Many of us identify part of our activism (be it through writing, community engagement, online, offline, etc.) as part of the broad umbrella of Social Justice. However, most of us (or at least I) do not necessarily devote a lot of time to think of the meaning behind Social Justice and how the whole idea came to be. I did now, and I am about to share with you my findings which are, somewhat problematic and not as fair as one might expect considering the movement is devoted to the idea of fairness to begin with. This questioning of Social Justice as an idea, as a political framework has also led me to try to formulate some ideas so that I can move forward and outside of it because I believe that, in more than one way, Social Justice does not exactly represent the kind of goal I wish to advance towards.
Michael Novak, in Defining Social Justice (a concept he does not necessarily endorse, even though his essay is a good compendium of the origins of the term), elaborates:
The term “social justice” was first used in 1840 by a Sicilian priest, Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, and given prominence by Antonio Rosmini–Serbati in La Costitutione Civile Secondo la Giustizia Sociale in 1848. John Stuart Mill gave this anthropomorphic approach to social questions almost canonical status for modern thinkers thirteen years later in Utilitarianism.
This Sicilian priest that Novak refers to was a Jesuit and he was inspired by the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Later on, the idea was further elaborated by the Catholic theologian John A. Ryan. Furthermore, yet another Catholic clergyman, Father Coughlin also used the term in his writings in the 1930s and the 1940s.
Now, let me be clear, I do not wish to bring into question individual Catholics and people of faith. I would, instead, prefer that we move through this discussion from an Institutional perspective, focusing on the political implications of these definitions and their origins.
If one were to read about the Jesuit Order, even Wikipedia articles present it as a progressive branch of the Catholic Church focused on human rights and the poor. What is rarely called into question is the role of the Jesuits in the conversion of Indigenous People in what now constitutes Latin America.
A Jesuit Reduction was a type of settlement for indigenous people in Latin America created by the Jesuit Order during the 17th and 18th centuries. In general, the strategy of the Spanish Empire was to gather native populations into centers called Indian Reductions (reducciones de indios), in order to Christianize, tax, and govern them more efficiently.[…]
The Jesuit reductions present a controversial chapter of the evangelisational history of the Americas, and are variously described as jungle utopias or as theocratic regimes of terror.
As a result of this origin in Catholic doctrine, we have inherited, together with the coinage of the term, this implication that Social Justice is a “gift” or an “allowance” (from God and by transitive relation from “man to mankind”). Even contemporary Catholic scholars define Social Justice as “gifts”.
Cardinal Turkson explained that in the Church’s thinking, social justice involves citizens’ obligations and responsibilities to ensure fairness and opportunity in their communities and societies. While this may include the adoption of specific government policies and programs, the emphasis in Catholic social teaching is on the obligations that flow from citizens’ relationships in societies.
“Respecting, understanding and fulfilling those demands constitute our justice,” he said. “It would be useful if we just observed our sense of justice as our ability to fulfill the demands of the relationships in which we stand.” This is in contrast to socialism, he explained, which is an ideology in which private property and private interests are totally placed in the service of government policies.
What the Pope proposes in “Caritas in Veritate,” said Cardinal Turkson, is “achieving the common good without sacrificing personal, private interests, aspirations and desires.” [He] also said the Council was also surprised that the Pope’s concept of the “gift,” was perceived in some circles as encouraging government welfare handouts.
In “Caritas in Veritate,” Pope Benedict described the concept of “gift” as a way to understand God’s love for men and women in his gift of life and his gift of Jesus.[…] Gift, Cardinal Turkson explained, is “a very basic, deep theological expression of God’s relation or the motivation for whatever God does in the world, and it’s not quite the same as a handout.”
(Incidentally, I am really happy that the Vatican cleared any misunderstandings about the supposed “Socialist” nature of Jesus’ teachings).
Honestly, I have an issue basing my work and goals, my entire belief system on a definition coined by an institution that took until 1965 to openly condemn slavery.
