Social Justice Irony

Doug McManaman
February, 2006
Reproduced with Permission

I received a forwarded email recently that had made its way through the computers of a number of Catholic teachers employed by a school board to which I no longer belong. The email contained an attachment, which turned out to be a picture of a young boy, possibly 3 or 4, sitting on a step and lighting up a cigarette. At his feet were two statues of a Buddha, incense, and what looks to be a jar for money. The caption across the series of four photos reads: Break Time At The Nike Factory.

Indeed, it is distressing to see such a young boy light up and beg for money -- he should be at home playing with a Tonka Hummer. But there is nothing in the picture that suggests any connection with Nike, and the jar makes one question whether or not this boy really is a child labourer exploited by the giant multinational. And yet this photo series was referred to in my email as "very thought-provoking and almost horrific" and said to be "definitely worth showing your students" in order to initiate discussion about whether this is staged, real, actually a Nike factory, and whether it matters or not. It goes on to say that teachers, both elementary and secondary, could discuss with students what it says about child rearing, development and labour laws in other countries, and how it could be used for good smoking cessation campaigns, and much more.

Well, anyone who knows me should have figured out by now that I wasn't about to waste this opportunity. I sent my own photo, an unquestionably authentic one, and suggested that it also be used to initiate discussion on a very important social justice issue, one more relevant and much closer to home. I sent a picture of an aborted fetus. My satire, needless to say, was completely missed.

Nevertheless, the reply I received from what appears to be a Family Studies teacher was revealing, not to mention pathetically typical. I was told in no uncertain terms that critical thinking and constructive social discourse, rather than "emotional reactions", is always their intention in the classroom and that if the picture I sent was my idea of a relevant and topical discussion starter, I misunderstand what the curriculum (World Issues, Parenting, Media Studies, Health, etc.) covers. I was told that they teach students to look at the whole social context rather than the image at face value, which is why my picture serves no purpose and would be immediately sent to the Recycle Bin.

This response is interesting in that it highlights a number of inconsistencies, very typical and almost universal in this province. Firstly, the irony is remarkable. I was sent what was described an an "almost horrific" photo of a poor child and was invited to use it to initiate good discussion. If not horrific, the picture was at first glance distressing. Yet as far as I know, "horror" and "distress" are words that describe rather negative emotional reactions. This teacher sees nothing wrong with using "almost horrific" photos to spark classroom discussion, unless, of course, the issue is abortion, the deliberate destruction of developing human life in the womb -- a very relevant issue for a Family Studies, Parenting, Media Studies, or Health class, I might add. When abortion is the issue, though, rational and constructive discourse is somehow precluded, especially when accompanied by distressing photos.

Her reply also helped me appreciate more the work of my friend, Dr. Stephen Loughlin, an Aquinas scholar, professor, and expert on the human emotions. He has done well to point out that people typically regard the human emotions with suspicion, as foreign motors akin to non-rational dogs tugging and barking, and needing to be subdued by the higher power of reason. This, he argues, is dangerous thinking. Human emotion is essentially different from that of the brute animal, which is nothing more than a non-rational response of the sensitive appetite. Human emotion, on the other hand, is pervaded by intelligence. Healthy anger in the human person, for example, is a response to an intellectual apprehension of a moral evil -- an injustice, for example -- that a non-rational animal cannot grasp, and thus cannot respond to emotionally. The opposition between emotion and human reason exhibited in her reply is unhealthy, outdated, and not conducive to a proper understanding of emotional well-being, which can only come about through a healthy respect for what our emotions tell us, not through a perspective that holds them in suspicion.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves why a picture of an aborted fetus would evoke a powerful emotional reaction. Possibly, the reason is that we are dealing here with a much more serious evil, one that should be taken up and treated before taking on far less serious and less relevant issues. After all, girls are having abortions, they are being misinformed, they are becoming irreparably damaged by them both physically and psychologically, suffering from depression, guilt, anxiety, and other symptoms of PAS, not to mention that over 100 thousand babies a year are being killed in the womb right here in this country. And we're not talking about it, because we believe in critical thinking and constructive social discourse. Instead, we talk about Nike factories and cigarette smoking, using highly questionable photographs that might very well be fraudulent.

The fact is abortion is a social justice issue. The most helpless and voiceless are being murdered every day under our very noses. Who are the voices of these voiceless and helpless of all our human fellows? Or to put it another way, who are the "Romeros" of these victims? Ironically, it is not the people here who claim to be the voice of the voiceless overseas. Focusing on the developing world within the comfort of a Canadian classroom is certainly a safer alternative; there's no chance of getting shot by the military or losing your job because of what one chooses to say. But defending the voiceless and the helpless here, that is, the unborn, will bring with it a degree of discomfort, as some of our more courageous political leaders have discovered.

The next time we show the film Romero and watch the Military Vicar stand up to the Archbishop and declare that "there is no persecuted Church", because he refuses to behold the difficult truth under his very nose, through fear of painful repercussions, perhaps we'd be more honest to say to ourselves: "There's me", instead of identifying with the brave martyr, Archbishop Romero. If he were here in this country, we can be sure he wouldn't be silent. As Mother Teresa reminded Bill and Hillary Clinton and 4,000 other delegates in Washington: "any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion."