23. The basics of social justice: Ubuntu, I am because we are

Author: Savannah Bradley, Senior

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” – Rumi

After four years of studying sociology, I have been exposed to the horrific, socially constructed injustices that seemingly inevitably result from human social organization. The horrific transgressions committed as a result of the deluded us-vs-them mentality , such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi people in which entire villages were systematically herded into their churches and slaughtered (Tutu, 2010). Where does the kindness that is supposedly a basic element of our humanity exist in such a situation? How can there be any hope for a future? Why do we need to hope?  Despite being forced to wrestle with the evasive answers of such haunting questions, earning a degree in this discipline has paradoxically destroyed and reinforced my faith in humanity. In seeking to follow in the footsteps of my sociological masters, I have found that the trail leads not to the destination of some specified Utopia, but rather to a mindset centered upon societal elements of connection. For whatever reason, the confluence of natural and nurtured forces within my brain has labeled these elements of connection as love. Therefore, I find myself comprehending human society and attempting to alleviate its burdens using the idea that our fundamental human ties can conquer all that ails us. Throughout my journey to discover that which it means to be human, I have found love to in some way or other be an essential motivational factor behind nearly every deed of human action. Even destructive powers, such as the type of nationalistic pride which reveres blind adherence to cultural traditions, are often rooted in some modicum of necessity of connection to others.
As most Western 20-somethings seem to find during this period of the life cycle, I have discovered a deep longing for the recognition of my particular purpose. At present, I have unearthed a boundless yearning to contribute something meaningful for the sake of creating a brighter future for all of my human family. Despite my apparently optimistic perspective on agency, doubts regarding the effectiveness of such a pursuit continue to assail my developing theoretical paradigm. While I would never want to embark on some blindly optimistic journey that is reminiscent of Marx’s irrational post-Capitalism fantasy, I am becoming increasingly convinced about the ability of small acts of goodwill to amount to tremendous eventual change (Arcaro, class notes on Marx, 5 September 2013). After all, Desmond Tutu’s observation that “the sea is really only drops of water that have come together” speaks to the effectiveness of even the most minuscule of elements to band together as essential elements of a dynamic whole (Shadyac, 2010). It is my perspective that individual, incremental acts of kindness and goodwill amount to a great deal of force that can change the world. Awareness of one’s own immersion in certain cultural traditions is necessary for eventual consciousness of being connected to the human race because it provides the experience of group cohesion, as well as illuminates socially constructed assumptions that may inhibit ability to connect with those who have met the challenges of being human differently.
What is ubuntu?
I am who I am because of who we all are (Gade, 2011). The concept of restorative justice which was popularized as it arose during South Africa’s transition to democracy, known in the Nguni group of languages as ubuntu, best describes the basis of my developing perspective concerning the future of humankind and my duty to the family of humanity. However, the term has been in written existence since at least 1846 and has since undergone changes in discourse reflective of the various ebb and flow of the social climate (Gade, 2011). Tutu’s (1999: 31) experiences during South Africa’s transitioning political climate characterizes the Ubuntu philosophy by stating that “it speaks of the very essence of being human… It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ It is not, ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather, ‘I am human because I belong. I participate, I share’ … What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. It gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.” My exploration of the social sciences has taught me that far too often, we tend to focus upon our differences, on how another group of individuals copes with the difficulties of being human than we do, instead of recognizing that according to our very nature we all face the same struggles. If agendas concerning issues of social justice are actually to be anything meaningful, then they must primarily concern themselves with highlighting our commonalities. Doing so allows humankind to recognize that regardless of race, class, or gender identity, the quintessential human experience differs only slightly across this spectrum of social constructions.

Borrowing from Durkheim’s structural functionalist idea that cultural differences are merely functional alternatives that demonstrate humankind’s various attempts to cope with our needs such that society functions at an optimal level, I am capable of perceiving the similar tie of human need that binds us (Arcaro, class notes on Durkheim, 12 September 2013). Such vision grants the perceive the prerogative to peer through the pretensions of cultural constructions based on the us-and-them mentality in order to decipher the most appropriate means of not only coexisting with, but celebrating, our humanity. From the period of 1993 to 1995, during the aforementioned South African political transition towards an anti-apartheid democratic political system, the Nguni proverb “a person is a person through other persons” was first used to describe the ubuntu philosophy (Gade, 2011: 303). During such a complex shift in social ideology, it seems remarkable that the those involved would be able overlook the misguided dogma that had been suffocating the South African people for far too long.

