“What Did You Do During the Occupation, Daddy?”

A term that occasionally gets kicked around at this blog (and I can think of few terms more deserving of a good kicking) is “social justice.” Over at Legal Insurrection, Prof. Jacobson observes that

He who defines the terms, controls the debate.

There is no better example than “social justice,” a term which as defined by academia and the media means left-wing policies, setting conservatives back on their heels.  Who could be against “social justice”?

I figured that one out during my first run through grad school. A girlfriend told me she was joining a group called “Students for Peace and Justice.” I asked her if there was a campus group in favor of War and Iniquity. We split up not too long after.

Meanwhile, in the comments to my post a few days back about Lisa Gutierrez’s lecture, blogroll newcomer Huck (a thoughtful, civil blogger, even if we disagree) and I had a conversation in which I argued that good teaching is “social justice.” This is because I believe that the term in current usage is deceptive — true justice doesn’t require the adjective (e.g., rough or poetic justice, both of which terms are in fact concessions that our ideal justice is not being met). But let me put it another way.

Mondoville College is affiliated with a Lutheran denomination. Although that’s not my particular faith tradition, I’ll cheerfully syncretize bits of it. In that spirit, there’s a passage from Martin Luther that I like quite a bit, in which he argues that the Christian shoemaker isn’t the guy who carves crosses into the soles of the shoes he makes, but the one who makes good shoes and sells them at a fair price. Likewise, I believe I work for justice by teaching as passionately and honestly as I can, attempting to make my students’ lives a little more thoughtful and a little more beautiful, by trying to make sure that the words and ideas of people like Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare persist in another generation of heads. It’s not what everyone wants — and at $42K a year in my ninth year here, the market reflects that — but I’m doing it in case someone does. And something I also think is to the point, I’m not doing it as a means of colonizing anyone of a different heritage — I’m doing it because it’s cool stuff that I want to share.

And so, as I notice things like the “#OccupytheMiddleAges” hashtag on Twitter, I continue to do what I think is just: I make my shoes.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Literature, Medievalia, Politics, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to “What Did You Do During the Occupation, Daddy?”

  1. Huck says:

    All the adjective does is essentially define the environment in which we seek to contextualize the application of justice. For instance, household justice means enforcement of the rules of right and wrong in my home. Courtroom justice means whether or not a judge or jury throws our esteemed book of laws at a defendant. Battlefield justice is yet another way to modify the concept. We reserve the idea of divine justice as a way to make ourselves feel better when we think that someone has somehow gotten away with injustice in this world. And I could go on. Framing justice with such modifiers does not deny the fundamental agreement across all environments that it refers to living by a code of rights and wrongs; it just recognizes that there are nuances of right and wrong applicable in different contexts.

    Taking away my daughter’s cell phone privileges because she is spending too much time text-messaging her friends and not enough time studying her lessons (as evidenced by dropping grades) is, in a sense, a violation of her freedom. That’s why she would think of it as an injustice. But in our home, dem’s da rules: grades slip, cell phone goes bye-bye! Household justice.

    Likewise, social justice is just another way of thinking of the application of justice in the context of a range of social rights. What kind of injustice is it when a 9-year-old child voluntarily chooses to pick coffee beans with her parents, instead of attending school, so the family doesn’t starve? And why is that different than the injustice of using my parental authority to force my 9-year-old against her will to keep her room tidy? On the face of it, from the perspective of coercion and individual freedom, the latter actually seems more unjust while the former seems perfectly fine and dandy — unless we come up with a way to explain why the former is unjust and the latter is just. Hence the modifiers: social justice vs. household justice. By using those terms, we understand that the way right and wrong gets applied. It’s a useful differentiation to make because justice is nuanced by context.

  2. Huck says:

    Correction to my second-to-last sentence. It should read: “By using those terms, we understand that the way right and wrong gets applied varies.”

    • profmondo says:

      Even if I stipulate your usage point, the larger point above remains. And if “justice is nuanced by context”, isn’t that a short drive to Humpty-Dumpty’s nominalist assertion that a word means what he wants it to mean? Alternately, isn’t that just a means of making it a Weaverian God term, which is meant merely to short-circuit debate (see the “Students for Peace and Justice” episode I mentioned in the original post)?

      • Huck says:

        isn’t that a short drive to Humpty-Dumpty’s nominalist assertion that a word means what he wants it to mean?

        Not at all. Justice still, at its core, in all contexts, implies a system of rights and wrongs applicable to all. Penalizing a football player for giving a hug to an opponent on the field during play is “just” in that context. Penalizing the same player for giving a hug to an opponent when the game is over would be unjust. Same action, different context, universal agreement on what is just or unjust within each context. It’s not at all the kind of relativism that you seem to be hinting it tends towards.

        Social justice just acknowledges a social environment in which we agree to a system of rights and wrongs — hence the modifier — and then we hold ourselves accountable to that. For instance, let’s revisit my example above: would you agree that a 9-year-old voluntarily picking coffee beans with her parents instead of going to school is unjust? If so, why? I’d say it’s because we acknowledge that there is an objective system of rights and wrongs that governs the social environment regarding child labor, such that this is an injustice anywhere in the universe where this takes place. And if we acknowledge this, we are forced to do something about it. You may differ in your prescriptions for how to rectify this injustice than I might, but I don’t think it is at all out of order to modify this kind of injustice as a “social” one.

  3. Huck says:

    Also, Professor Mondo, I have been reflecting a bit more on the idea of “he who defines the terms, controls the debate.” It’s true. Though I can come up with a better example — and it’s much more insidious in its implications, too. That example is “patriotism.”

    The way modern conservatives have defined the term makes patriotism such that anyone who does not embrace conservative ideology is, de facto, unpatriotic. Look at the narratives surrounding President Obama. Just one example: his pragmatism and humility in foreign policy is derided as an “apology” thing. The whole idea of “real” America — patriotic America — obviously means conservative America. Here I am, fighting to reappropriate patriotism for myself and other liberals, and fighting against being defined as unpatriotic and, possibly, treasonous. Let’s just acknowledge the truth: if all one does is identify himself as a liberal in front of a conservative, that person’s patriotism is instantly suspect. And here you are, worried about liberals owning the idea of social justice and setting conservatives back on their heels. Pardon me if I’m not all that exorcised about this indignity.

  4. The Ancient says:

    “Would you agree that a 9-year-old voluntarily picking coffee beans with her parents instead of going to school is unjust?”

    Huck —

    Just when, why and how did it become “unjust” — instead of entirely common?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s