Monday, November 12, 2012

Reflecting on Social Justice and Human Rights

The post this week is by Allyson Carr, who was a worker at the Conference on Social Justice and Human Rights discussed in this post and is currently the Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics.

As some of you may recall, this past April the Centre co-hosted a major conference on Social Justice and Human Rights. The conference themes have set much of the tone for the material on this blog over the past year, both prior to the conference and afterwards, and there has been a great deal of good discussion that came out of the conference itself, including at least two projects: one on conceptions of social justice among faith groups (with the CRC being a focal microcosm) and one on economic justice. Given the high quality of the work presented there and the conversations that followed it, we have been working on compiling summaries of all of the sessions that took place during the two day conference. The summaries are ready for viewing now and a pdf of them can be found here. I encourage you to take the time to read through them, but we will also shortly be posting each summary separately on our conference blog, to enable commenting on topics in particular sessions. We’ll let you know when those are up, as well as when the video currently being produced, which highlights aspects of the conference's thinking on social justice and human rights issues, becomes available. For our discussion here this week, though, I'm just going to pull out a few points that really struck me. We can discuss those here, and continue discussions of the more specific issues that are raised in the summaries as they get posted on the conference blog. 

Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff was the keynote speaker who opened the conference, and as it discusses in the summary of his opening lecture, any reckoning with the issues of social justice and human rights can not meaningfully proceed until that reckoning is able to give an account of why justice matters. In all the very important activist work and theory production that goes on both in the advocacy world and academia, giving a an account of "why does justice matter?" can get lost in the details of fighting for justice. And yet, without such an account, how can we persuade the sceptical or agree on what constitutes justice in very complex cases, even where all sides desire justice? Does justice matter because without it we are not responding to some normative call for fairness? Does it matter because only with justice is any real human flourishing possible? Do we think of justice as a response mandated by divine authority, and if so, what does that mean for those who believe no such thing exists? Is justice necessary in a positive sense for social progress, or in a negative sense--to avoid things like war and suffering? Why should we, all of humanity, care about justice, and can we even have, is it even desirable to have, the same reason(s) for doing so?

The next thing that struck me as I read through the summaries again was comments by Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina, who spoke as a panellist in the inter-religious plenary panel on Religion and Human Rights in Canada of the need to find ways where liberal and orthodox traditions within a particular religion can learn to speak meaningfully with each other, making genuine progress through real dialogue. It was this emphasis on placing what often become opposing forces within a religious tradition--orthodoxy and liberalism, to paint in broad brush strokes--in real dialogue with each other that spoke to me. So often a human tendency seems to be to pull away from speaking or engaging with those with whom one does not agree, leaving sides to any given debate more and more polarized. We can see this within the Christian tradition as well, where divisions over "fundamentalism" and "liberalism" have shoved a growing wedge between members. How do we switch from polemics to real, engaged, debate and dialogue? 

Although there were many other discussions that made me pause and reflect and which I feel have been particularly helpful in transforming my own work and practice, I'll mention one other spot that stuck out to me in the summaries. This was the words of Deborah Stienstra in the panel "Disability and Human Rights: Issues of Access and Attitudes." So much of the conversation at the conferenced focused on finding a language and conceptual apparatus by which necessary practical work in human rights issues and advocacy could be done, but much of that discussion had centred on what, exactly, constituted a right or possibly even a human right. Dr. Stienstra posed the question from a different angle, implicitly asking how we think of what constitutes a human. Her point that disability is part of being human was a poignant reminder of our humanity, in all its personal and collective frailty, finitude and beautiful diversity. Any discussion of rights and justice needs to remember this, and remember the different needs and abilities of the complex creatures we all are.

There were many other very important and insightful discussions that warrant extended discussion toward transforming the way we live and work: the panel on Aboriginal Rights in Canada had vital reflections on land and identity that need to be heard and taken up; the panel on Environmental Rights highlighted the urgent need for stopping global ecological disaster before it becomes unavoidable; the panel on Children's Rights spoke of the intense impact of abuse and exploitation on the coming generations, and the need to provide a safe and flourishing upbringing not just for some children, or even "most" children, but for all children. 

There were a myriad of excellent discussions and discussion-starters, but I've raised these ones in particular to whet your appetite and get us talking. All of these issues are ones which we cannot afford to ignore, and which even if we could, I would argue that to do so would be fundamentally wrong. This is because justice does  matter, and our ability to pursue justice successfully is an intimate picture of who humans are and who we are becoming.  


  1. Allyson,

    Great post. Jam-packed with so much to think about, despite it only being a fraction of what was discussed at the conference.

