What is Social Justice.?

I went to a funeral the day before yesterday. It was of a person who had died suddenly and much younger than is usual but our friendship, born of being fellow students at one stage in our disparate lives, was a thirty year long one. She left behind a young child but her large family of origin, despite their shock, distress and sorrow, provided a funeral full of memories we would all like to envisage leaving when we die. They are an extraordinary family.

The next day I had to attend a meeting. This should have been uplifting, as it generally is, as it was of an inspiring group of wonderful people wanting social justice for all. But we came to a point of having to define the details of what “social justice” means and encompasses for this group.

This is not easy. Instead of focussing on positives this funeral and the meeting has left me querying the notion of “social justice” and how strongly we each look at the definition through our individual prisms. The deceased, in the profession we shared in which we had to focus on the care of children facing difficulties, was a very kind, good woman. She, however, had grown up in an area which had a reputation for less affluence and she had always spoken in defence of those who needed help, citing her greater knowledge of the problems based on her disadvantaged upbringing than some of we fellow students, like me, whom she viewed as coming from more affluent and thus more privileged backgrounds.

Meeting her family en mass, as I did at her funeral, made me realise that she had privileges she did not acknowledge. She had a large supportive family, who were very thoughtful, intelligent encouraging and forgiving and whose younger members had gone on to work in areas with successes that most in the community would envy.

My late husband was similar. He viewed his background as quite underprivileged. I found it difficult to distinguish, in both cases, this rear vision from a very personal aspect which changes differences into a lack of privilege and negates the positives. One can often see this in public figures, such as politicians, who cite some misfortune in their lives as giving insight into disadvantage and inequity. And none of us are going to have identical lives.

We have to be careful of our own personal standpoints and, perhaps, biases.

And this is what we face in definition of “social justice”. We can all be hidebound, as well as informed, by our particular life experiences and outlooks.

One of these categories that needs no help in definition is that of asylum seekers. Two men in their nineties talked to me about this only last week when we were discussing refugees with a group of older men. These two, one from Hungary and one from Italy, both of whom have been in Australia since they were nineteen years old, expressed the following sentiments. No one chooses to become a refugee and leave their country, their extended families, their language and traditions lightly. It is because they cannot be safe, or they cannot feed their children and/or keep them safe. Most people love their country and going somewhere else is a journey filled with fear, doubt and sorrow and is only taken when the person feels there is no safe or sensible alternative. The idea of “economic refugees” is often cited by those arguing against our responsibilities,, but not to be able to keep your children safe and well is surely more that a mere “economic” issue.

This has been complicated for me by the fact that our country has always been very racist. I can remember very powerful incidents since I was a child in the fifties and lived in a multi-racial town. It has not improved very much and I get very annoyed when people try to allege Australia has ever been “welcoming”. I am old enough to remember the “Dictation Test” which was not removed until 1958. How can we do more to eradicate Australian racism visible on the Central Coast? Therefore from my personal bias and lived experience I would very much like some emphasis on education for our local communities.

But we have another anomaly to address here? Should our help for refugees be focussed world wide, or on the areas where Australia is responsible for those who seek asylum here and does so badly? How much funding should go to individuals in trouble or on the changing  in thinking of our community and thus our government?

Moving into other issues that are also clearly areas social inequalities and disadvantages it becomes even more difficult.

The plight of our Indigenous people is a topic many of us would like to address soon, particularly in light of the refusal of the government to agree to what seems to many to be the reasonable “Uluru Statement”. But again should the support be one of community education and government lobby or personal help?

Disability is another issue. Again we have some clear cut examples. But we have a government which does have in place a system which claims to provide for the disabled and surely the aim of this group and others on this and other comparable issues must be more lobbying of governments so that this support is fair and adequate rather than raising money to helping paste over holes in this system. We, the taxpayers, rely far to much on the government’s preference to keep our taxes low, to fund the less than adequate outsourcing in some of these areas and to rely on charities for help. Is financially aiding this disgraceful behaviour by a charitable donation a help or a not for profit organisation a help or a hindrance to real social equity for the disabled?

On the other hand can we, as individuals (or as a group) stand by and see individuals in difficulties without helping?

One of the members of our group mentioned the need to include environmental issues as a social justice issue. This surely must be a clear one. If we look merely at the future of our children and grandchildren this should be enough to see an intergenerational social justice. But added to this is the fact that our government is negatively impacting on these issues by supporting institutions which add to climate change and handing out subsidies to support outdated methods of supplying/growing food when their are droughts (and floods on occasions). It is hard to see how this is not a clear cut social justice issue which needs lobbying and public awareness support.

One member of the group suggested that one of the aims for the group could be “to facilitate social cohesion and harmony”. No one could disagree with that. Just the concept raises the spirit. And it will take funds to set up meetings/ teaching opportunities to do this.

From these early morning ramblings I think I can see a path for my own thinking.

I would like to work with the over arching goal to change opinions and attitudes of our community and government and move towards social justice in Australia. But on the way we can sometimes give priority, perhaps triggered from our own or someone else’s insights and lived experiences, of actual help to groups and individuals. But only if we can make some lasting difference. Not just to make us feel better.

A quote from an article from the “National Pro Bono Resource Centre” on the topic says “The concept of Social Justice involves finding the optimum balance between our joint responsibility as a society and our responsibility as individuals to contribute to a just society.”

Now I am left with another difficult question, “What is the optimum balance?”



About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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