Achieving true social justice

May 3, 2019

Last year, I was sitting in one of the lounges in my dormitory building when a group of students started sitting in a circle on the other side of the room. While overhearing their conversations, it became apparent that they were the media and politics LLC and they were meeting for a discussion. The professor came in and sat with them. I continued working silently, but could hear most of what was being talked about. The professor was speaking about how inviting political speakers to campus is a difficult issue to negotiate.

On one hand, Brandeis champions open discourse, so the university should encourage the student body to confront a vast diversity of thought. On the other hand, the university holds above all else the value of social justice, and in the preservation of social justice, many speakers should not be given a platform to spread their ideas. The professor said that these two values were ones that Justice Louis D. Brandeis himself held dear and that the university seeks to be a reflection of his values. Brandeis University is a social justice university at heart, however, and on the shoulders of that, we should not be providing any way of popularizing views that are against social justice.

At the time, this did not faze me. But upon reflecting on this memory, I worry that the situation showcases a misunderstanding of social justice itself. Moreover, I see this misunderstanding as a reflection of many of the contemporary problems with liberal culture.

First, I should outline what I believe social justice to be. The difficulties in defining social justice are part of what makes it important that it is handled intelligently. Very vaguely, I think social justice is the attempt to establish systematic fairness both in theory and in the practice of a society. Because every society’s understanding of “fairness” is different, there is no universalizable formula for going about creating social justice.

This is why it worries me that Brandeis might suspend the value of open discourse in favor of satisfying the value of what it thinks is social justice. It is important that the voiceless be given a voice in the name of social justice, but that does not mean squelching opposition. It is a difficult balance to maintain, but it is a necessary one.

Brandeis should not be bringing on opposition as a way of promoting them, nor should they be showcasing extremism as a way of legitimizing that position. But, Brandeis should be encouraging the student body to engage with diverse opinions in order to ensure that Brandeis’s conception of social justice is actually utilized for the society that those beliefs affect. Social justice without open discourse is unjust.

The right often complains that liberals are condescending with their ideas. I believe that this is in no small part because many liberals’ response to hate, extremism and sometimes even mere opposition is to censor or ignore them out of principle. Those who do this often cite the danger in legitimizing those views by even attempting to reason with them.

While I do understand that it is often hard for the oppressed to engage their oppressors in the way that I suggest, I warn that attempting to box certain viewpoints out of the discussion without confronting them will only cause them to intensify and spread.

The commonly used philosophical adage known as Hanlon’s razor tells us to “[n]ever attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” If we believe that much of the hate in the world is a product of ignorance rather than malice, then we should try to enlighten the other side with new perspective rather than shun them for being irrationally hateful. Similarly, if we ourselves do not engage them, we risk being ignorant to their perspectives and becoming just as hateful as we believe them to be.

With Trump’s election into office and social media being a polarized mess, it is clear that most Americans have not taken Hanlon’s razor to heart. It is my hope that this changes and perhaps that change can start with Brandeis.

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