My friend Jonathan complained that one of his coworkers accused him of being a social justice warrior. Jonathan reflexively snapped back with, “As if that’s a bad thing”. My friend said that he is worried about attempts to roll back hard-won civil rights gains. One insidious way is to besmerch concerned citizens by calling them social justice warriors. Jonathan posits that nearly all of the historical leaders who were actively involved in the various civil rights movements would be proud to be called social justice warriors.
I agreed that attempts to degrade the meaning of social justice warrior is a way to discourage further necessary work towards civil rights for all people. It’s a poorly disguised bullying tactic that is being used to silence critics of the status quo.
I recall something taught by the late Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He called social justice work “Civil Democracy”. If ever there was a shining example of a social justice warrior, it would be Thich Nhat Hanh. He noted that every advancement in human dignity came about through the efforts of activists and social justice leaders.
The monk mentioned that the movements to free the slaves in the United States were first encouraged to free them from oppression by organizers of the “Underground Railroad”. The work was largely supported by northern states philanthropists. The heavy lifting was done by allies who risked arrest by aiding refugees help find safety away from their southern masters. The government did not encourage freeing the slaves until doing so became politically expedient. Hence the citizens of the nation’s “Civil Democracy” demostrated their power.
Civil democracy is a “big tent” that covers freedom lovers, environmentalists, peacekeepers, civil rights activists, lovers of democracy, and defenders of the downtrodden. Thich Nhat Hanh believed that civil democracy consists of “legions of good people” who encourage and perform appropriate, opportune, peaceful efforts to manifest freedom for all beings.
The monk used another example in his sermon about civil democracy. There is the story that environmentalist John Muir convinced Teddy Roosevelt to ditch the Secret Service and go camping with him in the redwood forests. The camping experience energized Roosevelt’s enthusiasm so much that he urged federal officials to designate Yosemite as a national park.
“The vast majority of us don’t want to face the fact that we’re in the middle of a sweeping social revolution. In sex. In spiritual values. In opposition to wars no one wants. In opposition to government big-brotherhood. In civil rights. In basic human goals. They’re all facets of a general upheaval.”–legendary television talk show host, Johnny Carson
One of the beauties of civil democracy is that anybody can become a citizen of it. As vibrant voices in our nation, minorities tirelessly press for universal civil rights and equal participation in meaningful decision-making. We are reminded that these are major goals of a vital democratic republic.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes activist, author, and spiritual leader, Marianne Williamson. “It’s soul force that removed the English from India. It’s soul force that brought down the Berlin Wall. It’s soul force that gave life to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for civil rights.”