Monday, March 31, 2008

Social justice Musings

This morning I woke up thinking about the impossibility of social justice in America. Really in the world. Since the concept of social justice as political or social movement was introduced to me I have had this uneasy intuition that something in it was amiss. And since I've come to learn over the years that my intuitions usually lead me in the right direction I've kept a safe intellectual distance from the subject. Meanwhile, many around me have wholeheartedly saddled themselves onto this horse and are riding it as far as it will take them (regardless of destination).

Aside from my remembrance of the inevitable failure of social cure-alls, which litter the byways of history, I think my suspicion of the social justice fix is also fueled by its seemingly unachievable and naive goal of dismantling "the system" which currently dominates America. Social justice seems to have trouble pinning down exactly what "the system" is so that in-and-of itself presents a problem. The closest thing that I have found to a clear presentation of "the system" is as a matrix of individuals, societies, and institutions cross-pollinated with the behavioral modes of actions, beliefs, and rounded out by intentionality and unintentionality. This melange of fields is said to explain how the system operates and as such constitutes "the system". But this is, by my reckoning (or more specifically in my experience), an incomplete rendering of the system. At best it is only how the system manifests itself, and not "the system" per se.

The system as matrix tells us, for example, that "the system" is a guy yelling racist epithets out of his car window as he drives by, or a white teacher treating a black student unfairly on the basis of his color, or the collusion between church and state to bar same-sex couples form official marriage. But this is not the system as I have experienced it. Sure, I have had security guards follow me in the supermarket or drugstore (just yesterday as a matter of fact), or I've experienced other actions (intended or not) that can be clearly identified as racist, but this is not the system expressing itself in its full force or glory. These are all ultimately actions perpetrated by individuals against prescribed law, or against commonly understood codes of decent human behavior. Yes, even the state exercising its authority to bar civilly recognized marriages between same-sex couples is less a social justice issue than one of civil justice and common human compassion and understanding.

"The system" in my experience is the filtering of all opportunities and measures of success or achievement through the narrow lens of a white, male, middle-class, christian (primarily of the protestant work-ethic variety) , hetero sexist, values and modes of being. Simply stated it is forcing a variety of cultural and social groups to be like them if they want to realize personal dreams or share in power, influence and/or material accumulation. The degree to which I advance is the degree to which I can mimic, or adopt "mainstream" values and modes of being.

It is more accurate, however, to see "the system" less as a white male phenomenon and more as the outcome of the Age of Enlightenment and Protestantism, (though the two things are inextricably linked). Recast or understood in this way we can begin to see how deeply ingrained "the system" is to the very operation of our country and how intertwined our values and modes of being are to the way things get done and are done in America. To put it plainly, we can no more overthrow or dismantle "the system" than overthrow or dismantle America. And though social justice advocates don't acknowledge this they reinforce it daily. My social justice boss, while railing against "the system", reinforces it every day with his insistence on hierarchy, and his expectations of "professionalism". He does not seem to connect these actions as inconsistent with his beliefs, because he views the system simply as a series of behaviors or only in its manifestations. He appears not to realize that the "equality" that he fights for is the equality of opportunity for others to be more like him, and not the possibility of differences (cultural and individual) to be accepted in-and-of themselves and held on equal par and given equal power and access. his is a social justice (like most of the social justice that I encounter) that is comfortable with difference up to the point that it does not interfere with getting things done. But what gets overlooked here is that so much of our life's work is about doing, and achievement, and to do and achieve in any society requires a common approach, a common philosophy, and common values, and those values are always set by the dominant power, which in our country at its founding was a group of white, christian (or christian influenced), landed gentry, males who were by and large steeped in Enlightenment philosophy and suspect social views concerning women, none-whites, and the poor. So much of what makes our country great (meaning what makes it work well) and what makes it horrible are so bound together that the work of disentanglement is virtually impossible. Certainly not through a single cure-all.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Weave weaver of the wind

Quantum mechanics, string theory, M-theory, all of these advanced physics concepts allude to the existence of multiple dimensions and multiple realities apart from the one we inhabit. We all seem to think (quite logically) that there is a particular reality that exists outside of us that we all partake of from the varying perspectives of our own singularity. Implicit in this view is that there is a singular truth we all have access to but sometimes misinterpret because we are seeing it from such radically different perspectives. But I would invite you to imagine that there is no particular reality but the ones we create individually, and that the common reality we experience is one constructed through our communion with one another. Perhaps we only come to know a shared world through our interaction and communication with one another. This might explain why so many people seem to have such varying accounts of what at first glance appears to be the same event. I am always amazed how stories get told, what is include and what is omitted. Its like the weaving of a tapestry, and the artist decides what parts are important to include and what parts are irrelevant. The picture changes dramatically depending on those choices. Sometimes 2 artists can depict the "same scene" and have those depictions appear to have no relation when viewed side by side. Maybe this explains how White slave owners truly believed that Black slaves were happy in their condition, and why they couldn't fathom why a slave might run away. Or why people on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum consistently interpret that same situation in nearly opposite ways. They are choosing to include and omit different pieces of information thus constructing alternate realities. And because there is no real communication between these constituencies no meaningful shared reality is constructed. So how can we, in the face of all of the evidence, believe there is a single solid reality in place. We are all Athenas, master weavers.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


detritus (dĭ-trī'təs)
Loose fragments, such as sand or gravel, that have been worn away from rock.
Matter produced by the decay or disintegration of an organic substance.

Detritus is the clearinghouse of ideas which amass on any given day. These are, generally speaking, unformed or unripened, or unrefined thoughts which occur to me in the midst of reflection. Detritus should never be taken too seriously.