A sense of justice
What does it take to get people truly engaged in a common purpose, joined with others in pursuit of a common cause?
I suppose there are numerous answers to this question — fear of impending danger (global warming), a sense of empathy at the suffering of others (Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami), a rational desire to gain a collective benefit, resentment of other people or groups, anger at the actions of the state or its officials. But the question on my mind right now is about the role of the sense of justice in people’s readiness to act collectively or politically.
I asked a group of students today to talk about their perceptions of “major social problems” in the United States today. This wasn’t part of a class, and it wasn’t a group of students who knew each other well. It was a very diverse group of young people from Detroit and the suburbs. But in spite of the fact that there wasn’t an organized setting of the problem, we had a good discussion that brought out some of the most fundamental issues of justice in our country today. They talked in very personal terms about poverty, inequality of opportunity, racism, hunger, lack of access to health care, and personal uncertainty about their futures. One young woman said to me, “There are hungry people on this campus — and there are caring people on the campus who help by making sure that food at campus events isn’t wasted.” These students tended to agree with each other that the worst sources of injustice are those that involve enduring inequalities of opportunities across generations.
I mention this conversation for several reasons. First, it illustrates the point that these young people have very developed intuitions about fairness and justice, and they have had very concrete experiences that inform their judgments. They have a sense of justice, and they have a strong ability to recognize and evaluate some of the unfair workings of our basic social institutions. It’s not a theoretical issue to them.
Second, there is a very palpable sense of a desire to do something about the social problems they see around them — to be engaged, to find organizations that make a difference. We talk a lot on our campus about the value of “student engagement” — these students want to be engaged, and sometimes the frustration is that there aren’t opportunities for engagement that can really promise to make a difference.
Third, there was in this discussion a very strong illustration of the value of “diversity” in American communities and on American university campuses. I mean this in two ways — first, the valuable contributions brought by the different life experiences of different people in the room. The perspectives and experiences that African-American students brought into this discussion was very different from that of their white suburban fellow students. But equally, the perspective that a returning woman student brought — her own story of going from a white middle-class life to a struggling life of near-poverty — added tremendously to the discussion. (This is a dimension of age diversity that you don’t often find on many university campuses.)
Moreover, every student in the room plainly recognized the value of a diverse discussion of these topics. The group was willing to talk honestly about their different experiences in white, black, and brown communities — and to value the fact that they were able to do so. There was a strong shared sense of the reality and importance of mutual respect, and an openness to learning from each other’s experiences.
So what does this show? In my eyes, it demonstrates two important facts. First, many young people have well-defined ideas about justice, fairness, and denied opportunities, and they care about these issues. They can figure out some of the ways in which some of our basic institutions assign benefits, burdens, and opportunities in very different ways to different groups — and they are offended. And second, this “knowledge” of injustice also has a motivational effect. They want to be mobilized around a project that can have some success in addressing some of these unjust inequalities. Their engagement can take many forms — excitement about a political candidate who is speaking of these issues, involvement in a tutoring program in an inner-city school, participation in a student organization that is campaigning for more scholarships for poor people.
So this experience with a dozen students at a public university in the midwest goes against the grain of those who talk about the current youth generation as being apolitical, disengaged, and unmoved by injustice. Isn’t there something in this story that lays a basis for some hope about the feasibility of a more activist politics in the America of the future?