Over the past couple of months, I’ve been struggling with a question about what my place, and others like me, is to advocate for social justice causes.

I’ve already written columns about how social issues should be left in the hands of those closest to the issue, and that those who are most affected by it need to be the ones taking the lead to shape the dialogue around it. 

When you are an upper-middle class white male, there aren’t a lot of issues where that applies. I’m rarely the person closest to an issue or one who should be taking the lead to argue about things like women’s or civil rights, and there is a significant part of me that feels they should be left well enough alone by me.

Over spring break, I went on a Service and Justice Trip to the U.S.-Mexico border and read some Ta-Nehisi Coates. Needless to say, I’m like totally woke now. 

The experience I had on the trip, along with an influential argument with someone I met while on it, has pushed me to feel a need to challenge that answer. I’ve come to realize that the answer I previously gave was too narrow and deflects a larger responsibility.

During the argument – over a disagreement on affirmative action – I was asked whether I should feel a responsibility to fix systems that I didn’t create. Specifically, it was phrased, “If you didn’t personally do anything to hurt someone, why do you need to do anything about it? Why should you try to fix their problem?”

I realized fairly quickly that I disagreed with what the person questioning me was implying, but I had trouble knowing why I disagreed, and it took me a while to really think of the right answer.

The person is right in a few ways; I don’t personally feel like I have taken any action specifically to hurt anyone or enforce unfair social systems. I don’t think it’s my responsibility to fix others’ problems, since I feel separated from their issues and feel they can address them better. But, as anyone knows from the solid 50 percent of columns that I write that are me failing to live up to my self-imposed rule by taking on a social issue that I don’t have the authority to comment on, I don’t think it’s right for me to not do anything.

Last semester, I wrote an article about a need to combine the two feet of love in action, service and justice, into a single action of inclusion of those at the margins. The argument was mostly one about personal action, and how developing personal relationships with those that you served acted as a way of bringing in those alienated from society, an act of justice. At the time, I felt that was enough of an answer to the question of what my responsibility was as someone already at the center of society.

My previous answer feels too specifically individualistic, and that there is a limit to what personal relationships can do. I can bring people in from the margin through personal relationships, but they can still be limited in their ability to participate within that society if social structures created in the past still exist.

I still believe that the two feet of love are inseparable acts – one must do both together, without distinction, for any action to truly be love. But now I think that there are two separate tasks that are part of that: one that is personal, based around the personal relationships that I earlier expounded, and one that is social, based around a further commitment to addressing the social structures. Both must be acts of service and of justice.

We have determination over our personal actions; we choose who we want to be and the actions that bring that into reality. But, even as personal individuals, we are part of a larger society and must determine who we collectively are in much the same way. We have a responsibility to push society towards the direction we want it to head, to shape it into the society we desire.

Even though I haven’t done anything, personally, to harm anyone, I am aware of systems of injustice that permeate our society and make it difficult for some to achieve a basic sense of dignity. These are often systems that weren’t consciously created by anyone who is currently alive, but exist nonetheless. If I am aware of these systems, but do nothing about them, I am enforcing a status quo that that views these systems as permissible. If I truly think these systems are wrong, I have a responsibility to rebel against that system, or I am in the wrong.

But how does this play into allowing others to determine what they need? To let others take the lead on issues that they are the closest to?

The Lakota language doesn’t have a word for “thank you.” According to my roommate, this is because there is no need for one. If you give someone a thing that they need, it is an act of decency. It is your responsibility to take care of others in need and accept that they would do the same when you are in need. “Thank you” implies that a favor has been done, not a basic and necessary act of kindness.

I think this line of thought helps to demonstrate something important when it comes to the social task. It is a need that must be addressed, and there is no glory in addressing it. Correcting a social injustice isn’t doing anyone a favor, it is a basic act of human decency. It is not a task that is worth thanking someone for, it is the bare minimum needed to allow someone to self-determine, to take the lead and to address the issue themselves.

It is an act that is of service, addressing an immediate, basic human need; and an action that is justice, erasing the margins that separate them from society.

No matter how close someone is to an issue or responsibility they are given to address it, if they aren’t granted the agency to act, nothing will result in change. They first must be allowed to participate, to join the larger society. Just as the margins must be erased through personal action, the margins must be erased through social action.

Of course, my argument didn’t come out anything like this in the point I tried to make on the trip, and the disagreement mostly just turned into a semantic one about the word “victim,” then a two-part hour-and-a-half long lecture on a soft philosophy of objectivism that never addressed the point. I’m still a little bitter about how that ended up.

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