“Social justice” is an increasingly popular yet disturbingly slippery term. The phrase serves as a rallying cry for a diverse collection of groups; soup kitchens, tax reform advocates and everyone in between seem to jump at the label. The diversity of those on the social justice train certainly does not help define the term, but it does present fundamental challenges that should make thoughtful people nervous.
One of the best exemplars of social justice’s complex diversity is Yale’s Dwight Hall. Dwight Hall’s mission is “to foster civic-minded student leaders and to promote service and activism in New Haven and around the world.” It is a self-described non-partisan “Center for Public Service and Social Justice” that includes a fraternity, the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition. Dwight Hall’s Social Justice Network has member groups that include the union-backing Undergraduate Organizing Committee. (The actual relationship between Dwight Hall and the member groups of its Social Justice Network is somewhat fuzzy and likely in transition.)
Dwight Hall’s missions of “service” and “activism” certainly don’t help to clear up the “social justice” ambiguity. “Service” usually refers to concrete, uncontroversial, charitable action by private actors. “Activism” describes persuasive activities aimed at affecting public action — usually for controversial goals. These two seem to be conceptually different activities, and the ambiguity created by lumping the two together is worrisome.
On a surface level, there may be something appealing and intuitive about the social justice model of joining progressive advocacy and charitable service. Those involved in both sorts of initiatives try to help the poor, establish equity and solve fundamental problems in society.
Furthermore, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between consensus supported service and partisan advocacy. Is legal representation for the indigent advocacy? Is protecting an individual’s civil rights all that different from helping her stave off foreclosure? Is reproductive education advocacy? What about abstinence education? Is advocacy for action on genocide or LGTBQ rights not a consensus issues on this campus?
This perspective is certainly valid. Of course there are borderline cases where service and advocacy seem to blend together, and of course there are some causes with broad local support despite their political nature. Nevertheless, the intermingling of service and advocacy is a fundamentally counterproductive development. It alienates some worthy public servants and misconstrues our public obligations, and we would be better served severing the one from the other.
Americans in general, and Yalies in particular, are crazy busy and have limited resources. But most of us do have a sense of ethical obligation. As we set our schedules and examine our bank statements, we consider our obligations and interests and try to ensure that we allot proper resources to each. Terms like “social justice” cloud our judgment. Working to elect Jeanette Morrison or donating to a political party may be worthy causes, but we should never confuse hours and money spent on advocacy with genuine charitable giving. It will always be easier to call your congressman than to feed the hungry, and the phrase “social justice” allows us to justify our way out of responsibility.
But there are also more tangible problems with the broad language of social justice. Dwight Hall’s broad language of service and activism seems to be quite inclusive. But when one actually searches the list of member and affiliated organizations, there are jarring absences: Conservative groups are not currently part of Dwight Hall and its affiliated networks. Public Service? The Social Justice Network has the Liberal Party — but no Conservatives. Advocacy? There is a pro-choice group — but no pro-life.
The liberal dominance in social justice organizations highlights a central problem created by the conceptual collapsing of charitable giving with partisan political advocacy. Social justice organizations may try to distinguish between issue advocacy and politics. But these distinctions fail to pass the smell test. Is abortion advocacy apolitical? Environmental advocacy? Higher taxes? Advocacy is political, and politics is divisive.
An organization devoted to charity fits into broad social consensus. Nearly everyone at Yale supports the work done by YHHAP and feels perfectly comfortable contributing to its programs and initiatives. But YHHAP can only suffer from its entanglement with advocacy groups that are often indistinguishable from political partisans.
Separation of advocacy and service is about much more than protecting a 501(c)3 status. Even an indirect or perceived connection between Dwight Hall and the Undergraduate Organizing Committee — instrumental in the success of union-backed candidates in recent New Haven elections — damages an otherwise unifying institution.
Institutional promoters of social justice who mix advocacy and service should think carefully about the effects of their actions. But more important than any organization’s decisions are the distinctions that we draw in our own minds. Regardless of what institutions do, I hope students understand the fundamental difference between acts of charity and acts of advocacy. And let us never allow the complications of the latter to interfere with the performance of the former.
Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.