Tag Archives: social justice

Looking Back…..

Three years ago, I was asked to deliver what is billed at IUPUI as the “Last Lecture.” The series is so named because it is intended to be a reflection by an older faculty member, sort of a “summing up” of life lessons learned. (Obviously, it wasn’t my last opportunity to pontificate…) At any rate, I recently had occasion to re-read what I’d said, and was struck by fact that–three years down the road– we are even more deeply enmeshed in the world I described in the final few paragraphs.

I decided to share those unfortunately accurate concluding observations. Happy Sunday…..

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There’s a credit card commercial that says “Membership has its privileges.” Membership in society should have its privileges as well. That’s not necessarily an argument for massive welfare programs or redistribution of wealth. It is an argument for fundamental fairness, an argument that recognizes that we all benefit when inclusive social structures operate in the interests of all of our members.

From time to time, greed and fear obscure the reality of human interdependence. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in one of those times–an era characterized by an intentional refusal to recognize that there is such a thing as the common good, and a willful ignorance of the importance of mutual social obligation.

Addressing that willful ignorance is what social justice requires, but that is easier said than done.

I’m painfully aware that cultural institutions, folkways and intellectual paradigms influence people far more than logic and reason, and that culture is incredibly difficult to change. Structural barriers and ingrained privilege don’t disappear without significant upheavals or outright revolutions.

We may be approaching such a period of upheaval, not unlike the Sixties. When I look around, I see a depressing revival of tribalism, and widespread expressions of a racism I thought we’d moved beyond. The election of an African-American President was a sign of progress, but it clearly lifted a rock—and what crawled out is unbelievably ugly and destructive. The growth in inequality threatens to exceed the inequities of the gilded age, if it hasn’t already, and it is hard to argue with those who look around and see not a republic, not a democracy, but an oligarchy.

When I look at America’s politics, I’m reminded of a 1999 movie called “The Sixth Sense.” The young boy in that movie saw dead people; I see crazy people. I know that isn’t politically correct, but how else would you characterize some of the voices dominating our public discourse? How else explain the “birthers” and conspiracy theorists, the “Faux News” pundits and the websites peddling nativism, paranoia and propaganda? In what universe is Sarah Palin a potential Vice-President, or Roy Moore a state Supreme Court Justice or James Inhofe Chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment? On what planet do people pay attention to buffoons like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Louie Gohmert?

If I had to guess why so many of our fellow-citizens appear to have gone off the deep end—why they are trying to stockpile guns, roll back women’s rights, put gays back in the closet, stigmatize African-Americans and stereotype Muslims—I think the answer is fear. Change is creating a very different world from the one most of us grew up in, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. As a result, we have a lot of bewildered and disoriented people who find themselves in an increasingly ambiguous world; they are frantic for bright lines, clear rules, simple answers to complicated issues, and especially, for someone to blame. People who are confounded by new realities, and especially those who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives, evidently need to attribute their problems and disappointments to some nefarious “other.” So the old racist and sexist and homophobic tropes get trotted out.

Unfortunately, the desire for a world where moral and policy choices are clear and simple is at odds with the messy reality of life in our global village, and the more these fearful folks are forced to confront that messy reality, the more frantically they cling to their ideological or theological touchstones.

It may be that this phenomenon is nothing new, that there aren’t really more crazy people than before. Maybe, thanks to the Internet and social media, we are just more aware of them. I hope that’s true, but I don’t know–I only know that a scroll through Facebook elevates my blood pressure.

At the end of the day, what will prevent us from fashioning a social order that promotes and enables human flourishing is continuation of this retreat into anti-intellectualism, bigotry and various kinds of fundamentalism. We villagers only become fully human—we only flourish—through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.

I do see some welcome signs that the fever is abating, at least in the United States and at least among younger Americans. I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat: they may not be the best-informed generation, but they are inclusive and intellectually curious, and they care deeply about the planet and about their communities. For my grandchildren’s sake, I hope they can salvage this “village” we call Earth from the mess my generation is leaving them—and despite the fact that this has been my “Last Lecture,” I hope I hang around long enough to see if they succeed.

