If you are reading this essay, that means that one way or another, you have access to it. You are probably part of the 20% of people who live on more than ten dollars a day (Shah, “Poverty Facts and Stats”). If this is so, then 80% are not. On paper these may seem like percent’s and numbers, which they are. But unfortunately, there’s more to it than that. We only have one world, so why should only some of us get to enjoy it while others can’t? Is there a promising way to make the world just for all, and not just for only some? Is this even a realistic question to be asking? What can we as Elon students, future global citizens and humans do? Well, my parents once told me that education is the key and as a sociology major, after taking many sociology classes at Elon university, I’ve gained a lot of diverse perspectives of thinkers both in sociology, philosophy and other fields I continue to discover the inherent sociologist in me.
For centuries, mankind has experienced poverty, discrimination, bloodshed, economic recessions and so much more. According to Thomas L. Freedman, “our world is crying out for ethical leadership,” (Freedman, An Ethical Compass). This ethical leadership comes from each one of us; yes I’m speaking to you! Until we exercise collective and individual integrity, responsibility and honesty, we will only continue to step back into history rather than forward. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, human activist and one of my heroes said in his Nobel Acceptance Speech in 1986, “More people are oppressed than free. How can one not be sensitive to their plight?” Wiesel poses a question that we must not overlook. Why is it that the majority are free, and for that matter, what is freedom anyhow? Wiesel’s mission statement for his foundation “The Elie Wiesel Foundation” states, “Our mission is to combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogues and youth focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality” (The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity). We must do just that.
I’ve come to realize that social justice and human rights, in general, is a tremendously complex issue that cannot be resolved in only a short period of time or for that matter by writing an essay. While all the perspectives I’ve encountered have many things to say about different forms of injustice and give input on human rights, I still remain puzzled with no concrete conclusions. As I myself approach this topic, I find myself asking: is it possible, and do we have the freedom to make our own choices? Or somewhere in our subconscious, are we limited by the societies and structures in which we live in? Furthermore, is society shaping us to believe that we lack free will? What if the real problem is in us, rooted in our subconscious?
Psychology studies have found that simply believing that we possess free will “helps people adhere to cultural codes of conduct that portend healthy, wealthy and happy life outcomes” (Tierney, Do you Have Free Will?). Clearly, there is a pattern here worth exploring. A good example of this pattern is the cycle of poverty. Christopher Gergen and Stephen Martin wrote an article published recently on December 7, 2013 in the “News and Observer.” In their article, Gergen and Martin speak about ways in which poverty can be reversed but only with a “holistic approach.” The two believe that the individual generates this cycle of poverty more than society itself. “When families have been trapped in poverty for more than three generations, living members usually cannot pass along the intellectual, social, or cultural capital needed to escape poverty- limiting access to financial means, education opportunities, or helpful connections.” More so, they believe that the cycle “perpetuates from generation to generation, exacerbating social isolation and reducing chances to break the cycle without outside intervention” (Gergens & Martin, “Doing Better: Reversing Cycle of Poverty Requires Sustained, Holistic Approach”). While sociologists believe otherwise placing more emphasis on surrounding environments and societies, Gergen and Martin’s approach is also one worth noting as apparently, free will has played a major role in the development and perpetuation of poverty, only one of the many forms of social injustice in our world.
John Rawls, a political philosopher approaches the issue somewhat differently. In 1971, Rawls created the theory of social justice. According to his theory, “each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override…justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others” (“Social Justice Issues”). You must be wondering, why I am throwing you a theory from 1971 from a man you most likely never heard of? Well, the answer is not simple but I’m willing to try to explain to the best of my ability. In order for justice to exist, first we must focus all our attention on “collective interests, human rights, social equality and [providing] equal resources…” (“Social Justice Issues”). The question is then, how do we succeed in doing so? Numerous efforts have been made to resolve issues facing social justice in our world and yet it is still a reality. As we engage in these types of discussions, we must first reflect and ask ourselves what questions we should ask and how should approach these ethical, moral issues? More than two thousand years ago, philosophers came up with the term, “the Common Good Approach.” In this approach to justice, they believe that we must depend on policies in place, systems, institutions and environments and assess whether they benefit all or only some. With approaches like these, we can better reflect on these issues and continue to create a society in which all needs are met.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy” (Gutierrez, “Ten Inspirational, Motivational Quotes for Social Justice and Activism”). I don’t know about you, but I am willing to take that step that King was talking about even if it means going feeling uncomfortable or conflicted, in order to achieve justice.
