by Victoria Wisniewski Otero
Merriam-Webster dictionary declared “justice” to be their 2018 word of the year; data showed that it was looked up online 74% more than the year before based on their website traffic. As people search its meaning, and with today being commemorated globally as Social Justice Day, it’s worth reflecting on questions such as: what exactly would a socially-just society look like? What are the social justice issues that matter most to us? What ability and agency do we feel we have, individually and collectively to advance social justice and how do we go about doing this most effectively?
The answers may be simpler than we think, as there are small everyday ways we can exercise and advance social justice to make society more inclusive for all. Still, breaking down an abstract and emotive term like “social justice” – one that is often invoked to the point of semantic satiation – into tangible definitions and issues is complex, but it is a challenge that the NGO I lead, Resolve, decided to go about tackling. Last month, we conducted an online survey, polling roughly 800 respondents to understand how the general public perceives social justice, the issues that most matter to them and sense of who is responsible for advancing it. We polled people of different ages, income levels, educational attainment and other key demographic characteristics and weighted the findings to be representative of the general population in Hong Kong.
The most commonly accepted understandings of what a socially just society would look like included the ideas that “every person can enjoy their basic human rights” (76%); “everyone has equal opportunity to improve their situation” (67%) and that nobody is discriminated against because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, age or other characteristics (64%). These findings suggest there is a broad consensus about the meaning of social justice, and that it is related to human rights enjoyment, equal opportunity and anti-discrimination.
Moreover, only around one-third of those surveyed expressed a lack of concern or interest or indifference to the advancement of social justice; the majority showed they care about its development in Hong Kong. At the international level, although the term began to make increasing appearances in UN documents in the 2000s in association with concerns of growing income inequalities and social exclusion within and across countries. Finally, a decade ago, on the heels of the global economic crisis of 2008 and discussions about how to ensure a more fair globalisation, the UN first marked February 20 as World Day of Social Justice.
Commemorative days are normally held to raise awareness and galvanise action on a particular topic, yet “social justice” may sometimes feel abstract and unattainable. Of those surveyed, almost 70% felt they had little to no ability to make an impact to advance social justice or were not sure of their ability. Less than 5% felt they had great ability to make a personal impact. Moreover, a mere 16% felt social justice not only concerned them, but that they also had a personal responsibility to advance it. Our survey seems to suggest there is a great discrepancy between levels of concern for social justice and feelings of individual agency and personal accountability to advance it. We are not indifferent to injustice, but it seems we just do know where to start to bring about positive change.
These findings make a good case for why the Administration should take more concerted action to enact policy and law measures to reduce income inequalities; improve inter-generational mobility; broaden the scope of our anti-discrimination protections and other social reforms so as to act on issues that this study confirms the public views with concern and interest. However, many respondents rated not just the government, but also many different stakeholders as having power to make an impact on different social justice issues we asked about. These included the media, businesses, schools, NGOs, the courts, lawmakers and political parties, the international community and more. One party was highly rated was “the Hong Kong general public”, yet there appears to be a cognitive dissonance between the respondents’ perception of the Hong Kong general public’s power and their own self-belief.
You do not have to be a formal NGO employee, a public interest lawyer or social worker to be engaged on social justice; there are many small acts we can do in our daily lives to make a difference. Our survey shows that, in fact, many Hongkongers are doing this, from having a conversation with family and friends, making a donation, volunteering, joining a community group or boycotting products or brands to express disapproval, among other activities. The key is to move from more passive forms of engagement to more active ones; to carve space and time to better understand communities we might not normally be exposed to or interact within this city; to use our privilege (we all have it in some way after all) in the service of meaningfully supporting others; to be kinder to our neighbours; to share our story; to sign up and show up when it matters.
In order to understand public’s perception of social justice in Hong Kong, Resolve, with support from Edelman Intelligence and Toluna QuickSurveys, conducted an online survey with the general population of Hong Kong. In total, 800 Hong Kong permanent residents were surveyed between Jan 15 to Jan 22, 2019 who were 18 years and above. Data was weighted to represent total population of Hong Kong. Full findings of the survey will be available later this year at www.resolvehk.org