The “soft vengeance” of Albie Sachs

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Abby Ginzberg has made a terrific new film, “Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa.” It brings to life one of the great human rights heroes of our time, a Jewish South African who joined the African National Congress, became one of the principal crafters of the South African constitution, and then a member of democratic South Africa’s constitutional court. Sachs spent two long stints in solitary confinement in apartheid-era prisons, and he later lost his right arm and the sight in one eye as the result of a bomb blast in Mozambique in 1988, but his commitment to justice and his zest for life emerged intact from those searing experiences.

For Albie Sachs, the “soft vengeance” for the bomb blast was the triumph of justice and democracy in South Africa. Ginzberg’s film works splendidly on three levels. It is first a story of an special, vital individual whose open personality, sense of humor, and burning passion are contagious. Secondly, it’s a national story, reminding its viewers of the tremendous odds that South Africans working for democracy faced, and of the great triumph of their collective struggle.

Finally, “Soft Vengeance” is a story about what Sachs called in our discussion the “emancipatory” potential of the law. Sachs had grown up thinking of the law as an instrument to protect property and the interests of the powerful. As a lawyer in an activist movement, he came to understand how law can be used creatively in the service of freedom. Not only did he go on to play a part in the new constitution for South Africa, but as a member of the Constitutional Court he penned some ringing human rights judgments, including the decision that legalized gay marriage, the first African nation to do so. Abby Ginzberg was also trained as a lawyer before she started directing films 30 years ago, so she brings a special passion for the subject of “emancipatory” justice to each of her projects.

We were fortunate to have Albie Sachs and Abby Ginzberg with us at Brandeis University last week for a special advance screening of “Soft Vengeance,” the first on a college campus.  We at the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life were pleased to be joined by the National Center for Jewish Film and the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice in presenting the event.

After the screening, Sachs and Ginzberg talked together about the making of the film, and the tug-of-war between them about how certain aspects of his life would be portrayed. “It may be your life,” Ginzberg had to remind Sachs from time to time, “but it’s my film.”

The screening took place on September 11, and perhaps there was something appropriate in this. Albie Sachs has had a special ability to transform personal suffering into a force for social good. He spoke eloquently about how, in the aftermath of the bombing, he had an ebullient feeling: “They came for me . . but I am still here!”  Human rights activists around the world are his comrades, Sachs told the audience, but they can be so dour. Why not, he suggested, seek both joy and the struggle? Hearing from Albie Sachs on September 11 was an opportunity for all Americans in the audience to think about the extent that we have or have not used the events of 13 years ago as a motivation for positive, productive change.


L to R: Lisa Rivo, Sharon Rivo, Jules Bernstein, Abby Ginzberg, Albie Sachs, Dan Terris

New Minor Links the Arts and Social Change

Higher Education, Peacebuilding, Social Justice No Comments »

As the fall semester begins, I’m excited about a new program for undergraduate students that’s going to bring new energy to a developing global field.

For more than 15 year my colleague Cindy Cohen has been building an extraordinary program in “Peacebuilding and the Arts” within the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis. Along the way, she has been extending the reach in this expanding field through her courses for undergraduate and graduate students.

This fall, her program takes another step forward, as we introduce a new minor for Brandeis undergraduates: “Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation.”  Partly in tribute to the program’s strengths in theater and peacebuilding, the minor will go by the acronym CAST.

Students in this minor will take an introductory course, Introduction to Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation, that Cindy will develop and teach in the early years of the program. They will then be able to choose four electives from a strong array of courses in the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences.   A capstone will complete their CAST experience; this might consist of an internship, a directed study, or another form of immersion in the CAST approach.

Students in CAST will have access to the extraordinary network of artists and peacebuilders from around the world that Cindy has built, particularly through the extraordinary Acting Together project and her terrific collaboration with singer/activist Jane Sapp, A Way Out of No Way.  They will also have a chance to think about how they can combine their own creative impulses and practice with the knowledge and the skills necessary to work with communities to create meaningful social change.

I’ll be looking forward how Cindy and her students shake things up in the months and years to come.

Social Justice in Thought and Action

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In the depths of a cold winter on the Brandeis campus, there’s a lot of heat and light being generated by the undergraduates engaged in social justice projects through the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.

