Social Justice 101

Social Justice from Classroom to Community [Me] – Pattanayak Saswat – @ 04:28:25
T oday was the day for Social Justice from Classroom to Community. At least in my campus. Organized by the office I work with.
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The event was meant to be the last of the sessions where a couple of hundred students went through what we call Intergroup Dialogue Programs. This was of course meant to demonstrate how to implement the learning in the community setting. Students had vindicated the findings in a short video film I had made to showcase the students interviews which was screened in the morning. So it was a good afternoon with good attendance with a good speaker and good three panelists.

What could have gone wrong?

The purpose itself. Was the name SJCC sounding too good to be true? Some were confident social justice was possible. But the dilemma remained: social justice for whom? For the marginalized is the obvious.

Now the next sword hanging: the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community is marginalized today and so also is the Jewish community. The Black people are still on the sideline and the women still face the wrath. The Muslims are a minority and the multiracials are the misunderstood. Immediately comes to mind well over a dozen marginalized groups. In the USA, that is. Elsewhere in the world the marginalized people have different characteristics. For example in India it takes a converted Christian to be marginalized. But the speaker of the day, a brilliant orator, a lawyer that he is, continued the trend of public debate in the country and ended with a thumping note: We must work together for social justice in the USA and make America the greatest country on earth. In spirit, the responsibilities of students did not entail them to think beyond the US of America. Isn’t it an irony that the people who can affect most to the world situation (mostly because the world situation has been aggravated by their country’s foreign policies) are always honed to be concerned about their country. That’s the beauty of both the democrats and republicans, of the speakers at the universities and the churches: God bless America. The rest of the world can go to hell.

In contrast I recollect lectures by so called Indian ‘nationalistic’ leaders ranging from Nehru to Vajpayee who have religiously left notes for how to make the ‘world a better place’. In all our morning lecture sessions at school we were praying for the world, for all religions in the world, for peace throughout the world. It seems a completely different set of narrations, as I clearly recall. Don’t know what India gained from it, except for the notion that the welfare of India was dependant on the peace for all people on the earth, not just one country or the other. The slogan ‘vasudeva kutumbakam’ has been used by many a corporate entities to imply that the entire world is one family. Of course in retrospect, one can assume that Indian companies also wanted to spread out to the world to do business (which they have failed to). But all in all, the third world population was more lectured on the social justice in the world whereas the American population (in EVERY single presidential debate, every state university addresses and every telecast speech by the political and business leaders) was lectured on how God should bless America.
The diversion in my line of comment was on purpose.
The important question of social justice has a radical component. Which is, to go back to the roots and understand what we have been. But that’s just a component. And unlike many view, this is not even the first component. There’s quite a bit of chaos needed in analyzing how to lead social justice movement. First component is not in recognizing what we are by our unique socio-cultural roots. This is an essential component in writing a history book, not in leading the future. Rather the first component in achieving social justice is to define social injustice itself.

Social injustice may be portrayed by definition, as a collective feeling that the movements/developments in the world are becoming counterproductive to the progress. Remember the word world in this context. The world as a big family in this case, of course. To take Thatcher out of context, it would translate thus: there is nothing called society. There are just families.
A highly individualistic conservative Thatcher factor can indeed be revisited if we want to understand the concept of ‘family’ vis-à-vis society. The Bush conservatism is no different from the Tina. And no matter how much we crave God to bless America and make America the best place, it will simply not happen. The reason being, the God in question is the Christian God here, not a Muslim or Hindu God. Because apparently elsewhere the Gods of other varieties are protesting through ‘their’ people’s violences.

No ma’am, no sir, the world is not composed of several different social justices. What of the lowest socio-economic status which indeed is representative of the majority of people in the world. They are not marginalized. They are just unheard. They just don’t own the media. No voluntary organizations. No non-profit sector. They don’t become members of the boards of directors of any organization meant for their welfare. There are no organizations for the poor. For, if there indeed will be, all other divisions will be obsolete.

For the real question here is economical existence, not a cultural identity. As I said going back to roots is not the first of the social justice components.

Defining the social injustice is the first.

The poor who will never get to read what I am writing here is still sans a home. For him/her the question of identity will come much later. Or it may never come. For teeming millions are starkly unaware of the identities and their intersectionalities. It sounds un-academic in spirit. It conveys an insincere tone in the politically incorrect sense. But the reality is millions more people suffer from social injustices from the fact that they are economically downtrodden. Their names dont have surnames and they event dont remember their dates of births, let alone any other identities.

