Panel: What is Social Justice?

Annette Ritzko, Web Editor

Faculty members from the departments of history and religion hosted an open forum to discuss the question, “What is Social Justice?”

Forum panelists who participated in the Feb. 26 event include Dr. Allan Austin, Professor of History; Dr. Christopher Carr, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies; Dr. Brian Carso, Associate Professor of History; and Dr. Joseph Curran, Professor and Chair of Religious Studies.

After opening statements from the panelists, attendees were given time to speak and a handout that included different definitions for social justice and some criteria to consider when defining it.

Carr initially thought of the idea and formally proposed the event to Dr. Curran who was immediately receptive to both supporting the project and being a member of the panel, said Carr.

After Curran’s approval, the rest of the event organization involved finding other faculty members who were willing to be panelists.

Faculty members provided many reasons for the event, but they agreed that it was an attempt to understand different perspectives on defining social justice.

Curran believes there is a lot of misunderstanding about what social justice is and what it requires.

“Some of these misunderstandings are the result of political and ideological differences, so we thought it would be good to get past those and try to get at the meaning of the term and the values behind it,” said Curran.

Curran hopes that attendees took away a more nuanced and informed understanding.

“I think it’s important to talk about the values we hold and what we want society to look like, and to try to come to a deeper understanding of different points of view,” said Curran.

Carr has found that social justice is a goal many want to achieve, but one that does not appear to have an agreed-upon definition.

“Without a definition of social justice, we are just guessing at what we hope to achieve and probably will find ourselves working at cross purposes with those whose idea of social justice is different from our own. The purpose of the panel, at least for me, was to make people who are interested in the topic aware of the fact that the term social justice is undefined, or at least defined differently,” said Carr.

Austin said forums that generate conversations on such important topics are beneficial to both the surrounding community and society as a whole.

“The term is so vexed and complicated yet relevant on college campuses and elsewhere that I was pleased to have the chance to consider a variety of perspectives on the matter. These kinds of conversations are central to the functioning of our community and our broader society,” said Austin.

Carolyn Maguire, senior occupational therapy major, was one of about 50 attendees of the event, held in the library. She found out about the forum through a flyer on the Misericordia homepage.

Maguire had her own definition on social justice going into the discussion, but still came out with new knowledge.

“I think an important point that Dr. Austin brought up is that social justice has an emotional aspect to it, which is just as important to social justice than just trying to define what it means socially and/or politically. You know, as humans we aren’t really ever fully rational when it comes to basically anything, and so trying to ignore that emotional factor is pointless,” said Maguire.

Maguire found it interesting how much the definition of social justice fluctuated even among faculty in the same departments.

“It was interesting how much their definitions changed even when each of their basic concepts was promoting equality for all,” said Maguire.

Maguire thinks having an open conversation about topics like this are important.

“Dr. Austin was saying how the current polarizing political and social climate makes it easy for people to disengage and the fact that there’s such a difference between official definitions and popular definitions. I think an event like this offers people an opportunity to engage with the idea of social justice within a safe space to learn/understand/ask questions. Also anything that helps people to engage with the idea of social justice I’m down for,” said Maguire.

Carr was pleased with the turnout and the time, thought and effort each panelist put into their remarks.

“The ensuing conversation was intellectually stimulating, and I thought that the event as a whole was a living example of interdisciplinary collegiality among those with varying convictions and areas of expertise. Misericordia will certainly live up to its status as a university if there are similar events in the future,” said Carr.