I was asked to talk to a group of scholarship students yesterday about effecting social change and achieving social justice.
I began by sharing a bit of my personal history with social change (there should be some lessons to be learned from living through a significant period of American social history). In my case, I grew up Jewish during the 50s and 60s; I watched the civil rights movement “up close and personal;” I took part in the women’s movement; and I span the time between when “gay” meant “happy” and no one ever uttered the word “homosexual” and the current fight for same-sex marriage. So I have some perspective. And as I told the students, I can attest to the fact social change is not only possible, it’s inevitable.
Change, of course, is not synonymous with improvement. I’m absolutely convinced that if we want to create progress–good change–our efforts must be framed in ways that are consistent with what I like to call our “constitutional culture.”
“Constitutional culture” is simply a shorthand for the recognition that legal systems shape worldviews. The attitudes and expectations of people ruled by the Taliban are vastly different from the attitudes of people living in a country that emphasizes values of personal liberty and political equality.
The values incorporated in the American legal system, fortunately, are entirely consistent with an emphasis on social justice.
In the wake of the horrific shooting at Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s Town Hall in Tucson, PBS’ Mark Shields made an “only in America” observation that illustrates the point. Shields said:
“This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American President.”
There, in a nutshell, is what most of us would consider the triumph of American culture—the fact that the nation has moved, however haltingly, toward a vision that allows all of us to be members in good standing of our society, equal participants in our national story, whatever our religious belief, skin color, sexual orientation or national origin. What makes us all Americans isn’t based upon any of those individual identities, but upon our allegiance to what I like to call “the American Idea”—a particular worldview based upon an understanding of government and citizenship that grew out of the Enlightenment and was subsequently enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
As I told the students, my argument is pretty simple: Social justice has to be approached from within that worldview, and arguments for social change need to be framed in ways that are consistent with it—or it won’t work.
Take the recent votes on same-sex marriage. The four victories at the polls on Nov. 6th were an exciting sign that public opinion is moving in the direction of equality and social justice. Of course, fundamental rights should never have been put to a vote of the electorate in the first place. No one got to vote on whether the government should recognize my marriage, and it is constitutionally improper to give me the power to vote on anyone else’s.
The Bill of Rights marks off certain areas of our lives where government doesn’t belong—areas where we get to make our own decisions about our lives. Very few Americans seem to understand that in our system, the issue isn’t whether the book you are reading is good or bad—it’s who gets to decide what book you read. It isn’t whether you are praying to the proper God, or praying at all—it’s who gets to decide whether and to whom you pray. Constitutionally, the issue isn’t who you marry—it’s the propriety of allowing government to decide who you marry.
It’s because our system is based upon protecting our personal autonomy—our right to decide for ourselves how we shall live our lives—that social change so often begins with the courts. When majorities insist on making decisions that are not theirs to make, we need the courts to step in and remind us that in our system, fundamental rights are not subject to popular passions. Theoretically, our courts should all be “activist” when majorities try to make decisions they are not entitled to make, but the truth is, courts inevitably reflect the social attitudes of their times. Brown v. Board wouldn’t have been decided as it was unless popular sentiment had already moved. The fact that we have a judicial system charged with protecting minorities doesn’t relieve us of the duty to create the attitudes that enable the courts to do their job.
That brings us to the importance of framing. If we want to change social attitudes, and produce a cultural environment in which desirable change can occur, we need to frame the issues in ways that appeal to our sense of what it means to be an American.
Successive groups of outsiders have done that. They’ve staked their claims as Americans to equal treatment under the law. In the process, they’ve not only won social acceptance–they’ve made America’s Constitutional culture stronger–and life better and more just for us all.