Well said, but how about the other ‘complexities’. Is poverty a result by itself or is it induced by several other interactions? Such as race and gender and caste and sects and tribes and languages and nationalities and geographic locations?
Back to social justice.

Yes for sure, I agree that there are several intersections. There are layers of realities which constitute the poor. A minority poor lives harsher life than the majority poor.
But in an average of less than a hundred years that we all live on the planet (much less in many other locations of the world), we cannot do it all. We cannot study it all and act it all. We cannot let people grapple with their identities and wage a historical war with their other counterparts and still think of solving the life-death dilemma of countless others.
We have seen less than a hundred mass-scale revolution. Hundred is a good number to play with. Because it signifies, large but not large enough a number. Has every movement failed. Can’t say for sure. But has one succeeded in solving the misery? Can say for sure that none has.

There is a course for the future. Lets call it Future Course 101:
Let’s acknowledge that there is a divide. Call the divide by many names. But mostly lets call it economic. Why? Well, lets see. There are 48 more billionaires this year, according to the Forbes, which ironically quizzes its readers to see if they have got it what it takes to be billionaire (what it misses out on are traits like manipulation, muscle and motivation to be greedy!). Put the wealth of only the world billionaires together (only 467 people!!!) and their worth is $1.9 trillion, which is much more than the GDP of the entire United Kingdom. Of course the US alone has more than 60% of the billionaires of the world. And nay, the rest are not very well distributed over the world!


Well, the bottomline is what Forbes headlines its article in February 2004 issue as “The Rich Get Richer”. In its March issue, Tim Ferguson writes that “Here are 12 largest countries, by population, with no known private billionaires. We cheekily call them “deprived,” and in a sense they are: Any modern economy that does not produce at least one huge fortune is, almost by definition, not creating the kind of wealth that is the earmark of a prosperous society.”


Prosperous “society”?
In Ferguson’s defamed list are countries like Sudan, Congo, Ethiopia, Egypt, Nigeria and of course Vietnam. He did not mention China, though. China is making private progress in collaboration, you see.

Another article titled “In praise of inequality”, says “a disparity of income and wealth is good for us, as long as people can move up the ladder”! Of course “us” must have been the “US” in the mind of Nigel Holloway, the author.

That’s the only family, remember. The American homogenous family. Some in the family are not Americans of course, they are either African-Americans, Asian-Americans, or the Hispanics and Latinos and, hold on, the Indian-American (who’s afraid of the natives anyway?). No one gets more correct politically than the sensitized American torchbearer of human identity. One that forgets to call its own race as European-American.

God bless America. Only the Americans.

Now before we diverge to another debate altogether one last proud quote from Holloway: “The income gap is greater in the US than in Japan, but its easier in America to amass a fortune.” I agree.

A country of celebrities, people who are respected because they have wealth! I remember in India we abhorred the landlords and moneylenders because they had wealth and respected our poor school teachers who came by bicycles because they had knowledge. Of course things are changing now, the American way. Now India has respect for criminals-industrialists just because they have ‘amassed wealth’ the American way. So that the rest of us can discuss why the late industrialists’ sons had a family squabble and how one bride owns an art gallery. Food for depraved thought.

Indians will soon have their People magazine (Hint! Hint! Time-Warner).

Now lets talk about the historical roots of the movements against social injustice. Of course we know of the Robin Hood. Lets focus on the last fifty years. Fifty is an interesting number. Not recent, but not much far away either.
Movements of social justice have its roots in peoples. Peoples of the world who have waged revolutions to overthrow existing forms of governments to bring in equitable distributions of wealth. The experiments have succeeded many a times. What perplexes me most is the usual debate over the failure of socialistic economies everywhere. I wonder when at least forty percent of the world embraced communism and let it run for at least ten years (most conservatively) to eliminate the private wealth and ensure equitable distributions of wealth, did we stand by the idea of social equality?