Tomorrow is the official launch of ‘DEIS Impact, the University’s “festival of social justice,” sponsored jointly by the Center and by the Brandeis Student Union. It’s the third iteration of this new Brandeis tradition, and it’s bigger and better than ever. Featured events include a keynote address by two of Nelson Mandela’s grandsons, a return visit to Brandeis by Sister Helen Prejean of “Dead Man Walking” fame, a program on “spirituality and the quest for justice” with dynamic musician and community organizer Jane Wilburn Sapp, and “Portraits of Purpose,” an exhibition of social justice giants with photos by Don West. And of course there are dozens of events organized by student clubs and organizations on the full range of social justice issues.

What’s great about ‘DEIS Impact is that it brings the full range of Brandeis resources to the university’s commitment to social justice: rigorous intellectual exploration, the creative power of the arts, the energy of community engagement, and the determination to be practical as well as visionary. Come join us.


This is also the season for the announcement of the new group of Sorensen Fellows, six undergraduate students who will venture forth in the summer of 2014 to work in NGOs around the world. They will return in the fall to reflect on and write about their experiences in an intensive course together.SF2014 Congratulations to the 2014 Sorensen Fellows: Ibrahima Diaboula ’16, Shimon Mazor ’16, Elad Mehl ’16, Ngobitak Ndiwane ’16, Sneha Walia ’15, and Shane Weitzman ’16. You can read about them and their summer projects here.


Also available now: the terrific publication by the 2013 Sorensen Fellows: Parallel Paths: Journeys, Explorations, and Reflections. It’s a moving set of accounts that are both personal and analytical, exploring the complexities of identity and purpose among young people pursuing social change. Check them out:

Parallel_Paths_2013_Sorensen_Fellowship_Cover• Through the Lens of Birth and Illness: Rediscovering My Native Country – Damiana Andonova ’15
• Deconstructing One’s Paper Identity – Cynthia Wangui Charchi ’14
• Fighting for Choice: Navigating the Streets and Politics of New York City – Hailey Magee ’15• Impressions of Talibés and Islamic Education in Senegal – Nelly Schläfereit ’15
• An Informal Image in Different Voices – Abie Troen ’14
• Reversal of Roles: Lessons Learned as a Teacher in Uganda – Hannah Young ’15


These passionate, thoughtful undergraduates do honor to the memory of Theodore C. (Ted) Sorensen, who inspired generations with his eloquent words, and who helped guide the Center through its formative years.

Report on the Brandeis/Al-Quds Partnership

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Today, my Brandeis colleagues Sue Lanser, Dan Kryder, and I released our detailed report on the suspension of the partnership between Brandeis University and Al-Quds University.  The report covers the background of the partnership, background information on  Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, what we learned about the rally of November 5, 2013 and its aftermath, and our conclusions, which include a recommendation to resume the partnership.   We hope that our work will lead to a greater understanding and more thoughtful consideration of the complexities of the situation and the nature of the partnership.

On the Brandeis/Al-Quds University Partnership

Brandeis Events, Brandeis University, Higher Education 6 Comments »

I have recently returned from a five-day trip to Al-Quds University, continuing work on a decade-long partnership between Brandeis University and this prominent Palestinian educational institution. I was accompanied by my Brandeis colleagues Sue Lanser (English, and Women’s and Gender Studies) and Dan Kryder (Politics).

Our trip, scheduled months ago, was focused on projects for the next phase of the successful partnership with which we three and many others have been involved. Projects in progress at the time of our departure included faculty research exchanges, a women’s leadership institute, and curriculum development in the politics and English departments.

Because of the controversy surrounding a rally on the Al-Quds University campus on November 5, President Fred Lawrence asked the three of us while there to gather as much information as we could about the rally, its context, and the response of the Al-Quds University administration, and requested that we report back to him after we returned home.

As it turned out, Brandeis University suspended the Brandeis/Al-Quds partnership towards the end of our visit. Nevertheless, we were able during our visit to have a number of in-depth conversations with many key individuals, including Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh, Executive Vice President Imad Abu Kishek, and members of the committee whom they appointed to investigate the November 5 rally.

Once all of us return from our travels and have a chance to confer, we will put together a report on what we have learned. The issues on the ground at Al-Quds University are much more complex than has been reported on blogs and in the press. These issues deserve careful consideration and conversation.