Fair enough, one could say that, by now we have all adopted a secular definition of Social Justice, which should clear all controversies, right? Not so, it seems. The secular foundation of Social Justice is entirely based on the work of John Rawls, a Harvard philosopher who redefined the term in the late 20th century and whose inspiration was drawn from Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, John Locke and Immanuel Kant (yeah, I’ll point out the obvious, not a single woman, queer, non Western, non White person in the list of people who laid the foundations of the movement we all supposedly align behind). So, no matter which angle I pick to look at the origins of this whole concept (be it its roots in theology or its late 20th century secular definition), from the get go, this was not something inclusive, holistic and healing of communities and the individuals therein.
Additionally, Social Justice is borne out globalization and it does not account for difference, be it cultural or ideological. This late 20th century, secular conception of Social Justice is rooted on universal principles which are, more often than not, used to push for a uniform kind of globalization, Western style democracies and liberalization of markets for international corporations modeled under capitalist forms of development (see critics of the Millennium Development Goals for an example). The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, one of the first institutional bodies to adopt Social Justice as a principle in 1993, makes the ideals behind it quite clear (Part II Paragraph 80):
Human rights education should include peace, democracy, development and social justice, as set forth in international and regional human rights instruments, in order to achieve common understanding and awareness with a view to strengthening universal commitment to human rights.
Now, while I was thinking about all of the above, trying to bring some order into these problematic origins of Social Justice and attempting to situate myself and my politics within these definitions, I came across an interview in an Argentinian newspaper. In this interview, LA based, Uruguayan activist Carolina De Robertis, referred to her work in the US as her “pasion por el bienestar social”. When I read that, I paused and gasped. “Bienestar Social” is, if I was to translate those words in the way academics do, Social Welfare. Such is the widely accepted English language equivalent. However, my cross/multi cultural situation sent me through the rabbit hole of non translations and new conceptual definitions. I am, after all, forever forced to navigate my South American cultural origins (which are a definitive part of my identity) within a Western setting (by virtue of my European residence). In this constant shift that I experience dozens of times every day, mostly because I regularly read and write in several languages, I realized that contained within the category of “Social Welfare”, if I tweaked the translation slightly, another word was made available to me, similar, but at the same time, charged and bursting with a whole new meaning and implications; here was another concept that I wished to explore further, that of Social Wellbeing.
I googled like my life depended on it. Sure others must have written about Social Wellbeing. Sure there must be piles of prior work to draw upon. And it turns that there is some work done on Social Wellbeing, but it is mostly related to the aftermath of conflict in war zones and areas recovering from armed conflict.
So, I started to think of what Social Wellbeing would entail. Now, I know some might argue that my exercise is purely semantic that there is no need for a new category, that Social Justice already defines goals and concepts. Why would we then need to even consider something entirely new? We (collectively) might not. But I surely do. Mostly because my politics involve healing. Healing of communities, of the individuals that make the communities, healing of the harms brought by injustice, of the environment in which we develop ourselves and the relationships we build with one another. Access to Justice is one necessary step towards healing, but certainly not all of it. Without adding health to our social equation, we will continue propagating the same social diseases that lead to oppression and alienation. For me, that’s where Social Wellbeing comes to life.
Social Wellbeing seeks to restore balance, to create a state in which needs are met and where people are allowed to develop through opportunities for advancement. Social Wellbeing should account for difference and local cultures, it should be inclusive of Justice but also of the “aftermath” of Justice. For me, it is not a universally defined idea of progress but one which is defined locally. From the standpoint of my Feminist lens, Social Wellbeing should call intragender oppression into question (i.e. What does it mean to succeed, as a woman, in an environment that oppresses other women, sometimes even at our expense?).
Social Wellbeing is measurable and tangible, not based on subjective notions “allowed” by those in power, but by conditions reflecting the overall health of a community. The kind of Social Wellbeing that I envision is holistic and integrated into our experiences as individuals but also as individuals within a group (our immediate community/the city we live in/ the Nation State/ Family/ etc.). Wellbeing is emancipatory and horizontal, it should also take into account the health of the environment as an indicator of human health. Above all, Social Wellbeing should hold us all accountable for each other’s rights and needs. Personally, I’d rather work towards collective Wellbeing, than towards goals and definitions that were not precisely set to include me.