The Social Justice You Don't Hear About

Social Justice is justice usually sought for at a distance. Supporting social justice involves advocating for equal rights for various groups and classes within a society. Ideally, it is motivated by a desire that a society provide conditions that allow all men and women to flourish.

But let’s face it: justice is much more comfortable when done at a distance. It is much easier to offer support – vocal, legislative, or financial – for justice at the collective, ideological, and faceless level. It is much more difficult to be consistently “just” to those we encounter on a regular basis.

Fyodor Dostoevsky reminds us of this difficulty in The Brothers Karamazov. At one point Ivan Karamazov says to his brother Alyosha, “I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those who live at a distance.” In another scene, Father Zossima recalls a doctor once saying to him, “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.”

The classic definition of justice is “rendering to each his due.” Justice presupposes that people have something “due” to them – that they have rights – and that we have knowledge of what is due to them and act accordingly. Theoretically, the better we know someone, the more likely we are to know exactly what is due to him or her. Humans have general needs, but they are also unique, and only those closest to individual men and women can know the particularities of what is and is not good for them.

It is both tragic and ironic, then, that we are less likely to be just to those around us. This has likely always been the case. It is said that “familiarity breeds contempt.” Familiarity also seems to breed injustice, as we are more likely to let down our guards with those we interact with frequently. These injustices with the familiar take familiar forms: saying unkind words to parents, losing our patience with our children, failing to return a friend’s phone call. It takes a lot of energy to exercise justice toward familiar faces with regularity – at least, at first. It is much easier for us to muster our forces of justice for the occasional stranger or distant object of charity.

But the atomization of society has seemingly made things worse. For much of human history, men and women have primarily identified themselves by their family, friends, and local community. Now, however, Americans primarily define themselves as individuals in relation to the larger society. As a result, the traditional relationships of family, friends, and community appear more dispensable, and we are less likely to worry about committing injustices within them.

Thus, social justice at a distance appears to be flourishing today. One can scarcely open a newspaper with seeing various calls for more freedom, equality, and rights for various groups. But justice at the more proximate levels appears to be suffering as evidenced by the decline and separation of the nuclear family and our impoverished notion of friendship.

The rub is that the justice of the larger society is a reflection of the justice that its members exercise toward one another on a daily basis. Social justice from afar is good, but only if complemented by acts of justice that are up close and personal. In other words, continue to strive for social justice, but don’t forget to be socially just to those around you, as well.