The Emotional Roots of Social Justice

Gary and MSYPs

Gary with members of the Scottish Youth Parliament

Image source: curriculumforequity.org

I am a PhD Researcher based at the School of Education in University of Glasgow. My main interests relate to social justice, citizenship education and values. My background is in education, having worked in a variety of roles including teacher, trainer, youth development worker, project manager and researcher. I am equally interested in practical, political and theoretical perspectives, and I am especially interested in the tricky spaces between those perspectives. I recently co-authored a book exploring the role of values through a series of interviews – ‘Speaking of Values’ – and I have conducted a critical analysis of character education from a social justice perspective, which was informed by extensive work in this field with teachers, academics, policy makers and young people. I also run the Curriculum for Equity website and Twitter platform, when I get the chance. Most importantly of all, I am a Dad and husband.

I was delighted to be asked to write a piece for this website. I am going to focus on social justice and the role of emotions. To address this topic, I want to write about an excellent event I recently attended that fired up my own emotions. I will offer a summary and some reflections on it before offering some thoughts on the role of emotions in social justice. The event was held at University of Glasgow and was provocatively entitled ‘Social Justice in Austere Times’. An impressive line-up of speakers included Emeritus Professor Bob Lingard (University of Queensland), Dr Sinead Gormally, Dr Robert Doherty (both University of Glasgow) and Dr Jacqui Purdie (Headteacher-in-Residence, University of Glasgow).

Bob Lingard image

Image source: University of Glasgow

Professor Lingard spoke about the global policy environment and the implications this has had on how we understand social justice in education. He remarked that social justice can be a tricky concept to articulate and that it is sometimes easier to understand injustice. He went on to frame the plight of social justice in terms of the growth of structural inequality on the one hand, while on the other, a free market which has seemingly become more powerful than the state. He argued that this turn towards neoliberal globalisation has had a direct effect on the conceptualisation of social justice in education. Social justice is being rearticulated as ‘policy as numbers’, characterised by an increase in national testing driven by international comparisons using PISA and a huge increase in the generation of data more generally in education. He drew parallels with current policy moves in this direction in Scotland. Using the work of Nancy Fraser he illustrated how states and transnational bodies are monopolising the process of framing social justice. He argued that one of the goals of this neoliberal project is to repress all memory of egalitarianism so that austerity seems both natural and necessary. His plea and the substance of his argument was that we need to reclaim the concept of social justice in both theoretical and practical terms. See the clip below for a measured analysis from Professor Lingard on what can be learned from PISA results in New Zealand and Australia (this analysis could equally apply to Scotland).

Image source: Canva

Dr Sinead Gormally spoke about the vital role of Community Learning and Development. She described the challenges being faced locally by people in communities and the fact that many communities are surviving despite the onslaught of punitive policies that perpetuate disadvantage and social pain. She argued that profit-making overrides concerns for social justice and that policy approaches are aimed at fixing the cultural deficits of working-class people, with the result that young people are being effectively ‘consumed by capitalism’. Her suggestions were that we need to recognise the realities being faced by people and communities, start from where people are at, and encourage resistance instead of resilience. She concluded by emphasising that communities have the capacity to find solutions and that she is “equally in awe and devastated that they have to”.

Dr Robert Doherty spoke about the public commitment that the School of Education at University of Glasgow is making to social justice, exploring some of the challenges of doing so. He argued that an ideology of social justice should have: i) a moral frame, ii) an ideal of the social world, iii) explanation and analysis of social justice, and iv) a set of prescriptions and orientations towards social justice. He argued that the intellectual pursuit of social justice cannot be separated from personal behaviours and virtues. The internal behaviours and the way a university treats people, for instance, must reinforce a commitment to social justice. The thought occurred to me that this is perhaps demonstrated by the recent announcement of a programme of reparative justice following a study revealing that the University of Glasgow profited from the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. I am sure there will be other institutions that should rightly follow this example. He argued that a failure to make demonstrable commitments would result in social justice becoming nothing more than a ‘narrative of comforting fictions’. (He also gave an interesting summary of the SNP’s journey in education policy, but I won’t summarise that here as it is slightly removed from the topic of the blog).