I remember watching a documentary that was made in 2011 called “Happy”. Through the documentary, we are taught about the different and emerging social indicators of happiness. Surprisingly, in a world in which money and status are socially expected yet only attained by few, money is not the sole indicator of happiness and wellbeing. Instead, indicators such as community, spirituality, social ties, cooperation and compassion are the main causes of happiness in the majority of the world. Happiness not only comes with social support, health, and a sense of community, but it’s also free! Everyone and anyone has access to it, as it is universal and a human right that no law can eradicate. Everyone is entailed to happiness and therefore more time must be dedicated to further understanding and studying the phenomenon of happiness in order to better understand how happiness can be more easily accomplished. If we begin to focus more on things such as happiness and free will like Gergen and Martin suggested, we may discover a new approach to justice, one that is more accessible to all.
This past fall semester I took a course, classical sociological theory, and my outlooks on the world have thus far been influenced and tainted by many thinkers of the past, and even some of the present. While they didn’t live in our times, they have lived long enough to see that social injustice and lack of human rights exists. The founding fathers of sociology left behind their theories, mindsets, and visions addressing some of the issues facing our world today. While I do not coincide with all of their ideologies and values, the ideas in themselves are worth reflecting upon and applying to our own world and individual lives. Now, when thinking about social justice and human rights, I cannot help but think of their words and ideas as they resonate in my head. Let me show you what I mean.
Karl Marx, sociology’s first conflict theorist often misperceived for his Marxist ideology and communist views, left behind many notable thoughts of what the future would hold, and sadly, became a well-known visionary as his vision became fairly accurate. Marx understood the root of society’s problems stemming largely from capitalism, our economic system in place. According to Marx, the motive for all the inequality in our world is due to the fact that we are stuck in the prehistoric stage of history. Metaphorically, we are the caterpillar rather than the butterfly and have therefore not yet fully matured; however this current stage we are in is needed in order to achieve the butterfly stage someday. In this caterpillar stage, capitalism pervades, and according to Marx, forbids us from reaching our full human potential and freeing ourselves. Also in this stage, our wants have become our needs and we can therefore never reach satisfaction as we always strive for more, constantly on the hedonic treadmill in which happiness can never be attained. While I am opposed to his idea that capitalism is harming our human potential, I do for the most part agree that our wants are increasingly becoming our needs, blinding us to some of our human values. As a materialist, Marx believed that our basic needs are not simply materialistic, but also psychic which society tends to often overlook as we move towards a materialistic world. Society is capable of distorting our aspirations and can cause suffering and unhappiness warping our limits and understanding of the self. As humans, we want to be fulfilled and society is the only thing that can determine whether we become self-realized or not, as society fully shapes us and determines us, that is, according to Marx. His vision of our future was rather pessimistic, as he believed that no system would be good enough and would only destroy and harm humanity, as we know it. Marx believed that one of the sole purposes of being human is the struggle for dominance and production. Capitalism results in the destruction of personal relationships and replaces our idealistic values with materialistic ones. With materialism enclosing us, we increasingly become thinner with fewer possessions, losing sight of our moral values. While we are instruments able to create products and goods, we are simultaneously becoming blinded by modernity as it eats us up and makes us slowly disappear into the abyss. Marx would therefore say that social justice and human rights could only be achieved once communism replaces both capitalism and socialism, a belief not socially approved today by most. Once again, while I do not agree that capitalism is the root of the world’s problems, Marx is one father we must consider when shaping our objectives for the future. So then, are some of the major causes of social injustice today due to our economic systems currently in place, as Marx suggests? If Marx were here, he would tell us to apply economic determinism to fully understand and analyze our society. In other words, we must follow the money by looking at economic trends and only then will we be able to fully analyze and solve our global evils. While Marx provides us with some interesting insight, is our economy encouraging evils and creating injustice? For Marx it is, but not according to everyone.
