to accomplish radical social change through the contributions of all people, whatever they may be.