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I’m still hoping…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lavender Graduation

Last night, I was honored to give the brief keynote at IUPUI’s “Lavender” Graduation–a celebration of LGBT students who have earned diplomas and advanced degrees, and are graduating this May. This is what I told them.

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Graduations are wonderful times—I know that each of you is breathing a sigh of relief that you finally got through it all. You are savoring the thought of no more papers, no more juggling classes with work and family, no more putting up with picky professors…So I do want to encourage you to enjoy this moment. Have a drink—or three. Congratulate yourselves. You deserve it.

Then tomorrow, I expect you all to get up and begin a different “assignment”—one that will probably last for the rest of your life. Starting tomorrow, I want each and every one of you to be an activist for social justice.

Before you roll your eyes, let me describe what I mean by social justice, and what being an “activist” requires. I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t mean taking up arms in a revolution, or taking to the streets in protest—although you might end up doing those things, they certainly aren’t required by my definition.

So—first things first. Why should you care about some expansive concept called “social justice”? Why not limit your activism—assuming you bother to engage in it at all—to those causes that focus upon advancing rights for LGBT folks—to the causes that will benefit you most directly?

I’ll tell you why.

We live in a society with a lot of other people, many of whom have political opinions, backgrounds, holy books, and perspectives that differ significantly from our own. The only way such a society can work–the only “social contract” that allows diverse Americans to coexist in reasonable harmony–is within a legal system and culture that respect those differences to the greatest extent possible. That means laws that require treating everyone equally within the public/civic sphere, while respecting the right of individuals to embrace different values and pursue different ends in their private lives.

I know it’s hard for the Micah Clarks and Ted Cruz’s of this world to understand, but when the government refuses to make everyone live by their particular interpretation of their particular holy book, that’s not an attack on them. It’s not a War on Christianity. It is recognition that we live in a diverse society where other people have as extensive a right to respect and moral autonomy as the right they claim for themselves.

Ironically, a legal system that refuses to take sides in America’s ongoing religious wars is the only system that can really safeguard anyone’s religious liberty. Genuine equality is only possible in a “live and let live” system—in an open and tolerant society.

It is recognition of that fact that has brought many different kinds of Americans into many different civil rights battles: I’m Jewish and a woman, but in my own lifetime, I haven’t limited my participation to efforts to combat sexism and anti-Semitism. I’ve worked for racial justice, for LGBT rights, against efforts to marginalize immigrants—not because I’m some sort of noble person, but because I’m not. I’m actually very selfish, and I understand that my own rights absolutely depend upon equal rights for other people.

If everyone doesn’t have rights, they aren’t rights—they’re privileges that government can bestow or withdraw. In such a society, no one’s rights are safe.

So that’s the WHY. What about the HOW?

I said you don’t have to take to the streets to be an activist. What do you have to do? Let me just share a few examples of effective activism:

I wrote a regular column for the Indiana Word for some 25 years. In one of those columns, written just 16 years ago, I shared the story of a wedding attended by my youngest son. It was a lovely affair—formal, at an expensive Chicago hotel, conducted with meticulous attention to detail. The program book included a message from the bride and groom, reciting how enthusiastic they were to enter into wedded life, how sure they were that matrimony was the right choice for them. In fact, they said, there was only one hesitation, one fact that gave rise to a certain reluctance to marry: the fact that others were legally prevented from doing likewise. It seemed unfair that legal marriage was available to them, a man and a woman, and not available to others merely because they were of the same gender. The message concluded with a request that those present, who had shared the happy day with this particular couple, work toward a time “when everyone can enter into the institution of marriage and have their union recognized by society and the state.”

In that column, I speculated about what would happen to the pervasive bigotry against gays and lesbians if hundreds, then thousands, of heterosexuals added similar paragraphs to their wedding programs. I said it might change the world.

As we now know, actions like those and many others did “change the world.” Probably the most significant activism—the most consequential–was the courage of thousands of LGBT people who refused to live dishonestly and who “came out”–often with the support of their families and allies, but sometimes in the face of enormous hostility. Coming out was activism, and it was enormously effective.

Last year, marriage equality became the law of the land, and survey research tells us that solid majorities of Americans now endorse same-sex marriage and support the extension of full civil rights protections to the gay community.

