“Justice” in 2018 and Beyond

I have a thing for dictionaries. When I was a senior in high school, I won a small scholarship that came with a Merriam-Webster dictionary with my name embossed on the front cover, still one of my prized possessions.

Since 2003 Merriam-Webster has published an annual top-ten list of most frequently searched words. These words capture sentiments, uncertainties, curiosities, and sometimes even defining moments. In 2004 the word “blog” was searched the most and was added to the print dictionary the year after. The suffix “ism” topped the 2015 list and also showed up in seven of the other top words (socialism, fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism, and terrorism).

The 2018 word of the year was “justice,” which was searched 74% more frequently than in 2017. Merriam-Webster provides three definitions of justice:

  1. the maintenance or administration of what is just (e.g., social justice), a judge (e.g., Justice Sotomayor), and the administration of law (e.g., criminal justice system)
  2. the quality of being just, impartial, or fair
  3. conformity to truth, fact, or reason

If there were ever a year when the top word reflected a national zeitgeist, 2018 might the winner. At this time of year, I regularly find it difficult to believe that the things I remember from the past year really did fit into a 12-month period. In 2018 we witnessed #MeToo victories and setbacks, family separations and an immigration crisis roiling at the U.S.-Mexico border, Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, mass shootings at schools and synagogues, environmental policy rollbacks, a staggering humanitarian tragedy in Yemen, charges in the Mueller investigation, devastating floods and fires, the election of more women than ever before to Congress, and so much more. It’s no surprise that “justice” weighed people’s minds because it is at the crux of much of what we are negotiating as a society.

Justice also figures prominently into what we are negotiating in student affairs and more broadly in higher education. Over the past two years, NASPA has established an Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division, board position, staff team, and strategic planning goal. Issues of equity in access and student success provide the platform for NASPA’s research and policy agenda. These decisions are not ends in and of themselves, but rather serve as a foundation for the association, members, and partners to examine and critique our ways of working in order to learn, implement, and model new approaches.

I’ve already admitted to a fascination with dictionaries, and more specifically I am intrigued by words. For example, why is it important that NASPA created the Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division, rather than the Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Division? If we look again at Merriam-Webster’s three definitions of justice, there’s an assumption among them of a baseline objective and common truth. In a world framed with this supposedly impartial understanding of fairness, it would be just to give everyone the same amount of resources and opportunities. 

This framing misses two critical elements: communal dimensions and the reality that by virtue of where and to whom we are born, we don’t experience the same baseline. Social justice implies a different worldview and set of intentions. It acknowledges, for example, that what a legacy student experiences at college differs from what a first-generation student navigates. Post-secondary institutions have an ethical obligation to facilitate the success of all of their students, and this means providing different kinds and levels of resources that meet students where they are, provide them opportunities to showcase their distinctive gifts and enable them to equitably access learning experiences. 

The communal dimension of social justice also integrates the notion of a common good, that what lifts one person or group ultimately yields positive outcomes for society. This goes beyond the idea of interest convergence (which posits that people with power only share that power if it is in their own self-interest), to embrace a true investment in the wellbeing of others as its own end. One of my biggest pet peeves is the sign that admonishes “drive like your kids live here.” As a human, shouldn’t I care enough about any kid – or any person, for that matter – to drive cautiously? This is the communal aspect of social justice, caring about the lives and dignity of others because we share the world in both its woundedness and wonder. 

So, I’m pleased with the 2018 prominence of “justice,” and I hope it isn’t a word for just one year. We need sustained energy and focus in order to tackle the inequitable distribution of opportunities and privileges, of which access to postsecondary education is one among many wicked problems.