As I started to write something for World Day of Social Justice, I found myself in trouble. Not because I don’t believe in the importance of social justice, but because the term is related to the now pejorative “social justice warrior” – a term that invites fear, skepticism and ridicule.
The “social justice warrior” once referred to people involved in social justice activism, before being used as a slur on Twitter, then adopted by the right and online trolls as a way to belittle anyone with progressive views.
The term’s negative connotations became widespread due to the 2014 Gamergate controversy, where male gamers harassed, doxxed, and threatened women while claiming to care about “ethics in gaming journalism”. The sad saga has been described as a culture war over the diversification of video games. Thanks to those who participated in Gamergate’s online harassment campaign, the term “social justice warrior” is now shorthand for someone blindfolded, boring, and self-indulgent.
But since it’s World Social Justice Day, let’s get back to basics. Justice means justice or fairness. Social justice is fairness as it manifests in society and relates to human rights – such as your right to life, your right to a fair trial and your right to liberty and security. It’s about access to basics like housing, food and education, and it’s about being able to participate in society and have your voice heard. It is also about tackling the inequalities rooted in our socio-economic and political structures, keeping people around the world poor and marginalized.
Here is what the UN says: “Social justice can be understood broadly as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth. For me, compassion is the key word here. A society based on principles of compassion, free from exploitation, wealth grabbing and prejudice seems to be something we should strive for.
Responding to the concept of social justice – or the people who work in it – with contempt seems counterintuitive. Why wouldn’t you want to contribute to the realization of a fairer world for all? And why shouldn’t those dedicated to eradicating poverty and inequality be worthy of our respect?
Social justice is good for all of us. From benefits to the individual (our inalienable human rights), benefits to nation states (think of our NHS which is, at its core, a great social justice project) to wider global benefits (the equity of vaccines that would give us a fighting chance to beat the Covid), social justice is vital so that everyone can live in dignity.
The greatest challenges facing humanity – the climate crisis and Covid-19 – clearly demonstrate the need for global strategies based on principles of social justice.
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Unfortunately, the promotion of human dignity and decency is not always viewed sympathetically or accurately. Think about how the adjective “woke,” which basically means you are aware of unjust issues, is now being used, or the fear and misinformation surrounding major movements like Black Lives Matter.
Social justice is still a revolutionary idea because we do not yet live in a world free of poverty or inequality. Not surprisingly, those with an interest in maintaining the status quo do not support it. They profit from income inequality, exploitative work practices and unearned privileges. Why would they want to change?
So be honest with yourself: what intrigues you about social justice? Are you comfortable with the suffering directly caused by poverty and prejudice? Do the efforts of people who promote fairness and justice make you feel inadequate? Or is it frightening to think that some form of privilege you enjoy could one day come to an end?
A fairer world would improve all of our lives, except for a few men so obscenely, unimaginably rich that they spend money on space travel. Speaking of Jeff Bezos, the vast majority of us are more likely to be homeless than to become space billionaires.
Social justice is vital to the health of the global community, to the flourishing of each individual. On reflection, being a “social justice warrior” sounds pretty good, actually.