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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Do students get frenzied over social justice?

Published: February 28, 2014
Section: Opinions

Something I’ve seen waved around quite a bit since coming to Brandeis has been the potent hand of social justice. It’s undoubtedly righteous, a profoundly positive force on the world, broad enough to encompass such a large portion of what’s considered “good.” Yet it’s also vague enough to broker little potential for criticism when it’s invoked, and subsequently finds itself abused here and there. Whether it’s used for good or evil, however, it can’t be denied that it’s practically an intellectual staple for anyone attending this school.

Social justice is a popular topic for discussion. I’ve heard people discuss conflicts, bridge misunderstandings and compliment each other’s acumen. I’ve seen them drunkenly spout half-sincere sophistry during heated arguments and then apologize for defending themselves too passionately.

I like to think I’ve been on both sides, and I can admit to an almost perverse sort of pleasure whenever I mistakenly wade into that cacophony of imperfect contemplation and chivalrous certainties, eager charities and ponderous maybes. One particular danger I’ve noticed looming about any interaction involving social justice, however, is a phenomenon I’ve come to describe informally as the “justice frenzy”—the act of attacking or defending an intellectual stance or behavior in the name of social justice rather than the actual moral values that dictate one’s sense of right and wrong.

If you’ve ever found yourself guilty of this, you shouldn’t feel ashamed. Around campus, it’s seemingly always performed with good intentions. For example, I once found myself arguing against the concept of social cleansing, only to find myself resorting to the “justice frenzy” when the conversation branched off into a topic I’m completely unfamiliar with: the living conditions of those who live in the lowest rungs of the most violent societies. Needless to say, I was left with little choice but to continue defending the obvious assertion that killing people to make space for other people was literally murder, but I did so blindly. That being said, another strain of the justice frenzy is that of seeking to subvert or reinforce the very essence of social justice for the sole purpose of enhancing one’s intellectual reputation. It’s not an admirable thing to mention conflicts and another culture’s difficulties to enhance one’s sense of intellectual esteem, and it can be crippling to think only in terms of black and white.

I can safely say, however, that the majority of my experiences with social justice at Brandeis have been positive.

I’ve found that, among the people I’ve encountered, the argument to discussion ratio is surprisingly low. Most of the time, people who start getting riled up by another’s comments will go out of their way to try reaching a mutual understanding with their antagonists instead of allowing the tension to boil into full-blown confrontation. Students tend to discuss things rather than argue about them. In the past, it had always struck me as a little odd whenever a scholarly debate would devolve into a contest of intellectual dominance revolving around the destruction of one’s opponent rather than tying up any loose ends with him and his beliefs.

I remember one instance in particular, where I was part of a little discussion on that now incredibly notorious music video “Blurred Lines.” Though neither party conceded their point by the end, the two parties addressed each other’s arguments civilly and without malice, something I could only describe as impressive.

Another time I found myself thrust into an hour-long sociological discussion of the philosophical implications of simply walking up to strangers and telling them they’re pretty, with a stranger I’d walked up to and told was pretty. At Brandeis, when a girl isn’t interested, she won’t just regretfully inform you of the circumstances and promptly leave; she’ll sit down with you for an hour and insist on helping analyze the social and gender-related nuances of what you did wrong while simultaneously contemplating whether or not she’s doing it just for social posturing. A fine champion of social justice, indeed, to dispel misunderstandings and keep others from accidentally harming one another or themselves.

Like many self-righteous teenagers, I thought that the ideas of social equality and unhappy happenstance had more or less exhausted their supply of surprises on me since high school, and yet here I am bumping into something new every time I round a corner. Social justice and the many ways its adherents choose to express it can be found almost anywhere on this campus, whether they boil the blood or warm the heart.