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Tag: social-justice

walmart: socially just or just plain evil?

Talking recently with my friend Michelle, the topic of corporate/consumer responsibility and social justice came up, and before long we turned to Walmart as a case in point. (I know, right?)

Michelle’s question/statement to me went something like this:

Many do not necessarily have a need to shop at a place with such low prices like Walmart, but some do. Walmart may help them provide for their families. With the economy the way it is and job security a scarcity, Walmart allows many families to make [singlepic=1073,275,275]it here in the US. Walmart also supports many organic farms, has green LEED certified buildings or has green features that save energy in many of their buildings, and the foundation gives millions to support women-owned businesses, farms and factories, job training and education, hunger relief, military, education, disaster relief, and gender diversity. But there is a cost for Walmart’s low prices. Manufacturing plants around the world that supply to Walmart pay workers unfair wages, demand extremely long work days with few to no breaks, often provide no weekend breaks, employ children at a very young age, have shown documented cases of employee abuse and rape, and have disgusting working conditions. So how do we deal with having stores like Walmart that seem to support people in need, but also foster abuse in so many others? Is there a way to balance out the social justice issues of a place like Walmart?

This is an interesting question and of course one that throws a monkey wrench in some people’s tendency (and perhaps desire) to see the world in dualistic terms. The notion of Walmart as socially just or just plain evil, itself, suggests a kind of faulty dualism. Of course, we know this is a false choice; it’s not that easy, and this is damn disconcerting.

I don’t and won’t shop at Walmart. I recognize their angels and devils, but being in a position to opt out of Walmart, I will every time, even if it means paying significantly more. Of course, as Michelle is quick to argue, Walmart may provide economical alternatives to those who otherwise could not afford certain goods. (Although, this idea of a “good deal” may also be false and more about marketing and perception than anything else.) For me (privileged enough to opt out of Walmart), I think this “affordability” they provide makes them that much more evil. There are costs to the goods they hawk–even if these costs are externalized and carried on the bruised backs of sweatshop laborers. The reality, too, is that they do not provide an alternative option; rather, they aggressively work to remove buying options by monopolizing small town economies all across this country.

Ahh, but there we were at that moment, in the shadow of Walmart, with our own devil and angel.

Ok, I lied earlier. Of course I’ve been in a Walmart and have given them my money at least once or twice in the past. Last fall my family and I were camping outside a very small Wisconsin town. The weather was unseasonably cold, and so we went in search of a blanket to buy. We drove up and down every little street that made up that town looking for a shop or shanty to pedal us a blanket and, to our disappointment, every road led back to Walmart. So we, with heads hung low, shuffled through florescent-lit aisles of a Walmart warehouse in the middle of corn field, bought our blanket, and left swearing to take the amount of money we gave to Walmart that day and donate to a social justice organization.

Ahh, but there we were at that moment, in the shadow of Walmart, with our own devil and angel. We cannot right these injustices by making reparations. It’s impossible to undo damage done–to ruin one person’s life, buy a gift for another, and then call it even. It doesn’t work that way.

The real challenge, as I see it, is working through the difficulty and the thinking and the making of hard choices–the idea of how to know what to do when every choice seems like a bad one. It’s overwhelming having to think about it all. Thinking about it all, though, is critical consciousness, isn’t it? This is what I, as an educator, hope to cultivate in my students and, as a parent, in my son–the willingness and desire to ask critical questions, to pursue informed decisions, to do the work, and to live deliberately–but never off the broken backs and blood of other human beings. I’m just sayin’.

software: free as in speech

Having been a GNU/Linux user now for over three years, I have come to really appreciate this idea of “free software,” which until just recently I did not realize is not entirely the same thing as “open source” software. Many times it is very close to the same thing, but, fundamentally, there is a difference. Here’s British writer, actor, and broadcaster Stephen Fry talking about this idea of “free software” and the 25th anniversary of GNU/Linux.

What initially drew me to Linux was technology curiosity, to be honest, but what has kept me using it exclusively for more than three years now is the principles upon which the free software movement is founded. Here is a fairly concise definition of free software as quoted from the GNU web site:

“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech”, not as in “free beer”.

Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

As an educator, these freedoms are dear to me. When one considers the education gap in the United States alone, not to mention the world overall, it is not hard to see this gap lining up along the technology divide. Those with access to computers, the Internet, and so on have much greater access to information, knowledge, and educational opportunities than those without. Information, knowledge, and education should be free for all and free from the tax of Microsoft or Apple. The free software movement is interested in bridging this divide.

To use free software is to make a political and ethical choice asserting your rights to learn and to share what you learn with others.

Now, I may not be able to say that I am completely “free” in my OS choice as I use Ubuntu, which is an excellent open source system but falls just short of meeting the rather rigorous criteria for software to be classified as truly free by the Free Software Foundation. While Ubuntu may include about 100 lines of proprietary code in order to make the system most usable with common graphics cards, wireless chips, and so on, their philosophy and driving force is still a humanitarian one, aimed at “spread[ing] and bring[ing] the benefits of software to all parts of the world” [1].

Absolutely free software, as it turns out, is not always absolutely easy to use. Purist free software proponents see this as an acceptable challenge because it is unacceptable to compromise freedom for quicker, easier development and implementation of software. (That’s not to say that free software cannot or is not both strong and reliable, but sometimes software designers make unacceptable comprises to make the software ostensibly work “better.” One can show quite empirically, though, that free software is more reliable.) More important still, according to Free Software standards, “software can be said to serve its users only if it respects their freedom.[2]” I can buy that, and believe in these ideals.

So, when you hear the phrase “free software” you may be thinking free as in beer, and that’s ok. Come for the free beer, but stay for the free speech.

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