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Defining social justice on a personal level

Published: March 7, 2014
Section: Opinions


Recently, there has been much fervor attached to the concept of “social justice” and its importance. Brandeis is an institution known for cultivating an academic atmosphere that pursues this ideal, and its student body is wholly committed to many causes. In lieu of many protests both on this campus and elsewhere in the nation, such as those over the Keystone XL pipeline, it is important to personally evaluate one’s own definition of justice and what it truly means for the individual. Before becoming impassioned about certain issues, one must realize the personal importance of the issue and not blindly trust the dogma associated with it.

One of the main assets of gaining a liberal arts education is that it is tailored toward viewing academia in a global sense. From the teachings of Jean-Paul Sartre to molecular biology, there is a tangent attached to every concept that can be applied on a global scale and can be used to lessen the plight of others. But the opportunities for acting on justice are interminable. Many students set goals of travelling abroad to improve detrimental conditions elsewhere, forgetting that everyday actions can have similar effects. It is easy to conflate the idea of social justice with doing something grand and extraordinary, but this is a grave misconception. When looking at philanthropic heroes both past and present, it is important to take note that at the heart of their actions, their intentions were all the same, but they internalized the concept of justice for themselves. Gandhi himself said, “There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.”

As I reflected upon my first semester at Brandeis as a first-year student over winter break, I gave considerable thought to what justice truly is. I realized that while it is laudable to have future plans aimed at helping others and careers that act upon this sentiment, justice means more. It is more personal and can be applied nearly everywhere. When I returned to Brandeis, it was evident that there were countless avenues through which justice could be applied. From wasting less food when eating at the cafeteria to picking up random pieces of litter here and there, it serves as a reminder that even minor differences can play an important role in benefiting the community. At the end of the day, these benefits are also important. They may not seem very impactful but collectively, they do make a difference. After adding my plate to the sea of others after I am done eating, it is hard not to look back at the mountains of food piled atop each plate. It may not seem very significant, but wasting food can be an injustice as well. Similarly, while walking through the campus at times there are often volumes of litter on the floor, from torn newspapers to food wrappings. Disposing of refuse properly will not only enhance the college aesthetic but also incentivize others to follow suit. If soda cans and miscellaneous wrappers are left on the floor by one person, others will likely follow, unaware of what they are actually doing.

Actions may speak louder than words, but words still have value. It is easy to forget the weight that one’s words sometimes carry. However, it is always good to reflect on how you speak to others. Using derogatory rhetoric in a light-hearted manner may not seem harmful to you, but it may to others. It is impossible to assess one’s background completely, and so even broaching sensitive topics in a joking manner can offend somebody. It may be a stretch to call this a form of injustice, but at the heart of it, for someone else it could be.

At the end of the day, however, it is how we perceive our own actions and the actions of those around us that influence our behavior. Just because something seems acceptable or the general consensus is that it is, we must reach that decision for ourselves. We don’t attend class because we are told to; we do it because we have internalized the reward associated with it. Acting in a just manner, whatever it may be, is similar. As Atticus Finch told his son in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule, is a person’s conscience.”