Of course, we live in Indiana, where gays do not yet have civil rights protections. This state has a long way to go before LGBT folks achieve full civic equality . So look around, and you’ll see plenty of examples of social activism and plenty of opportunities to get involved.

Remember, in the wake of the passage of RFRA, the allies who started an organization and sold those now ubiquitous stickers that say “This business serves everyone”? What a great message. Putting that sticker on the door of your establishment –or encouraging a friend or neighbor to do so—is activism.

And what about the “Pence must go” signs you see everywhere? (I have one in my front yard—and so do three of my neighbors.) That doesn’t take much effort, but it’s activism that communicates to passersby that “here’s an Indiana citizen who doesn’t endorse bigotry.”

Speaking of time, the women involved in Periods for Pence are taking time to call the Governor’s office to remind him that he lacks the moral and constitutional authority to make women’s reproductive choices for them.

The bottom line is that activism can be expressed in many different ways. As we gather here, there are LGBT Republicans working to change the GOP state platform; there are lobbyists for Indiana Equality and Freedom Indiana and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce urging lawmakers to add four words and a comma to the state civil rights law, there are opinionated professors like me writing snarky blogs and columns…

Here’s the “take away.” A better world is a world where different people with different beliefs, living different kinds of lives, can co-exist without privileging some at the expense of others. That world won’t appear by accident. We all have to do our part to bring it into existence. We all have to be activists.

So celebrate tonight, and tomorrow, take your credentials and your accomplishments out into the world and use them to make that world a kinder, gentler, just-er place.

We old folks will be watching! And I personally will be cheering you on!

 

Libraries and Social Justice

Recently I was asked to speak to a group of library science students about the connections between libraries and social justice. I hadn’t previously thought about those connections, but I did some thinking and some reading….Here are the highlights of the ensuing talk. (It was a bit long, even for a “Sunday Sermon” so I’ve edited it pretty heavily….)

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There are some obvious ways in which libraries can serve the goals of social justice—ensuring that collections include sufficient information about the history of social justice struggles, the principles and philosophy, contemporary resources and the like.

Librarians can also advance social justice is by designing outreach services that meet the needs of underrepresented communities.

As important as these very practical activities are, I want to make a more theoretical argument for the role of libraries and librarians in promoting social justice.

The term social justice is inevitably defined in the context of a particular society, a particular form of governance. Take, for example, one of the many definitions of the term:

“… promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity.” It exists when “all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources.” In conditions of social justice, people are “not be discriminated against, nor their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristic of background or group membership.”

Challenging injustice. Equitable treatment. Human rights. Discrimination. Each of those terms is subject to wide variations in meaning—all are “constructed,” which is to say understood differently by different societies in different times.

We are concerned, obviously, with social justice in the American framework. And American libraries—like American conceptions of social justice– are creatures of a particular approach to the age-old question: how shall people live together?

I would argue that libraries as we know them are important protectors of what I call “the American Idea.” Some years ago, I wrote an essay about the importance of libraries to democratic citizenship:

I spent six years as Executive Director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, and of all the lessons I learned during that time, the most profound was this: the future of western liberal democracy rests on the preservation of intellectual freedom. That preservation, of course, is the library’s mission.

If that statement seems extravagant, consider both the ideological basis of liberal democracy and the nature of contemporary threats to that tradition.

Our national history would have been impossible without the Enlightenment concept of the individual as a rights-bearing, autonomous being. That concept is integral to our legal system; it is the foundation upon which our forbears erected the Bill of Rights. The Founders envisioned the good society as one composed of morally independent citizens whose rights in certain important circumstances “trumped” both the dictates of the state and the desires of the majority.….The First Amendment is really an integrated whole, protecting our individual rights to receive and disseminate information and ideas, to consider arguments and theories, to form our own beliefs and craft our own consciences.  It answers the fundamental social question– who shall decide? — by vesting that authority in each individual, subject to and consistent with the equal rights of others.

Our whole experiment with democratic governance rests on that foundation.  Implicit in the First Amendment is the legal system’s concept of personal responsibility, the University’s commitment to academic freedom, the moral authority of the clergy, the independence of the media, and the legitimacy of the political process.