What we can say at this point is that nothing that we have learned during this period has changed our conviction – built over many years of experience – that Sari Nusseibeh and the Al-Quds University leadership are genuinely committed to peace and mutual respect. President Nusseibeh’s comments following the suspension of the partnership, published in the Times of Israel, show that he is continuing his commitment to those values and to sustained dialogue even when circumstances are challenging.

In addition, I have just been informed that the University has suspended Sari Nusseibeh’s membership on the advisory board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, saying that this action is consistent with the suspension of the partnership.   While I have strong opinions about this, this decision is not in my hands, since all board members serve by appointment by the president of the university.  Sari has been a member of this board since 2000.  Among other things, his membership pre-dates the partnership.   This is a good time to recall Nusseibeh’s forty-year record of courage, innovation, and willingness to engage in challenging dialogue, the marks of a man whom I know personally to be a stalwart opponent of hatred and intolerance wherever they are found.   Brandeis need not agree with everything that Sari Nusseibeh says to value him as an important member of the Center’s extended community.

Over the past decade, hundreds of Brandeis University students, faculty, and staff members have participated in a variety of activities with Al-Quds University counterparts with the goal of enhancing mutual understanding through work together on shared scholarly and educational interests. At the time of this post, Brandeis has taken down the Brandeis/Al-Quds Partnership website, so the detailed record of our many years of work together is not available. [Note: as of November 22 Brandeis has restored the web site with a note on the home page about the suspension.]. However, a short video and a brochure describing some aspects of the partnership are available, and I encourage you to take a look to get a flavor of what we have done together.

At the Heart of Brandeis: Remembering Larry Fuchs

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Professor Lawrence H. Fuchs, who taught at Brandeis for 50 years, from 1952 until 2002, died on March 17, 2013.  For me . . .and for so many others at Brandeis and well beyond . . Larry was a mentor and a friend.  A full catalogue of Larry’s accomplishments as a scholar, as a player in national politics, and as an activist can be found in the BrandeisNOW tribute published soon after his death and in his New York Times obituary.  These are my more personal reflections about the man and his part in the University that he loved.

Larry Fuchs was a skilled and inveterate arranger of human affairs, but I didn’t know this when I first met him in 1992, when I was a candidate for a position at Brandeis.  The word that came to mind when he first squeezed my hand was “avuncular.”  He treated me with such genuine warmth, humor, and goodwill that I scarcely knew that I was being subtly but distinctly manipulated.  There was a position open in mid-level academic administration, and Larry in his wisdom had decided that this was a good match for me and for Brandeis.  But it was going to require some heavy lifting . . .which in characteristic fashion Larry managed without betraying any effort at all.   First, he had to persuade this not-quite-newly-minted Ph.D. that a position in academic administration would be bracing and rewarding.    And on a separate track, he had to persuade the provost, future president Jehuda Reinharz, that he should hire to run a university division a young guy whose previous experience with budgets was a ledger in pencil kept in a desk drawer in a grimy closet in a Boston public high school.   I had no idea until years later how much shuttle diplomacy was involved.

By the time I arrived at Brandeis, Larry’s imprint was everywhere.  It is no exaggeration to say that no single faculty member had done more to create the institutional culture of the university.

The qualities of Brandeis that so many people labor to define today . . .Larry simply lived and breathed naturally.

The integration of excellence in scholarship with engagement in public life.  Who did this better than Larry, moving seamlessly between Waltham and the Philippines and Washington . . . bringing his penetrating analyses of American politics and diversity to his work in the Peace Corps and immigration . . . and then enriching his scholarship and his teaching with his experiences in politics and overseas.

The  Brandeis commitment to the Jewish people, on the one hand,  and a commitment to diversity in all of its forms, on the other.  Other people have found in these twin commitments a source of tension and angst.  For Larry embracing the University’s Jewish identity in the glorious context of American multiculturalism was not merely natural but a source of pleasure and inspiration.

Intellectual explorations across the boundaries of geography and disciplines.  Larry wrote and taught that way – and founded American Studies on along these lines – long before the rest of the University codfied this approach in thousands of pages of statements and grant proposals.

