Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Math of Social Justice

I’m thinking about a new math equation for us all to solve:

WI + PP = SJ

WI = The Width of the Imagination. How far can we imagine that others different from us have dreams so like our own? That those who look different or call God a different name or love a different gender or value different things face the same issues and challenges of love and its loss, friendship and aloneness, child-raising, economic stability and that big one that unites each and every one of us, our own mortality? The first cause of social injustice is our narrow imaginations hardening into fear and distrust and hatred of “the other” and putting practices and policies in motion that keep them in the cage we create for them where we can control them, dismiss them, keep them at a safe distance from us.

The only antidote is to widen our capacity to imagine the other and thus, come to know them. It helps if we begin to work with them, to play with them, to date them. Even then, our culturally inherited borders can keep us biased against the whole group even as we accept our one friend because we finally see his or her character rather than our notions of his or her group. So the War on Poverty of the Imagination, while it hopefully includes real positive experiences, is an effort to expand our ability to imagine.

PP = Public Policy. While we wait for everyone to open the gates to understanding and compassion, we need laws and ethics and public policies in place to protect us from those suffering from poverty of imagination. The rise of child-protection laws, sexual harassment policies, anti-gay discrimination, environmental protection laws, the legacy of civil rights and more, are all steps in the right direction, helping that moral arc keep bending toward justice. But laws don’t change minds and indeed, can be reversed in a slip of an election. They need to walk hand in hand with a true moral, social and aesthetic education that trains the imagination to widen its scope and include all creatures great and small in the great convocation of a truly democratic world.

There is no limit to the imagination, but each time and culture proclaims a national standard of its width. Individuals have the freedom to expand it and join with others in a collective bid to open dreams, but we often are limited by what the greater public accepts. I just saw Frank Capra’s beautiful film You Can’t Take It With You, a radical, fun and profound statement about how money shrinks the soul and following your bliss brings healing to all. I couldn't help but notice that while all the people in the household are free to follow their dreams—dancing, playing vibraphone, writing plays, inventing strange things, experimenting with fireworks— the two black servants are never asked about their dreams. For the times (the film was made in 1938), they’re treated well as fellow humans and respected within the narrow framework of their job, but they don’t sit at the table with the family nor get to wholly participate in the household of dream-catching. The times and the culture put up a border on the imagination that few can leap over.

But that’s what makes things interesting, yes? Finding that border and sneaking through without a passport and then waving to others to follow. And if enough join, the border guards themselves come over as well. And then doing the work of policy-making to protect from those unfriendly to the imagination.

WI + PP = SJ. Let’s start teaching this new math in schools!

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