Those who oppose free expression rarely, if ever, see themselves in opposition to the western liberal democratic tradition.  Most of the people who want to ban the book or painting are simply acting on their belief in the nature of the public good. Censors see unrestrained freedom as a threat to the social fabric, while civil libertarians believe the greater danger consists in empowering the state to suppress “dangerous” or “offensive” ideas. Censors see no reason to protect expression of low value—no point in protecting the marketplace for the exchange of shoddy goods. They have enormous difficulty understanding the difference between protection of the principle of free speech and an implicit endorsement of the offensive material at hand. And they have little or no appreciation for the argument that once one hands over to the state the authority to decide which ideas have value, no ideas are safe.

I spent my years at the ACLU battling attempts to control what others might read, hear or download.  I attended a public meeting in Valparaiso, Indiana, where an angry proponent of an ordinance to “clean up” local video stores called me “a whore.” I was accused of abetting racism for upholding the right of the KKK to demonstrate at the Statehouse. I was criticized for failure to care about children when I objected to a proposal restricting minors’ access to library materials.  In each of these cases, and dozens of others, the people who wanted to suppress materials generally had the best of motives: they wanted to protect others from ideas they believed to be dangerous. To them, I appeared oblivious to the potential for evil. At best, they considered me a naïve First Amendment “purist;” at worst, a moral degenerate.……..People try to remove materials from library shelves or the corner video store because they find the materials offensive. They try to prevent Klan marches because they disagree strongly with the hateful message of the Klan. Their arguments are against these particular ideasThey are not generally trying to strengthen the power of the state, nor intending to circumscribe the exercise of personal moral autonomy. Civil libertarians see those outcomes as inevitable consequences of censorship, however, and so those are the issues we address. In a very real sense, it is a case of culture warriors talking past each other.

Here’s my basic proposition: civil liberties of every kind depend upon  and require intellectual freedom. Social justice, as conceived in our particular system, rests on fidelity to those other constitutional rights—especially the 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection of the laws. Social justice and civil liberties are inextricably connected, and both require intellectual freedom.

For evidence, let’s revisit—and consider the elements of– the definition of social justice I shared earlier:

“… promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity.” Libraries safeguard the history of battles against injustice, the works of philosophers who offered contending perspectives on what is just and unjust. By their nature, by housing any and all ideas, libraries celebrate intellectual diversity.

 Social justice exists when “all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment” Libraries treat all patrons as self-directed persons with inalienable rights to access materials of their own choosing. Librarians thus model the attitude that all people share a common humanity, and they provide role models for the provision of equitable treatment.

 Social justice includes “support for human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources.” There are numerous ways in which libraries support human rights, beginning with the human right to access information. Libraries are also a community resource, an intellectual infrastructure that is made available to all members of the community.

 In conditions of social justice, people are “not be discriminated against, nor their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristic of background or group membership.” I’m not going to belabor this definition further, but I’ve never encountered a situation in which a librarian refused to help a patron based upon such criteria.

 I’ll just conclude by quoting an article by a librarian on the issue of libraries and social justice:

 Broadly speaking, social justice issues reflect movements that push for greater voice and more representation for underrepresented or underpowered communities. Because libraries and librarians are tasked to serve all communities, we are inherently involved with and must be aware of issues of social justice. Ideals near to the heart of social justice advocates are egalitarianism, balance of power, social advocacy, public service, and diversity awareness. All of these issues are reflected in the work that librarians do to serve our communities.

  

 

 

Social Justice

I was asked to talk to a group of scholarship students yesterday about effecting social change and achieving social justice.

I began by sharing a bit of my personal history with social change (there should be some lessons to be learned from living through a significant period of American social history). In my case, I grew up Jewish during the 50s and 60s; I watched the civil rights movement “up close and personal;” I took part in the women’s  movement; and I span the time between when “gay” meant “happy” and no one ever uttered the word “homosexual” and the current fight for same-sex marriage. So I have some perspective. And as I told the students, I can attest to the fact social change is not only possible, it’s inevitable.

Change, of course, is not synonymous with improvement. I’m absolutely convinced that if we want to create progress–good change–our efforts must be framed in ways that are consistent with what I like to call our “constitutional culture.”