And then there were the stories . . . For every moment in Brandeis history Larry had a tale.  Larry’s stories were succinct nuggets of human ego and error — but never with the intention of cutting his subjects down to size.   Abe Sachar,  Eleanor Roosevelt, Max Lerner – the humor in Larry’s stories somehow enlarged and ennobled them, even as he painted them as flesh-and-blood individuals with understandable human weaknesses.

The Brandeis that Larry loved was a glorious idea, a monument to Jewish tradition, the intellectual life, and the American kaleidoscope that he so ably described.  But the Brandeis that Larry loved was also a comically flawed place, rife with insecurities and outsized egos and politics played as a bloodsport.

Well, who here would be surprised?  Everyone who knew Larry knew the sheer joy that he took in politics .  . at every level.  He made a mark in national politics, of course, through his association and important work with people like Stephen Solarz and Barbara Jordan and several Kennedys.  But he also had a keen appreciation of politics at a more local level as well.

Politics for Larry wasn’t something inherently smarmy or petty.  People, of course, could be smarmy and petty . . . but politics itself was both an essential contest of ideas AND the essential cultivation of personal relationships.  It’s natural that aside from politics Larry’s other great passion – and scholarly subject — was family.  In both the public sphere and the private, he understood that working intensively on the  quality of conversations and relationships was what mattered.

Larry’s legacy is everywhere at Brandeis today – not just in American Studies, but across the university in the qualities I have described already.  Thousands of students today benefit from his lasting influence, even if they do not know his name.  But for a few 21st century Brandeis students, the influence has been personal and direct, a passing of the torch to the next generation.  It was a day of immense pleasure for me when I was able to tell Larry that my oldest son Ben had declared American Studies as his Brandeis major.  And when my second son Eli was accepted into the Peace Corps, Larry managed in a shaky hand to sign a copy of his 1968 book, Those Peculiar Americans: The Peace Corps and American National Character, for Eli’s advance reading.

At the last visit that my wife Maggie and I paid to Larry in Orchard cove – just last month – Larry was very weak.  He couldn’t sit up.  He spoke in a barely audible whisper.  His attention span was short.  He dearly missed his wife Betty, who passed away late last year.  But his mind and heart were firm.  I held his hand and showed him photos of Eli in the remote village in Senegal where the Peace Corps had placed him.  Larry was not able to talk much, but as I showed him the photos on my iPhone, he pulled me towards him, squeezed my hand,  and whispered, close to my ear  “Be proud of him.”   That was Larry.  Not for him the more conventional formulation,  “You must be proud of him.”  No, Larry’s message was a command, an injunction, delivered gently but with urgency . . .BE proud of him . . . as if in reminder to take absolutely nothing for granted, not even something so conventional as parental pride.  It was Larry’s reminder that when it comes to human relationships, everything matters, and that everything good requires not just sentiment and ritual but effort and practice and thought and dedication and love . . . in public life, in private life, in every squeeze of the hand.

The last clarion call of Anthony Lewis

Brandeis Events, Law and Justice 1 Comment »

Anthony Lewis, who passed away this week, has been rightly lionized for his fierce commitment to justice and freedom, and for his passion for the United States Constitution as a vital and living document.

Anthony Lewis and Bill Leahy at the Brandeis University, March 18 2013

Anthony Lewis and Bill Leahy at Brandeis University, March 18, 2013

Yet what made him such a great writer and observer of law and politics was his keen understanding of the contingencies of the human condition.  Law for Tony Lewis was neither a distant abstraction nor an impersonal scripture carved in granite.  It was always embodied in individual men and women, where passion and reason and circumstance are inevitably intertwined.

So perhaps it is no surprise that the last words of the last public appearance of this extraordinary man reflect his wry sense of the human.

As it happens, that appearance came at an event that we hosted at Brandeis University on March 18 2013, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.

Before Gideon, if you were charged with a felony in many states in the U.S. and you could not afford a lawyer, you were out of luck.  You represented yourself, cross-examined witnesses, and matched wits with a professional prosecutor as best you could.   In the Gideon judgment, the Supreme Court reversed its own previous jurisprudence and ordered states to provide an attorney in those situations.