    And just to narrow down a bit more, I'm only going to pick up on a few points you raised. I like these questions on the nature of justice and its role in society. If I'm not mistaken, we had a post up at the end of the summer/earlier this year that asked something similar? I'm going to reflect on the following questions:

    "Does justice matter because without it we are not responding to some normative call for fairness? Does it matter because only with justice is any real human flourishing possible? Do we think of justice as a response mandated by divine authority, and if so, what does that mean for those who believe no such thing exists?"

    I think the second of these gets at something fundamental about our world. We all know more or less what justice means, but I think the older and perhaps the wiser we get the less perfectionistic we will get about it. What I mean is that we will come to realize that justice is an ideal and one that we must never cease to work toward, but one that will in a sense never be attainable so long as there is imperfection in the world. And I think that is nothing to be pessimistic about. It has the sad but true echo of the parent's words to her child that "life isn't always fair." To equate justice with fairness is perhaps naive in this way. Justice must be meted out with regard to the fact that no retribution can ever be made for truly ghastly crimes, but retribution must be made nevertheless (yes, to promote human flourishing).

    Secondly, it takes wisdom and concern for the particulars of the situation to determine in what cases 'mercy' might perhaps be the better road to take. I think in some scenarios mercy might promote human flourishing far greater than justice. It takes mercy to dissolve an endless debt of wrongs that could never be paid back (I think of the situation in Gaza and both sides' unwillingness to submit or to have mercy for past wrongdoings).

    Third of all, to the last question you ask that I've selected, I think some think of justice as mandated by the divine. And see God as the most just and the most merciful judge at the same time. But I think authentic justice on earth looks the same regardless of who ordains it. Suffering is suffering, justice is justice, call a spade a spade, sort of deal.

    Is this helpful? Are there points I should take into consideration to sharpen my own understanding of these matters?

  2. Let me comment on the necessity of conserving and transforming branches of religions learning to acknowledge and learn from each other. This does seem to me to be a real need. In a world of rapid change in which it seems that change is ubiquitous and exists at the expense of continuity such that it threatens to sweep away all that was however precious, however necessary etc., responses to change tend to polarize. Some see much of what they hold dear in the world threatened by the velocity and ferociy of change. Can anything survive such a maelstrom? Can the faith of our mothers and fathers survive such a maelstrom? Their response is to work for preservation. Since the processes of change seem all-embracing, the resistence to change must be just as categorical. All change is a threat since any change in this age of total change is a threat in that it bespeaks the presence of total change. This response, however understandable, frustrates others within the same religious tradition. They too feel the force of change in our era. They may also have worries but they also see spiritual opportunity as well as spiritual threat. They do so because they still recognize a deep experiential truth, namely, that change and continuity are correlatives. Change exists with respect to continuity; continuity exists with respect to change. It is only the experience of change that allows us to experience continuity as distinct from change, and vice versa of course. But, in the face of the implacable resistance of those who fear any and all change, they come to invest ever more of themselves in processes of change and to invest ever less of themselves in preserving healthy continuities. What results is a bifurcation between those who think that their religion can only be healthy if it stays the same and those who insist that it can only be healthy if it embraces whatever changes come its way from the culture at large. And because the very health of the religion is at stake for both groups, suspicion of the other group is hard to avoid. After all, if the health of the religion involves staying the same (or changing) and the other group opposes staying the same (or changing) what is the motivation of the other group. For all the world it seems as if they are out to destroy the religion. Trust becomes very scarce and on both sides. The conditions for real dialogue wane or disappear altogether. To see that mutually transformative dialogue is necessary, however, will occur to the pro-change group for change (and what is transformation if not change) is what they are about. The need for such dialogue will not seem as obvious to the pro-continuity group. Indeed, separation, innoculation, guarded silence may seem far more responsible a strategy. So what would it mean for the two sides to truly engage each other? How could such an engagement be positioned such that it seemed like the right thing to do for those who insist on their religion staying the same as well as for those who equally insist it must change? It seems to me that only then can there be hope for meaningful dialogue, for only then will there grow the trust necessary for meaningful dialogue.

    1. What if the so-called 'liberals' or the 'pro-change' crowd aren't just in favour of change for changes sake, but for the sake of the vitality of the tradition to which they belong. We would not worry about change being an opposing force to continuity so much if we considered traditions as living organisms, organisms whose roots are there to sustain the growth and flourishing of the tree as it springs new branches into new spaces. Conservatives out to preserve continuity at all costs need to worry more about the fact that their attempts at preservation and protection may serve the petrifaction and not the perseverance of the tradition. Traditions must change in order to stay the same, a wise former ICS-professor once opined (Bill Rowe). Indeed it would be hard to pack more insight into the nature of tradition in one sentence. From reading Kevin Hector's book "Theology without Metaphysics," I have begun to think of traditions as what he describes as normative "trajectories." trajectories have a line that you can trace back to a foundation or origin, but they also have a line that extends into an unwritten future. Any tradition that is still alive and has not allowed itself to petrify is still on the way.