The Disconnection between Social Conscience and Social Consciousness. (Or, How Socially Conscious Are You?)

Community Concept (Credit: Irokez|

Community Concept (Credit: Irokez|

Social conscience, social consciousness: It isn’t all the same, dear!

Over the past few years, I’ve met a number of people who describe themselves as “socially conscious”. When asked what they mean by that, they usually say they are concerned about the various global and local social, economic, and environmental injustices that exist in the world and want to help create a more socially just, environmentally sustainable world. This definition more accurately describes what it means to have a social conscience, rather than what it means to be “socially conscious”, but it’s all good, isn’t it?

In a word, “no”: Although we use the terms “social conscience” and “social consciousness” interchangeably, they are not the same thing. So, what does it mean to be socially conscious? It means being aware of how our own economic and social circumstances (a.k.a., socio-economic class, “privilege”), our ideologies (political or spiritual) and values shape both our understanding of social issues and social injustices and how we respond to them.

Being socially conscious means applying a critical lens to the material we read and the stories we hear through various sources—mass media (and alternate media), the entertainment industry, education—about social issues. It means taking a step back and examining how our own understanding of social issues and solutions has been subtly influenced by the types and sources of information we consume.

It means critically analyzing how we frame our comments in response to the stories we read and the information we post on social media platforms. Is our comment likely to help or hinder social justice advocates and social change agents who are seeking to bring about change, peacefully and democratically, from the ground up? It also means being conscious of how we reply to others who comment on our posts about social justice issues.

Do we create a space that encourages a conversation (and sometimes lively debate) with others who offer a different perspective on the matter, or who may have expertise or experience in that area and invite us to rethink or expand our position? Or do we shut them down and send the message that we are really more interested in appearing to be socially conscious than actually raising our, and our friends’ social consciousness? This matters because social media can be a powerful tool for social change, but too often there is too little emphasis on the “social” and way too much emphasis on the “me” in “social media”.


The disconnection goes digital

Based on comments and posts I’ve seen on various social media platforms over the past few years, there appears to be a myriad of individuals with a social conscience, but more often than not, the type of social awareness and the critical thinking skills I’ve outlined above are missing in action. From what I’ve seen it appears that it’s entirely possible to have a social conscience while simultaneously lacking a well-developed social consciousness.

When the disconnection between social conscience and social consciousness overrides good intentions and compassion, it leads to some awkward, unintended consequences, including (1) posting comments that are inadvertently insensitive to the victims of ongoing structural inequalities and oppressions; and (2) unwittingly frustrating other activists’ campaigns to bring about social change.

I recently encountered an example of this disconnection between social conscience, social consciousness and social action on social media. An acquaintance had posted a short video on global economic injustices (produced by a coalition of activists) that ended with a clear call to action: We need to change the rules.

Rather than encouraging her followers to check out the coalition’s website or inviting her followers to talk about the issue in more depth, my acquaintance dismissed the call to action with a comment: We don’t need to change the rules—we just need to be more ethical and compassionate. I wondered if she realized that by contradicting the coalition’s call to action she not only downplayed the seriousness of the issue but was also inadvertently supporting the perpetuation of the existing system and rules. It struck me that there was a disconnection between the central message of the video and her comments.

How are we to put an end to global economic injustices if we don’t step up and push our elected politicians to change the rules—or better yet, the systems—that have created and maintained these inequalities. How does saying that “we just have to be more compassionate and ethical” improve life for people whose day-to-day lives are shaped by these economic injustices? It doesn’t—unless ethical, compassionate people who are morally outraged by these economic disparities stand up and take concrete actions to change the rules and the system.


“It’s the action … that’s important. … You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.” Mahatma Gandhi (Goodreads, “Quotes about Activism”., accessed August 12, 2015.)

There is a reason we call it social activism, not social “being-ism”: If we want to bring about the kinds of major social changes needed to dismantle systemic, global inequalities, we must connect with other like-minded individuals and take action. That usually means engaging with the political system beyond simply casting a vote once every four years.   It means educating others and creating a critical mass so that our elected leaders cannot possibly ignore our demands. If you’ve listened to any of Bernie Sanders’ talks, you’ll know that he states quite bluntly that in order to bring about the changes you want to see, you must engage other citizens and generate a critical mass so you can speak loudly, en masse.