Did we ever try to locate solutions in the wealth distributions when such a process was in force? We sang in praise of ‘democracy’ and almost ‘installed’ democracy as though it were a licensed software even without recollecting to best of minds if there were ever a period of at least ‘ten years’ when democracy has been successful in any part of the world? With vote-scams, selective disenfranchisements, and snobbish ban on ‘immigrant’ (hello, who is this one?) rights to votes, we run a democracy. With a lack of political diversity, we talk of social diversity. To evade the real issue of economic inequality we are talking of a ballot democracy where people are so sensitized about their problems that all they think of is their own fatherland. Where folks have no idea that foreign relations are important enough because countries may be foreign, but issues of economics are not.

Social justice needs to meet a common ground in order to succeed. And that common ground today, as it was five hundred years back as well, is that of economic disparity. Once the economically backward people are organized to call an end to private amassment of wealth which rightfully belong to everyone in the planet on an equal level or none-at-all level, social justice will have well begun.

We have lost opportunities to stand by the people who have been in the struggles to put an end to inequality. Instead we gloat in favor of inequality. And to bring home the point, the social justice drumbeats in the US (which only focuses on the ‘national groups’) are played by the institutional frameworks of private concerns. Ford Foundation comes to mind. Well played. Well played.

Before we all have been played out and enacted our last acts of pretensions that we are progressing where all we have been doing is moving in a myopic direction, before we all in the line of similar thinking act radically differently owing to our own preoccupations of identity crises, before we drop dead thinking that our life was worth living since we fought the entire life for our human dignity of being respected because we have a unique background than others, before we realize the reason why diversity might replace unity, before all that, we need to curb all differential thoughts and ask to ourselves what Gandhi had said long back in his talisman to the “world”: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.

We got to watch our step. It has to be in direction of the world progress. Of international movement of the working class poor. The step which will proclaim that we can live happily only if we ALL can live happily. Lets call one denominator for the time being, my friend. That of economic equality. And stand by all the people who are trying at it. Lets stand by the striking workers of the world who demand higher wages. Stand by the rising teachers of the world who want permanent positions. Stand by the protesting students of the world who want no more tuition hikes. And stand by the resenting labor force in the third world who are tired of working in the sweat shops.

I am reminded of the wonderful speech made by the director of my office, where she quoted Marcos in the poem mentioned below-with context:
Some time ago, in an attempt to discredit one of the Zapatista leaders in southern Mexico, Sub-comandante Marcos, government officials there tried to put forth the idea that Marcos was gay. In a region where machismo still runs strong, it was hoped this would tarnish the leader’s credibility.

Marcos responded by writing a poem:
“Yes, Marcos is gay. Marcos is gay in San Francisco Black in South Africa an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10pm a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains.
“Marcos is all the exploited, marginalised, oppressed minorities resisting and saying `Enough’. He is every minority who is now beginning to speak and every majority that must shut up and listen. He is every untolerated group searching for a way to speak. Everything that makes power and the good consciences of those in power uncomfortable – this is Marcos.”

[From Social Justice E-Zine #27.]

To stand by the social justice is to define it. To define it is to know that it has several layers. Almost as many as innumerable. An environment of family conservatism makes girls in India become victims to child sexual abuse which can be translated as social unjust stance. An environment of ‘sexual liberation’ makes the young in the US become victims of the largest pornography industry in the world. Yes Marcos, is right. Its marginalized all over.

But they are not in the minorities anymore. Add “every exploited, marginalized and oppressed minorities resisting” together and we have the majority in the world. Because most of us cannot afford to be decent enough to be called civilized anymore. The most of us who are poor and cannot afford to buy clothes and those of us who are otherwise minorities but know how to dress the rich have to find the connection. To look at the mirror and ask as MJ asks: I’ve Been A Victim Of/ A Selfish Kind Of Love/It’s Time That I Realize/That There Are Some With No Home, Not A Nickel To Loan/Could It Be Really Me/ Pretending That They’re Not Alone?

All of us are marginalized in some way. But lets not forget the privileges of the marginalized. And that is, to turn against the tide. And today’s tide is that of the capitalistic notion of development. Within that tide, some of us may be co-opted, used and abused. We better be careful and organize. That’s what they are afraid of. We are no more the minorities. United we stand and we are the majority in the world. Just a helping hand to end the mindless competition, just an empathizing mindset to know how the Congo lives (instead of ridiculing it for having failed to produce a billionaire!) and a firm step forward, without remorse, without attachment, without recollections of the selfish loves, to end the saga which exploits.
It has to begin with the mirror..


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