Debate: Oxford Students should be pursuing social justice projects whilst at University

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Proposition – Tyler Overton

Here are some facts about injustice: according to UNICEF’s 2012 report on child mortality, 1 in 9 children in Sub-Saharan Africa die before age five (as opposed to 1 in 152 in developed regions). Over a billion people still live on less than pound a day. And, more locally, human trafficking is alive and well in Oxford, with 13 men arrested last year for prostituting 11- to 16-year-old girls.

These are real problems. And—what is more important—they are problems that we can do something about. In fact, they are problems that if we even pretend to hold ideas about love or compassion, we have to do something about.

There’s a great story I heard a few months ago in which C. S. Lewis and a friend run into a homeless man as they’re walking down Cornmarket. The homeless man asks for some change, and Lewis gives him the contents of his wallet. After the homeless man walks away, Lewis’ friend starts to give him a hard time: ‘What’d you do that for? Don’t you know he’s just going to walk into the nearest pub and spend it on drink?’ And Lewis turns (I imagine with a certain grumpy, Northern Irish gravitas), and says, ‘Just what do you think I would have spent it on?’

I think there are better ways to work for social justice than giving money directly to homeless people, but maybe we should spend some time thinking seriously about Lewis’ question. What are we spending our time and money on? And are these things in line with the global reality of suffering and poverty?

Let’s get real about the idea that we need to be in positions of power in order to work for social justice. Will giving and volunteering now prevent us from promoting justice later? And although our individual influences may be small, do we really believe that the charities we give to and volunteer with are making no difference whatsoever? Between 1990 and 2010, the number of people living below the extreme poverty line ($1.25 a day) was cut in half. The number of children who died before the age of five fell from 12.4 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011. These are not random fluctuations; they are reflections of the good work of charities and governments, and of the fact that lots and lots of people (some of them students) have given their time and money to support these institutions.

Social justice, as much as it is anything else, is a lifestyle of choosing to stand with other people in the fight for what’s rightfully theirs. And lifestyles don’t just appear out of nowhere. They take practice, and hard work—and the time to start practicing is now. Recognize the phrase ‘poor Oxford student’ for the trite lie it’s always been, and begin to notice those who know poverty and suffering first-hand. I don’t promise that doing so will make all the problems of injustice go away; only that it will enable us to live respectfully and in support of those for whom these problems are a part of day-to-day experience.

 

Opposition – Harry Gillow

Trinity term has arrived, and the combination of punting, pimms and prelims will inevitably mean that even less time is directed towards such vital issues as OUSU elections. Of course, this is not limited to Oxford – the recent announcement that the University of London Union is to be disbanded was triggered by a report that only 3,000 of its 120,000 members voted (the equivalent of the UK’s government being elected by half the population of Wales). This is not, however, to say that students have lost their radicalism: student activism remains as active as ever, and members of our universities will continue to devote time and money to social justice projects. Yet is this as worthy a use of these precious resources as it’s claimed to be?

All this depends on how social justice is defined. For some, it is about giving a small amount of time on a regular basis in fundamentally thankless tasks – teaching at underperforming schools, helping in local homeless shelters, working with disabled children – where their aim is simply to contribute what little they can to the community. Nothing could be a better use of time. But social ‘justice’, by nature of the term, implies more than this: a fight against inequality, oppression, those wronged by the systems of the world and the individuals who profit from them.

Here, then, is where the catch lies: far too often such lofty causes are used as an excuse to grandstand, to occupy (no pun intended, St. Paul’s) the moral high ground, from which, with a frowning air of disdain, the rest of us can be observed, judged, and found wanting. Irritating as such attitudes are, they could be forgiven if they genuinely contributed to the welfare of the world – it is, however, not only unclear that these achieve anything much of note, but in many cases they cause more harm than good, promoting division, and instilling a sense of superiority over the less fortunate.

This is most obvious in the instances of such fraught issues as the Israel-Palestine issue, or closer to home, opposition to government cuts. The former issue, for example, is doubtless one of vast importance, and it is entirely right that everyone should come to their own opinion about such a damaging conflict. What is, though, downright laughable, is to claim to fully understand: the politics of the Middle East has baffled senior statesmen of vast intelligence for over fifty years – the arrogance of a twenty year old politics student proposing a workable solution is absurd; how much more absurd to attempt to act on it? Similarly, protests against government cuts are understandable by those affected, and thus those against tuition fees are generally accepted as reasonable. However, the idea of privileged youths (as many students, no matter how they would like to think of themselves, are), who will, in two or three years, leave for their jobs at McKinsey or Goldman, marching on behalf of the very poorest elements of society, or promoting motions of “solidarity” in the JCR, is almost as ridiculous as George Osborne’s attempt at an accent. What could the vast majority of us possibly know?

Potentially more damaging, however, is the growing industry of “voluntourism”, the dangers of which a recent BBC article by Daniela Papi, a former serial volunteer, makes abundantly clear. Suffice it to say that not only is this effectively a way for students to take expensive holidays without feeling guilty, but the good achieved is often less than supposed: the money that so many people raise to take part could be far better spent employing skilled labour to carry out the same tasks. Why ask untrained students to build a school when you could ask the local builder? Certainly such efforts raise awareness, but surely the act of raising money would do the same? Moreover, there is a very real danger that the old viewpoint of Kipling’s “white man’s burden” rears its ugly head. The twenty-first century looks set to be a slow trek towards equal place for the developed and developing world in global affairs: such attitudes can only serve to breed patronising opinions that will slow progress to a snail’s pace.

Ultimately university is about learning. Those who are serious about wishing to contribute the planet will use their unique opportunity here to learn what they need to do so. It is too easy to assuage our consciences when young, and achieve little when older; true benefit can only be provided in the long haul.

 

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