Human Interdependence
The extension of the ubuntu philosophy as a sociological paradigm bases the study of society not upon understanding it as it relates to ethnocentric notions, but rather grounds the sociological infrastructure with the idea that the deepest understanding of all our human kin is most suitably grasped through the lens of human interdependence. While growing older in human society comes with the cost of adopting a limited frame of perception as based on the cultural constructions. Nobody can ever completely free themselves of the prejudices of the society in which he or she has been raised, but attempts to recognize such ignorant biases are the most sincere endeavors upon which we can embark. Perhaps George Herbert Mead’s theory of the emergence of universal society after the expansion of the significant other to encompass all of the diverse characteristics of the generalized other  (Arcaro, class notes on Mead, 1 October 2013). Coleman Barks, the author of The Essential Rumi, described his own perception of this Utopian society with a statement clearly reminiscent of Rumi, “you couldn’t possibly go to war if the Beloved was everyone” (Shadyac, 2010).
Recognition of one’s interdependence and indebtedness to humanity requires consideration of the creation of a just social environment. As all of us entered into this world in the same manner, so shall we similarly depart from it. From this reductionist perspective, the intricacies of the middle chunk of our life cycles are the only portions that contain substantial differences dependent upon individual experiences. I believe that each and every one of us are indebted to one another and as such should seek to overcome the prejudices of social constructions that have been layered upon us as vestiges used by our ancestors to cope with the challenges of being human. Marx conceived of human need as being finite, such that the necessary evil of capitalism could create an efficiency of production could increase such that every human would eventually have enough food, clothing, and shelter (Arcaro, class notes on Marx, 3 September 2013). While his operationalization of the “need” variable logically supports his particular theory, human need is multi-faceted and far too varied to be solved purely by an economic force. Marx’s underestimation of the human psychic need to set oneself apart from the rest by garnering the most of whatever widget in question is perhaps his biggest mistake in assuming that humankind could ever awake from the capitalist virus that has quickly spread to infect every other social institution. Instead of contributing to the creation of a more equitable social environment, the production component of capitalism as envisioned by Marx in reality has drawn our attention and efforts to creating an environment of equality.
Equality, while similar in etymology to equity, starkly differs in basic principle. I recently found myself discussing this concept with a friend in one of my anthropology classes concerning equity in the arena of education. Equality deals primarily with issues of quantitative division. For example, ensuring that equal numbers of boys and  girls are granted access to basic education deals with equality. Such may seem an admirable goal at surface level. However, ensuring that the girls would have the same opportunities allotted to the boys in schools is a matter of equity. How could education be of benefit to girls if they enter into the institution only to once again find themselves subjugated in favor of the boys? Teachers within the school may provide the boys with prestigious tasks or may grant the boys with more positive reinforcement than they do for the girls. In such circumstances, the absence of equity serves to reproduce social injustice despite the originally honorable intention of bridging the gap in educational opportunity. While equality and equity are each incredibly important elements of cultivating a more just social environment, issues of equity are often underestimated due to lack of consideration for the effects of spreading ideas. When something which it typically considering beneficial, such as education, is fostered in an environment in which it did not previously exist, the consequences are often discounted based on the assumption that the implemented institution is inherently good.
Ubuntu as a form of human interdependence and dignity toward one another places the individual’s cultural group as the closest link of interconnectedness,  due to cultural similarities, followed by the rest of humankind (Waghid & Smeyers, 2012). This sense of belonging with the cultural group inspires and enables the feelings of camaraderie that can then be experienced between the individual and humanity as a whole. “That is, it is necessary that one has internalized a sense of connectedness with the cultural group to which one belongs, which will hopefully be extended to universal others” (Waghid & Smeyers, 2012: 12). The similarities between the universal society described by Mead and the Ubuntu philosophy demonstrate the sociological forbearance of an idea that had previously only been considered for its cultural significance (Arcaro, class notes on Mead, 1 October 2013; Waghid & Smeyers, 2012). Social justice directly relates to these ideas in that one culture’s acceptance of the practices of different cultures for the purpose of celebrating the splendid variety of their human connection is indeed the acting embodiment of selfless love. Regardless of race, class, religious tradition, or gender identity, it is important to value the human element that unites us all by creating an environment in which every community and tradition has equitable opportunities and means to achieve the goals that are respectively of value to each group.