Tony Lewis’s account of that case, Gideon’s Trumpet, has become one of the classics of American non-fiction.  At the Brandeis event, Lewis spoke about his passion for the case, which originated with a handwritten petition sent to the United States Supreme Court by an inmate in a Florida prison.    And he dwelled on the characters of the key protagonists:  Justice Hugo Black, who wrote the unanimous opinion,  Abe Fortas, who argued for the plaintiff at the Supreme Court, and Clarence Earl Gideon himself.

The Gideon case enshrined a legal right, but its implementation 50 years later has been far from perfect.  This was the conclusion of the discussion between Lewis and the other panelists: Bill Leahy, who has led statewide public defender offices in Massachusetts and New York; Margot Botsford, a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and Fred Lawrence, the president of Brandeis University and himself a former federal prosecutor.   Underfunded public defenders offices and mandatory sentencing laws, among other factors, have undermined the right to counsel for poor defendants, many of them African American.

Nevertheless, in his closing comments, Tony Lewis reverted to what he called the “romantic nature” of Gideon.  His thoughts on the fortuitous aspects of the case, his continuing call for action, and a humorous anecdote, perfectly capture his wise, idealistic, and authentic spirit.

A festival of social justice

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Kudos to the ‘DEIS Impacter team and to everyone who helped make the second annual DEIS Impact, the Brandeis University festival of social justice, such a rousing success.  More than 1000 students and other members of the Brandeis community participated in more than 40 events from February 1-11, 2013.   The keynote event, with Hollywood star Eliza Dushku and her mother Judy (who teaches at Suffolk University), inspired hundreds with the story of ThriveGULU, a start-up NGO in Uganda that addresses issues of child soldiers, sex slavery and other post-conflict concerns in Uganda.  A great partnership between the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life and the Student Union; special thanks to Marci McPhee and Todd Kirkland for their leadership.

One of the heartening things about the event was the opportunity it affords to talk in depth about meanings of social justice.  My own thoughts on this subject, published in this blog a few months ago, sparked some discussion and pointed critiques.  Others proposed alternate ideas and definitions.

Many people in the DEIS Impact events made the point that social justice has different meanings for different people  in different contexts.  Maybe so, but it struck me that there were three important features of social justice that seemed to appear consistently amidst this diversity of ideas:

First, social justice is concerned with the basic needs and the human dignity of people in need and those suffering from oppression.

Second, social justice has an equal concern with improving the lives of individuals, and fostering broad-based social change that will have a positive impact on the lives of many.

Third, social justice is not a solitary activity; it operates in the spirit of collective action.

Finally, I would add that one of the most important elements of undertaking social justice in a university context is the conscious effort to marry deep reflection and analysis with positive and concrete action.  Social justice should draw on our passions – empathy and principles and outrage.  But it should also be undertaken with the attitude of rigorous self-examination and humility, conscious always that good intentions are no guarantee of doing good.

It’s my hope that DEIS Impact will be nurturing and challenging the spirit of social justice on the Brandeis campus for many years to come!

24 hours in Ohio

On the Road No Comments »

    Maggie Stern and I drove to Ohio for the finale of her exhibition of stitched work at the University of Findlay.  24 hours on the road, and 24 hours in a swing state 10 days before the election.

Plenty of billboards reflecting the negative tone of the 2012 campaign – Obama cast as the enemy of life and faith, Romney as the enemy of the middle class.  On the lawns of Waterville, just outside of Toledo, many more Romney/Ryan signs.  The Obama/Biden signs were not only rare but with print so tiny that they were almost illegible, as though supporting the sitting president were slightly shameful.

Many Romney signs next to “Pray to end abortion” placards – those I understood.  But some of the Romney signs were accompanied by others that proclaimed, “Save freedom of religion.”  Those I really did not understand.  What’s the argument that the Democrats are clamping down on freedom of religion?  Is this about contraception and Obamacare?   I really can’t follow the twists and turns of that argument.

Our friends’ mailbox was stuffed with good wishes from many campaigns.  Several pieces devoted to Jewish voters who used to support Obama but now support Romney.   Since our friends don’t have an obviously Jewish name and are not affiliated Jewishly, they probably weren’t targeted for this reason.  It probably just makes good Republican politics in the Ohio suburbs to claim that even those liberal stalwarts the Jews are abandoning the president.

