Saturday, 20 February is World Day of Social Justice. To mark the occasion, Grammarian Sarah Dobbie (2010) has written this article.
When thinking about ‘social justice’, what it demands of me and us all, I find myself drawn to the words of André Brink, author and anti-Apartheid campaigner:
“There are only two kinds of madness one should guard against … One is the belief that we can do everything. The other is the belief that we can do nothing.”
- A Dry White Season
In my legal aid work, from Canberra to Cairo, in London and Lesvos, my desire to provide access to justice has often left me see-sawing between the two kinds of madness, determined one day that I will change everything and heartbroken the next that nothing seems to change.
At times, the thought of tackling large-scale social injustices can be utterly overwhelming. These injustices are perpetrated in as many different ways as we can divide a society — infringing rights and marginalising on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, age, disability, citizenship, class — and are in many ways increasing at exponential rates.
Yet André was right. As I have come to see, the madness of thinking that “I can do nothing” is two-fold.
The first is that there is no such thing as neutral inaction — when it comes to social justice, doing nothing is a choice. While as prevalent as the air we breathe, social injustices are not natural phenomena. They are perpetrated, and perpetuated, by our actions and omissions. While sometimes rooted in cruelty, they more often result from complicity and complacency. From the places we travel to the places we shop, the media we support and the memes we share, the jokes we encourage and the conversations we do not, everything we do can exacerbate injustice.
The importance of recognising this is not for blame or shame. Rather, it because our mere existence as human beings within the web of humanity means that we are all actors in social (in)justice. Social justice is about how fairness manifests in our society, it is about how we distribute and access wealth, resources, and opportunities. It is the justice between us, and when we fail to see the ‘us’, we choose the side of injustice.
The second is that the desire to ‘change the world’ means that we can lose sight of the countless small ways in which we can choose to lead our daily lives in pursuit of justice. For me, the starting point is reflecting on my own privilege and understanding how I am implicated in injustice. It means resolving each day not only to try to do more good, but perhaps more importantly, to do less harm. No single person can change everything. But we can be sure that not a single thing will change unless each of us speaks up, and stands up, to choose justice for all.
Sarah Dobbie (2010)
Sarah Dobbie graduated from CGGS in 2010. Following a Bachelor of Laws/Arts at the Australian National University, Sarah worked as a Refugee Legal Advisor in Egypt and Greece, before studying an MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies and a Bachelor of Civil Law at the University of Oxford. Sarah now lives in London, where she works as a barrister.