On Love
Love requires one to consider the most effective means of connecting with others rather than basing one’s assumptions of the idea that one mode of functioning is the optimal means of action. For example, education is not of the utmost importance to a rural, tribal community that daily struggles with accumulating enough food to sustain its population. Therefore, implementation and provision of the Western values of education and technology fails to understand the community for what it truly is. Rather it perceives the community through ethnocentric eyes. Replenishment of livestock and relocation to traditional tribal grounds would likely be of greater value to those within the community than learning how to speak English or use an iPad. Unfortunately, capitalism and the “progress” of Western civilization perceive society as having evolved along a linear trajectory where few impoverished aboriginal communities continue to lead lamentably “primitive” lifestyles (Moore, 2009). Changing our culture to a culture of acceptance and value of the traditions of those that may differ from our own is a slow, but steady means of ensuring a shift towards the common goal of brotherly love.
Fighting for a socially just world is predicated on the assumption that love is the most valuable asset that we, the naked apes, have been given. Instead of focusing upon the competition aspect of Charles Darwin’s work as popularized by the scientific community and supported by the algorithm of capitalism, humankind should change its ambitions towards the encouragement of cooperation (Arcaro, class notes on Marx, 3 September 2013; Shadyac, 2010). Contrary to the popularity garnered by his ideas regarding the survival of the fittest and the inherent instinct of human competition, it can be argued that Darwin was an even stronger advocate for the idea that cooperation is one of the strongest elements that defines our humanity (Shadyac, 2010). The ubuntu paradigm supports this notion as it is based on the understanding that I can only exist as I am because of your existence (Gade, 2011; Mandela, 2005;  Tutu, 1999). The popularity of competition appeals to our psychic need to have more than our neighbors  and supports the greed and wealth that have driven Western society to madness (From, 1955). As social creatures, one of our most fundamental needs is to be connected to other people in mutual connectedness in such that we are loved by and love others. Western values of capitalistic competition work against this basic need. Growing up in a way that creates scabs and distance between individuals by labeling them as competitors prevents us from learning to love one another because we are more concerned with protecting ourselves. Such conditions have allowed for the predominance of hollow love and shallow connections to fill the void left by our need for connection. As a result, issues of social justice and improving the world so that each of us may have an equitable chance at pursuing the happiness and connection we respectively desire  have become increasingly less valuable as Western social goals.
According to Fromm (1955: 16), “culture provides patterns which enable them to live with a defect without becoming ill. It is as if each culture provided the remedy against the outbreak of manifest neurotic symptoms which would result from the defect produced by it.” Adherence to the cultural script of worshiping technological innovation, we have begun to devalue our social actions and have, in turn, devalued ourselves as social actors. Even our more serious affairs like business and the legal system are drenched in the appeal of the entertainment industry. It is almost as if our technological devices have become intravenous drips that we carry everywhere in order to maintain the constant medication provided by our portable sources of entertainment. Such preoccupation with constant amusement and digital communication has resulted in the creation of an additional form of illusory connection to other human beings. Similar to the false consciousness described by Marx as provisional for oppression of the proletariat, the convenience of entertainment as afforded by technological development presents a new variant of this idea (Arcaro, class notes on Marx, 5 September 2013). Nietzsche attributed the death of God to the fact that, with the rise of reason and global society, the disjointedness religious could not maintain its position as the moral authority and anthropomorphization of the collective consciousness of such a complex society (Arcaro, class notes on Nietzsche, 29 October 2013). I propose that we have entered into a new era in which the entertainment industry now embodies the collective consciousness of the Western world.
The worship of entertainment in the current sense, with the creation of the digital technosphere developed around our individual preferences, allows for a form of narcissism that has created generations of automated individuals who can only love in the shallowest of senses (Arcaro, class notes on Fromm, 7 November 2013; Fromm, 1955). Instead of promoting the ubuntu philosophy of connection based on the principle of existence, it appears we have capitalized on the ability of the technosphere to celebrate Western individualism. As digital islands, we have become so individualistically isolated that social justice and participating in the creation of a just social environment have almost effectively become inconsequential. Instead of utilizing technological forces as tools to change the cultural script and allow for the equitable inclusion of marginalized groups in pursuing and achieving their goals, we have failed to perceive the accomplishment of their goals as truly a realization of the ambitions of humanity. Instead of understanding that we are them, we have devolved into the solitary state of I am. Ironically, the isolation of individualism in contemporary industrial society has turned the population into a group of homogeneous robots (Fromm, 1955).
How does Western society turn it’s hopeless individualism into a celebration of others as individuals? How does love overcome the narcissism nurtured by the capitalist system? How does social justice rise to its rightful place of importance on the Western agenda?

Tutu (1999: 31) states that “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human.” This statement exemplifies the relationship that I observe between Western society’s obsession with technological innovation and the lack of connection in Western society. It also suggests that there is some discrepancy between the understanding of human interconnectedness as communicated in the Nguni language group and the ability of Westerners to understand ubuntu due to cultural constructions of the meaning of community. The connectedness of the ubuntu philosophy describes the genuine love discussed by Fromm (1955) and the concept of the conversion of the generalized other to the significant other as theorized by Mead (Arcaro, class notes on Mead, 1 October 2013). Our lack of connection has become the ”socially patterned defect” that is shared by may as the cultural script encourages its replication through the mass assimilation towards this defect (Fromm 1955: 15).
Instead of blindly cruising along on the cultural conveyor belt, I seek to create a life of contemplation and connection to the human race. Social justice begins at the individual level at the moment in which one person empathizes with the struggles of someone living a slightly different human experience. This spark of compassion can lead to a rapid spread of change through the contagion of human interaction, just as the convergence of water droplets has come to create the sea. Incrementalism and ubuntu emphasize the individual simultaneously draw attention to the individual’s connection to the whole. “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom” (Mandela, 2005).
Arcaro, T. (2013). Class notes.
Fromm, E. “The Sane Society.” New York: Holt Publishing, 1955. Print.
Gade, C. N. (2011). The Historical Development of the Written Discourses on Ubuntu. South African Journal Of Philosophy, 30(3), 303-329.
Mandela, N. “Overcoming poverty.” The Campaign to Make Poverty History. London, England. 3 Feb 2005.
Shadyac, T. (Director). (2010). I Am. United States: Shady Acres Entertainment.
Tutu, D. (1999). “No Future without Forgiveness.” New York: Doubleday
Waghid, Y., & Smeyers, P. (2012). Reconsidering “Ubuntu”: On the Educational Potential of a Particular Ethic of Care. Educational Philosophy And Theory, 44(2), 6-20.3

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