On the cultural front, we journeyed to the Toledo Museum of Art, just celebrating its centennial with a splendid exhibit of 39 Manet portraits.  A coup for the TMA – this is the only stop for the exhibit in the U.S., before it heads to the Royal Academy of London in January.  Some old favorites (“The Railway” from the National Gallery) and a couple of the famous paintings of Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzales, along with some lesser-known works.  Displays of early cartes de visites suggested Manet’s complex relationship with the new art and techniques of photography.   A highlight for us: the spectacular design of the layout of the exhibition itself, with stunning “windows” from room to room that kept you looking backwards and forwards, and rich colors on the walls behind the paintings giving the whole space a striking warmth.  That was the work of our talented friend Claude Fixler.

Maggie’s “Green Man” (sold!)

Maggie’s exhibit at the University of Findlay was devoted to her stitched work on vintage handkerchiefs.

Maggie Stern and Lynn Whitney

She has been working in this medium for around two years now, and she has invented a captivating collection of characters – each hankie tells a very short “story.”   Maggie gave a charming talk about how she came to do this work, saluting her local friend Lynn Whitney,  who now teaches photography at Bowling Green State.   [Check out Lynn’s amazing project documenting the building of a new bridge over the Maumee River!]  Then faculty and students from Findlay and Bowling Green State University besieged her with questions.  Jeff Salisbury, who teaches photography at the University of Findlay, was our gracious host.

A bonus at Findlay was our discovery of the hidden gem, the Mazza Museum.  It turns out that one of the largest collections of the art of children’s books (7000 plus pieces!) was right next door to the gallery.  We spent a pleasant hour in the museum admiring the work of dozens of Caldecott and Newbury winners, among a host of other artists.

Ohio provided its share of natural beauty too . . . a double rainbow at sunset over the browning cornfields . . .   before we made the long drive across I-90 back to Massachusetts.

Social Justice: Towards A Working Description

Brandeis University, Higher Education 3 Comments »

Last night I told a group of Brandeis undergraduates that they should work on deepening the conversation about social justice on our campus, but that they did not need to hasten to “define” the term.

But today I’m inclined to disregard (partially) my own advice, if for no other reason than working descriptions can be helpful in starting conversations.

On my way home last night, I challenged myself to describe social justice in a way that was clear, accessible, and provided some boundaries.  There’s a litany of philosophical and historical literature on the meaning of social justice.  I don’t mean to enter that terrain.  Instead, I’m interested in some basic language that can help our campus community think more clearly, deepen its engagement, and work together more productively.

This means that I am more interested at the moment in social justice as a process than as an outcome.  In campus communities, this is generally how we use the term, to describe a certain form of activism, and attitudes that accompany it.  In other words, those engaged in the process of social justice may have different ideas about what constitutes a just society.  Those working under the banner of social justice may well argue vociferously about where they are going, while agreeing that they are all working within a certain mode of action.

To my mind, a working description of social justice should be simple and inclusive, while at the same time helping to clarify the boundaries.  It shouldn’t settle all disputes, but it should provide a clearer basis for argument.

So here’s a working description of social justice that might provide such a starting point for discussion:


Social justice:  Working with the disadvantaged to change society for the benefit of all.


This phrase encompasses a pretty broad range of endeavors, but it also poses four simple tests for whether some activity falls under the social justice banner:

1)   Are you “working with” others?

2)   Does your collective action involve “the disadvantaged”?

3)   Is your work designed to “change society”?

4)   Will your changes be “for the benefit of all”?


Let me elaborate on each of these.  I believe that these questions may draw some helpful lines that distinguish social justice from other worthy and important human endeavors (as well as distinguishing social justice from some unworthy activities).


  1. “Working with.”  Social justice is not a solitary activity.  If you sit in the library and write a powerful diatribe against political corruption, that may inspire others to undertake social justice work, but the writing itself not an act of social justice.  Social justice begins when you put your efforts alongside other efforts, when you talk with others, when you put yourself side-by-side with other people.


