If one looks for what is wrong with society, one need not look far. A single image provides a whole commentary: We have rich athletes, making millions of dollars, asking poor kids to pay for their autographs and we admire the athletes!
We have long known that the struggle for social justice is about trying to change unfair structures, systems that unduly reward some at the expense of unfairly penalizing others. However, most of the time when we think of the systems we live under, we focus on economic, political, and social structures. Generally, we give little thought to the symbolic infrastructure that helps undergird it all. Part of that infrastructure is the system of heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses, we adulate.
Let me try to illustrate this with a story shared by Neil Postman. In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death – Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Postman tells how at the 1983 commencement exercises at Yale University a number of honourary degrees were awarded, including one to Mother Theresa. They were stacked in order of importance, from lesser to greater, so that the big crescendo would be at the end. As each recipient was introduced and the list of his or her achievements read off, the audience applauded, though always with some restraint, indicating clearly that they were still waiting for the moment for which they had really come. Finally that moment arrived, and it was not when Mother Theresa was introduced. The last person to be introduced and given an award waited in the wings and as her achievements were being recounted the audience already began to stand and applaud so that by the time her name was announced, Meryl Streep, the audience, in Postman’s colourful words, unleashed a sonic boom that woke the dead in graveyards of the entire city.
I suspect that Meryl Streep is a very fine person, but that is not the point. The point here is that while this system perdures when we and our children so unduly adulate the rich, the famous, and the beautiful, social justice is going nowhere. We are, for the most part, moved more by unconscious symbols than by any explicit philosophy. All the talk in the world and all of our efforts at trying to change the system so that it is more fair to everyone will not go very far when what moves the hearts of our young people, and most times too our own too, are images of our athletes, entertainers, pop stars, and famous achievers having, in essence, achieved redemption right now through beauty, fame, achievement, status, money, adulation, and glamour.
Despite all of our efforts at social justice we still have not recognized how significant this is and how our own inconsistencies here hinder what we are trying to achieve. Let me again try to illustrate this:
I want to recount this story with some sympathy, given that I strongly endorse the intent behind the effort, even as I see the inconsistency in it. Recently, in Toronto, a group strongly committed to justice had a large colour poster printed. On it, they had pictures of many of the top business leaders in our country, complete with a listing of their salaries. The intent, among other things, was to publicly expose the salaries of these men (and in a few cases, women) so as to highlight the gap between the rich and the poor. The poster caused a fair amount of controversy and was banned in Toronto churches.
My point here is not to take sides in the controversy, whether this poster should or should not be allowed to be hung in our churches. I ask a different question: Would we, who believe that the present system is unjust, be as eager to hang up a poster on which we would put the photos and salaries of our leading entertainers, professional athletes, pop stars, writers, and other cultural icons? We would we want to hang up a poster on which we had, for instance, the pictures and salaries of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Paul McCartney, Celine Dion, Mick Jagger, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Oprah Winfrey, David Letterman, Harrison Ford, Julie Roberts, Sandra Bullock, and hundreds of other such popular stars? And indeed, if we did hang up such a poster would it not, in fact, bring admiration rather than censure to those on it? Our kids, I suspect, would be hanging the poster on their walls for reasons quite other than accentuating the gap between the rich and the poor.
It is safe to morally whip a few corporate CEO types, who are symbolically unpopular anyway, but the struggle for social justice is going to require more than this. The point here is not to protect those men and women who were pictured on that poster. No. The point is that the roots of injustice go much deeper © and we who work for justice need to have the courage to face our inconsistencies.
Social justice is about changing systems and so we need to challenge those places where our present politics, economics, and social structures are unfair. However we need too to look at what helps undergird them, that unconscious system of worship that has us set up gods and goddesses to whom we give happy exemption. Yet most of these are earning millions of dollars and being admired, by us, for doing it. But simple mathematics dictates that if someone is getting millions, somebody else will not get enough and it is of small consequence whether the person who is getting those millions is an unpopular corporate type or a popular star whose beauty, grace, or intelligence take our breath away.