Finally, Dr Jacqui Purdie focussed on the implications of social justice for school leaders. She recommended the article Social Justice and Leadership Development by Christine Forde and Deirdre Torrance (2016). She offered three main assertions: i) the policy context in Scotland defines social justice narrowly around the ‘poverty related attainment gap’, ii) austerity can be thought of as a sternness and severity of manner and attitude, and iii) the planned introduction of a Headteachers Charter will result in undue pressure on schools and school leaders including increased accountability, increased bureaucracy and an increase in ethical dilemmas faced by schools and school leaders. She posed the question, ‘which gap are we closing?’, cautioning that a poverty-related attainment gap does not fully explain or address social justice in education. She questioned when it became acceptable to label schools and children according to their SIMD status. She warned us of the increased politicisation of Scottish education, the consequences of focussing on quick fix solutions and short-term aims without addressing issues of cultural and social change.

A lot of ground was covered in the presentations, possibly too much, as Professor Trevor Gale observed in his closing note of thanks. I found each presentation convincing and powerful however I was left feeling frustrated and even angered by thoughts such as ‘how has it come to this?’, while also feeling overwhelmed by the question of ‘how do we deal with this?’. This was especially the case as these were arguments that I was familiar with. There is plenty of recognition that ‘enough is enough’, but the intractable problems of injustice remain prevalent.

My view was that each of the presentations explicitly addressed two broad questions. Firstly, there was the question of ‘how should we think about social justice?’. Secondly, ‘what should we do about social justice?’. I will offer some thoughts on these questions below before suggesting a third question that I thought was a strong but implicit feature of the presentations: ‘how should we feel about social justice?’. I want to suggest that this question should be explicit and recognised in discussions about social justice. Not only that but I think we should start with this question so that we can better understand how our feelings about social justice affect our thoughts and actions.

Image source: Canva

The first question, how we should think, is about how we conceptualise, understand and articulate issues of social justice. I would argue that the concept of social justice is in danger of being co-opted by all sorts of other agendas (agreeing with Professor Lingard on that point) and that we should call that out when we see it. This is particularly troubling when the agendas are ones that put the focus on individuals, practitioners and communities while failing to recognise or specifically address the prevailing structures of power that perpetuate various categories of inequality. In these cases, the message seems to be ‘the world isn’t going to change, so you need to change yourself’. Schools and practitioners are made responsible for sorting out social problems that begin well outside the school gates. Various tricks, toolkits and funding packages are made available to practitioners, with complementary measures introduced to find out whether these approaches are working, and if they don’t, policy makers can side-step responsibility by pointing to the resources they have made available to schools. The implication of this attitude of ‘sternness’ is that ordinary people are made responsible for working themselves out of poverty, for instance. It seems that poverty is always going to be there, so it is up to them/us/you to avoid it. The suggestion is that we need to be resilient (and not resistant) and that we should aim to become Entrepreneurs of the Self in order to traverse this savage sorting of winners and losers.

Surely this is not what social justice should be about. I would argue that approaches and attitudes such as these are antithetical to social justice and should be challenged on those grounds. If a programme or policy purports to be about social justice but doesn’t explicitly say how the approach would lead to fundamental, structural change, then I think we need to question whether it can legitimately be described as a contribution to the cause. This may be perceived as a hard-line view or overly prescriptive, but my hope is that this will promote the need for critical reflection, critical action and a holistic (as opposed to piecemeal) understanding of social justice. Otherwise we end up shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic – running around busily reacting to the latest crisis while the iceberg looms.