Unlike Marx, Georg Simmel believed that society is a social network connected by interactions among individuals, and social life is only possible through human interaction and the social self and should not be solely examined by following the economy. Human nature, according to Simmel, is dynamic and always changing, constantly molding itself accordingly. In order to address social justice and human rights issues, Simmel would first focus on a priorities, or forms of sociation that structure our interactions. Since Simmel believed that the society and individual are interdependent of one another, he would think that the roots of all problems are not just due to our surrounding environments but also mankind. Simmel would say that conflict is not necessarily an evil thing but fosters social unity as well as mutual understanding. Although he did not agree with the economic deterministic model that Marx suggested, he would agree with Marx in that conflict is necessary and beneficial yet not society’s greatest problem, however it’s the relationship between external forces and internal forces on our lives that is an even greater problem. Another issue he would say is the division of labor as it fragments the self and culturally determines us as modernism rises and strips us of our independence and our humanity.
Like Simmel, Georg Herbert Mead, a developmental theorist and symbolic interactionist would also focus on interactions and, like the theory’s name says, their symbols. Mead viewed society as the process of adaptation to changing environments, as society adaptive in nature. Therefore, something that makes us human is our ability to adjust according to our surroundings. As a humanist, social behaviorist, social scientist and symbolic interactionist, during his lifetime Mead fought for education, women’s rights, improving the lives of workers and immigrants, political and prison reform and race relations. If he were alive today, he would be one of the most active humanists among the founding fathers of sociology. Mead was one who truly valued the process of reflection, imagination and encouraged social organization as he defined the process of history as just that. His vision of the future was one of the most affirmative ones among the fathers. Mead believed that the future could see a so-called “universal society,” one in which social potential would be fulfilled and no violence, poverty or war would exist, only peace and social unity. Mead also believed that the self, mind and society are interdependent and cannot exist without the other. With communication, development and intelligence would thrive and problems would be able to be prevented and avoided by having knowledge and foresight of future consequences. Rather than economic determinism, Mead would advice us to refer to the deterministic model. Determinism signifies that human choice does not exist and we are only controlled by the society we live in. He would ask us to become “the generalized other,” one possessing social awareness, neighborliness and compassion. Mead would also want us to reflect and think of possible alternatives in order to make the right choices for the good of the future. Nowadays, Mead’s perspectives and theory are used to examine things such as “dramatic increase in prison populations, the gross-over representation of minorities, the increased incarceration of youth, high recidivism rates, and the increased privatization and industrialization of prisons” (Neeley & Deegan, George Herbert Mead on Punitive Justice, pg. 1). As we apply Mead to our own considerations of social justice and human rights, we “can learn to take the role of others and develop social responses to shape and reflect community values” (Neeley & Deegan, George Herbert Mead on Punitive Justice, pg. 72). If hatred can be learned, then justice can be learned as well. According to Mead, it’s all about “learning behavior; it involves the entire person in the process of becoming human” (Neeley & Deegan, George Herbert Mead on Punitive Justice, pg. 72). Lastly, Mead would remind us of our “flawed self” which can be a “result of a number of different barriers in the connection of the self, other and society (i.e. an inability to take the role of the other, an inability to inhibit hostile emotions, an inability to connect actions and consequences, etc)” (Neeley & Deegan, George Herbert Mead on Punitive Justice, pg. 72). This flawed self that Mead speaks of is greatly noteworthy as we seek the roots to social justice.
Similarly, Max Weber is someone who would most likely agree that humans are reflexive and are therefore separated by other species with the ability to contemplate and act accordingly. As a historicist, he would say that by looking at past historical events, we can learn from the past and therefore act toward a better future, one with the generalized other or in other words, one in which we would able to put ourselves into the shoes of others. Weber would apply his type of approach referred to as “technocratic” which “involves the assessment of goals and means in terms of ultimate human values of social justice, peace, and human happiness” (LWell, The Sociology of Max Weber).