“Constitutional culture” is simply a shorthand for the recognition that legal systems shape worldviews. The attitudes and expectations of people ruled by the Taliban are vastly different from the attitudes of people living in a country that emphasizes values of personal liberty and political equality.

The values incorporated in the American legal system, fortunately, are entirely consistent with an emphasis on social justice.

In the wake of the horrific shooting at Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s Town Hall in Tucson, PBS’ Mark Shields made an “only in America” observation that illustrates the point. Shields said:

“This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American President.”

There, in a nutshell, is what most of us would consider the triumph of American culture—the fact that the nation has moved, however haltingly, toward a vision that allows all of us to be members in good standing of our society, equal participants in our national story, whatever our religious belief, skin color, sexual orientation or national origin.  What makes us all Americans isn’t based upon any of those individual identities, but upon our allegiance to what I like to call “the American Idea”—a particular worldview based upon an understanding of government and citizenship that grew out of the Enlightenment and was subsequently enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

As I told the students, my argument is pretty simple: Social justice has to be approached from within that worldview, and arguments for social change need to be framed in ways that are consistent with it—or it won’t work.

Take the recent votes on same-sex marriage. The four victories at the polls on Nov. 6th were an exciting sign that public opinion is moving in the direction of equality and social justice. Of course, fundamental rights should never have been put to a vote of the electorate in the first place.  No one got to vote on whether the government should recognize my marriage, and it is constitutionally improper to give me the power to vote on anyone else’s.

The Bill of Rights marks off certain areas of our lives where government doesn’t belong—areas where we get to make our own decisions about our lives. Very few Americans seem to understand that in our system, the issue isn’t whether the book you are reading is good or bad—it’s who gets to decide what book you read. It isn’t whether you are praying to the proper God, or praying at all—it’s who gets to decide whether and to whom you pray. Constitutionally, the issue isn’t who you marry—it’s the propriety of allowing government to decide who you marry.

It’s because our system is based upon protecting our personal autonomy—our right to decide for ourselves how we shall live our lives—that social change so often begins with the courts. When majorities insist on making decisions that are not theirs to make, we need the courts to step in and remind us that in our system, fundamental rights are not subject to popular passions. Theoretically, our courts should all be “activist” when majorities try to make decisions they are not entitled to make, but the truth is, courts inevitably reflect the social attitudes of their times. Brown v. Board wouldn’t have been decided as it was unless popular sentiment had already moved. The fact that we have a judicial system charged with protecting minorities doesn’t relieve us of the duty to create the attitudes that enable the courts to do their job.

That brings us to the importance of framing. If we want to change social attitudes, and produce a cultural environment in which desirable change can occur, we need to frame the issues in ways that appeal to our sense of what it means to be an American.

Successive groups of outsiders have done that. They’ve staked their claims as Americans to equal treatment under the law. In the process, they’ve not only won social acceptance–they’ve made America’s Constitutional culture stronger–and life better and more just for us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving

For so many of us who are fortunate, Thanksgiving highlights a persistent irony of our lives: while there is injustice and suffering around us, our own lives are full and rewarding.

I’m Jewish, so this creates a considerable measure of guilt. I’m well aware that I’m no more deserving of my good fortune than my friend who lost a job or a husband or a child deserves that fate. So much of life is simply luck of the draw.

The least I can do–the least any of us can do–is cultivate humility and gratitude in the face of our blessings.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, because it gives us an opportunity to step outside our daily routines and appreciate what we have. In my case, that includes a wonderful spouse who has put up with me for many years, children and stepchildren who are loving and interesting and accomplished people who give back to their communities, and (of course!) perfect, beautiful, wonderful grandchildren. Add good health and a job that’s rewarding, and I count myself among the luckiest women around.

A friend I admire greatly is fond of saying “From those to whom much has been given, much is expected.” I think about that, and about the Talmudic injunction to the effect that, while God doesn’t expect us to perfect the world in one generation, we aren’t free not to try.

In a moral universe, those of us who have so much to be thankful for have an obligation to those less fortunate. We may disagree about the shape/nature of that obligation, but when we ignore it, we end up with shriveled souls.

Happy Thanksgiving!