Furthermore, “working with” suggests a particular form of collaborative activity.  It suggests activity on a basis of equality and mutual respect.  Contrast “working with” with three alternatives:  “working for,” “fighting for,” and “standing with.”   If you are “working for” or on behalf of others, you may be detaching yourself from their struggle, as opposed to being a part of it.  Social justice may indeed sometimes involve “fighting for” others, but it is not always pugilistic.  Similarly, one may “stand with” others in a social justice activity, but “standing” is too passive a word to embrace the whole of social justice action.  “Working with” may be the best way to express the sense of collaborative action on the basis of equality and respect.


2. “The disadvantaged.”   It matters who your allies are.  You can work with others to change society for the better, and you may achieve great things.  But if you and your partners are exclusively members of a powerful elite, then social justice isn’t really the right description for your work.

Of course, “the disadvantaged” is quite a broad category.  It includes those who may lack advantages because of their economic status, their gender, their race, their sexual orientation, their health, or any other number of reasons.

I’m a little worried that “disadvantaged” doesn’t fully capture the tone of mutual respect that social justice entails.  But I haven’t yet come up with a better word.   Some people would doubtless prefer “the oppressed,” and it’s obviously true that in many cases the disadvantaged are indeed oppressed.  But I would hate to see umbrella of social justice limited to those cases of explicit oppression.  Similarly,  one could use  “the disempowered.”  But power dynamics shift very quickly, and part of the point of social justice is that those who lack certain advantages may acquire power through collective action (while still living with the consequences of their disadvantage).

In any case, it seems clear that you can work for many important social ends without including the disadvantaged in your efforts.  For example, a group of wealthy women and men could team up to save a particular tract of virgin forest from a timber company.   I would argue that we could give that kind of work many laudatory names, but that we might not call it social justice.


3. “To change society.”    This phrase may seem innocuous, but I think that including it in this working description may actually make a lot of people unhappy.  Some will find it too mild:  “change” doesn’t necessarily imply the kind of radical transformation that many people who align themselves with social justice hope to achieve.  On the other hand, including this phrase draws a deliberate line between social justice and other important work, because it suggests that to “count” under the social justice rubric, your work must have a broader political purpose.

So one distinction here would be between “social justice” and “service.”   It’s obviously hugely important to meet the specific needs of individual men, women and children.  And one can and should be able to help people and address their needs without getting involved in social change.  So I would say that service without that broader political purpose is vital, but we may not want to insist that it falls under the rubric of social justice.

In other words, if you work in a soup kitchen preparing food for the hungry, you are performing a vital and valuable service.  If you work in a soup kitchen and also work alongside homeless people to improve city services, or to change laws that criminalize vagrancy, we might term that both service and social justice.

I realize that some people balk at this distinction.  Perhaps there is a better way to phrase it or talk about it.  But one way or another, I think that social justice has to involve change beyond its impact on individual lives.


4. “For the benefit of all.”  This is another seemingly innocuous phrase whose implications may raise hackles.   What I’m getting at here is that “change” doesn’t say quite enough – social justice involves change whose benefits are widely distributed.  For one thing, it means taking into account the unintended consequences of specific changes, so that promoting benefit for one group of people does not advertently or inadvertently cause undue harm to others.

For example, imagine that you waged a successful fight for costly but necessary services for a small group of people suffering from a debilitating rare disease.  If the powers-that-be funded this program by slashing preventive care health services to a large group of others, it would at least raise questions about whether this “change” really was “for the benefit of all.”

I recognize that this will become quickly controversial, and it starts to climb into the thickets of the different branches of ethics.  The point is not that the phrase “for the benefit of all” settles any particular question, but that it puts the question of broader effects onto the table.

The phrase “for the benefit of all” leaves deliberately open the question of what “the benefit of all” looks like.  It can encompass a wide variety of political ends and visions of the just society.   I prefer this approach, because I would like to see the “social justice” umbrella cover a broad ideological spectrum.  But others would doubtless prefer language that specifies more precisely what a better world would look like.

By the way, one helpful implication of this innocuous phrase is that it helps keep social justice separate from certain forms of extremism.  For example, a suicide bomber who kills civilians on behalf of an oppressed people might argue that he is “working with the disadvantaged to change society,” but it is obvious that his actions are not “for the benefit of all.”


All of this is intended just as a starting point for discussion.  I could poke plenty of holes in this myself.  But I offer it as a way to get the ball rolling as we at Brandeis try to bring more coherence, energy, inclusiveness, and effectiveness to the social justice dimension of the campus.

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