While the next dead white guy may not be a sociologist, he still has had major influence on the social sciences as his psychology can always be applied. According to Freud, in order to grasp human behavior, we must first examine mental health, mental illness, and the instinctual drives that possess us, forcing us to act in certain ways, either negatively or positively. For Freud, an ideal society would consist of humans capable of subordinating instincts through reflection, analysis and rechanneling certain needs. Once again, while he did not have any sociological theories in mind, his input still contributes to the science of sociology and social sciences in general. Freud might blame injustice and the lack of human rights as being a product of mental illness or mental instability and would examine the basic needs of humans prior to our society as a whole. In an article written for The British Journal of Social Work about mental health and its link between social justice, it says the following, “where we understand social justice as, on one hand, an issue involving equality and fairness, and on the other hand as having both material and symbolic dimensions it becomes clear that there is an important link.” Maybe Freud was right in applying his beliefs of mental health and illness and how it affects the individual in society. Studies have shown a causal relationship between mental disorders and discrimination, only one form of injustice, and may be worth noting.
Structural functionalist Emile Durkheim on the other hand, approached things quite differently. Durkheim believed that all parts of society are essential. In other words, the whole can only be complete with every piece of the puzzle. Even if one piece is missing, the entire puzzle is at risk of being destroyed. That being said, it can be presumed that Durkheim would have viewed injustice as a vital part of the puzzle we call society. Durkheim believed that poverty is even essential, as it would prevent overpopulation and it provides a wealth distribution system along with division of labor. He would also say that the gap between the rich and the poor is natural and needed for society to keep functioning. These are just some of the injustices he would find necessary and constructive to our collective social system. He based all of his ideas on social cohesion and harmony. In order for society to maintain balance and homeostasis, Durkheim believed some necessary evils must subsist. Unlike most of the fathers, he believed that we have the power to change or alter the course of history as we always have impact on society whether that impact is large or small.
In regards to human nature, clearly all the thinkers above have had something significant to say. First off, human nature according to most of sociologist’s theorists is dualistic in nature signifying that there will always be both good and evil in our world.
Secondly, as humans we are a unique species due to our ability to reflect and contemplate therefore having some free will when it comes to making decisions. We also possess consciousness and subconscious which can be both beneficial or not.
Thirdly, we have the ability of role taking. We are the only species who can adopt several perspectives and understand others. We must use this power prudently as it can help us better appreciate those around us and treat others as we would treat ourselves, fostering social justice and human rights to all.
Fourthly, as humans we have instincts and basic human needs. Sometimes, these instincts may be more powerful than us. However, there are ways to repress them and only by learning how can this be made possible. For Freud, therapy is one solution.
Fifth and lastly, there’s mob mentality, which is also part of our nature. As a society, there will be times when social expectations may threaten individual objectives. It is therefore crucial that we become aware of this. In his book “Sane Society,” Erich Fromm described human nature as having “malleability” (Pg. 13, Sane Society). This aspect of our nature can result negatively as sometimes the collective mentality is not beneficial to all. Fromm later states, that a way to detach oneself from this mob mentality, is by possessing “self-awareness, reason and imagination” (Pg. 71, Sane Society). If what Fromm says is true, maybe practicing self-awareness, reason and imagination is key as we attempt to create a more just world.?In conclusion, all human beings no matter their race, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion (etc. etc. etc…) should be able to live freely as this is our world and no one should be held back from fulfilling their potentials in it. Whether it’s society that’s the root of the problem, or us. Either way, all these perspectives have taught me that a holistic approach is necessary in order to move forward. Every thinker became a product of their time and circumstances and while we can learn a lot about their ideas, we must also remember that as times change, our ideas and outlooks must also evolve and grow in order to keep up with our societies.
Elon is giving us the opportunity to speak up and use our voices that we are so fortunate to have. We must make a difference. Some people don’t have the chance or means to use their voices and so we must, for the sake of our planet and civilization, educate others and ourselves while we can. Although I have not come to any conclusion, I have achieved the first step, becoming aware and educating myself. Because you read this paper, so have you.
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