Image source: Canva

This leads to the second question which is ‘what should we do about social justice?’. This is about the practices we engage in, how we balance competing priorities when issues of social justice are at stake, and what actions we take in the name of social justice. I would argue that a ‘fix the kids’ approach should rarely if ever be considered a legitimate practice of social justice. Too often, the problems are understood to reside in people themselves (in their attitudes, abilities or even their biology) and not the social, political and/or economic contexts that determine their circumstances. Social justice issues are very personal of course, but the solutions are largely political and, funnily enough, social.

Children and young people, when asked, are more than capable of identifying their own social justice issues and articulating their own views of social justice. They have a keen sense of fairness and injustice and an ability to provide a fresh perspective that adults might otherwise miss. See the short clip below for an example of what I am referring to – this is one of a series of films made during a youth participatory project led by University of Edinburgh:

Davis et al (2014) argue that social justice requires nothing less than a fundamental shift in how children are perceived by adults and the introduction of mechanisms that enable children to participate fully in their own social justice solutions. Due to various cultural and professional norms, adults are predisposed to labelling children using terminology such as SIMD status, Additional Support Needs and a host of other professionally-accepted terms. The introduction of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in Scotland runs the risk of introducing yet another label for children. While the ‘ACEs movement’ is obviously well-intentioned, the use of labels should be viewed critically, especially as labelling can be a slippery slope to discrimination. Children would never use labels such as these to describe themselves or their peers.

ACEs is a term invented by academics, not children. Labels such as ACEs are adult-orientated constructs that are designed partly so that practitioners and policy makers can tick various boxes and checklists to meet managerial or political requirements. Having these categories and the inevitable data that goes with them might prove to be useful in some ways if used sensitively with a water-tight approach to ethics and care (approaches such as ACEs scoring and screening are extremely questionable on those grounds, for instance, and there are other serious problems with ACEs in addition to that). I would argue that the labelling approach is symptomatic of a contemporary world-view that prioritises quantitative, data-driven understandings at the expense of humanistic approaches that take account of personal histories and narratives. A checklist or labelling approach, by definition, cannot ensure that individual children are the primary focus of concern. In Scotland we are supposed to be Getting It Right for Every Child, not getting it right for every ‘type’ of child. Why do we insist on using these additional labels? Why not organise ourselves around social justice at a grassroots level, instead of jumping on the latest initiative?

I’ve explored some thoughts around the questions of how we should think and what should we do in relation to social justice. There is a more fundamental question that I would like to add to the discussion: ‘how should we feel about social justice?’. Should we feel anger? Despair? Hope? Fear? Which emotions should we seek to cultivate in response to the many challenges of social justice? Is it patronising to suggest we should cultivate compassion? Is it irresponsible to cultivate anger, with a view to promoting resistance or mass dissent? I observed that emotions were visible during the event at University of Glasgow from presenters and audience alike. The terminology of emotions was often used to illustrate a point made or a question posed (awe, devastation, hope and anger were all referenced). Martha Nussbaum has argued that any discussion of ethical theory demands an understanding of the emotions – and yet I am not convinced that there is a shared understanding around the emotions of social justice. These emotions may be keenly felt, visible and even raw, but how often are they acknowledged and explored, and how do those emotions affect our understanding and actions?

While I would love to be able to offer some firmer conclusions on these questions, I introduce them here to generate further discussion and to explain that these are questions I aim to explore during my PhD. I am asking whether social justice requires a ‘socially just citizenry’ i.e. a dispositional, emotional and values-based orientation towards social justice among citizens. While this is a question with a philosophical basis of sorts, I aim to ground the study in the lived realities of people and communities. Using that context, I’ll be exploring the role of values and citizenship, and how they link to the emotions of social justice. I hope to learn about orientations towards social justice, examining the role of education in developing and enabling such orientations among people of all ages: children, young people and adults. This will involve examining the social, political and economic contexts that support or inhibit such ambitions – identifying causal factors associated with injustice – thereby creating new knowledge around the questions of how we could start to think, act and feel in relation to social justice.

curriculum for equity Image source: curriculumforequity.org


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