I am not saying there is no place for ethics and compassion in social activism; after all, these two qualities are the driving force behind the call to bring about changes that are more just and equitable for everyone on the planet. Indeed, social change agents such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela all brought a deep sense of compassion, ethics, and spirituality to the leadership of their movements. But let’s get clear on this point: those qualities inspired and motivated their decisions to take action and to keep taking action until they got results. They were fully aware that those who shape—and benefit from— unfair political and economic policies and practices are not going to suddenly see the light and start behaving differently unless they are met with a lot of disapproval from the masses.


“It is not always the same thing to be a good [person] and a good citizen.”
Aristotle, Selected Writings From The Nicomachean Ethics And Politics (Goodreads, “Quotes about Activism”., accessed August 12, 2015.)

Having a social conscience, being compassionate, and aligning our individual behaviour with a strong sense of ethics are important elements for bringing about social change. But unless our social conscience is guided by our social consciousness—including an awareness of our privileges and frameworks— we can end up falling short of being, or appearing to be, good citizens.

If we are posting a story or information about social injustices, we have a responsibility to think about whether our comments actually support a social change movement—or whether we are inadvertently supporting the same elitist beliefs and values that created and perpetuate systemic inequalities and injustices in the first place. We are not being good online citizens when, however unintentionally, we undermine the work of other activists who have worked hard to get their message out and inspire others to take action (especially if those activists happen to be experts in the field and hold a lot of “street cred”).

When my acquaintance dismissed the central message and call to action in the video, she missed a great opportunity to make the connections between social conscience, social consciousness, and social activism. Instead of allowing her personal views and beliefs to shape her response (we don’t need to change the rules), she might have encouraged her readers to think about or share a few simple actions that people could take that would help to end an unjust global economic system. Or she might have actively encouraged her readers to check out the coalition’s website, listed at the end of the video.


The critical advantage and four ways to increase your social consciousness

I don’t think my acquaintance was unique in her inability to recognize the disconnection and contradiction between the message of the video (we need to change the rules/system) and her response (we don’t need to change the rules; we need to change our behaviour at the individual level). Nor is she alone in the apparent tendency to frame social phenomena in terms of individual behaviours rather than systemic problems; after all, individualism is the dominant ideology in many Western developed nations. Why would we question this perceptual and conceptual lens for understanding the world?

This kind of unquestioning acceptance of our dominant cultural framework is exactly why we need to learn to think critically and be willing to step back so we can analyze our own thinking processes and perceptual lenses. Unfortunately, critical analysis is not widely taught in schools, and thinking critically seems to have gotten a bad rap by new age ideas about loving and accepting everything.

I’m not one to pass up an opportunity to encourage critical thinking, so here are some easy actions you can take to expand your social consciousness and sharpen your critical thinking skills so you can help change the rules.

  1. READ: Read and learn in order to gain a better understanding of various social and environmental issues that speak to your social conscience. For example if global economic injustices concern you, find out how corporations (including financial institutions) gained so much power, how and why our global economics system has become so inequitable, and why we need to change the rules and the system. Having said that …

  PLEASE be discerning about what you read: Not everything that we find in print or electronic form is a  valid or reliable source of information. My reading list of credible, well-researched, and well-written resources  about the global economic system includes: When Corporations Ruled the World and Agenda for a New  Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, by David C. Korten; Globalization and Its Discontents and Making Globalization Work, by Joseph Stiglitz; Governing the World by Martin De Waele; and The Value of Nothing: Why Everything Costs So Much More Than We Think by Raj Patel.

  1. THINK critically and ask questions. What are the mainstream cultural stories telling us about what values we should hold, what stories we should believe? Step back and see if you can identify where and how the dominant cultural story and values have shaped your perceptions of the world and global events. How do factors such as your education, social and economic circumstances, and personal values, or spiritual path shape your understanding of and response to social injustices? Don’t be afraid to ask yourself some tough questions. Need some help getting started with learning how to think critically? Check out these 50 suggestions for improving your critical analysis skills by Nina M. Flores.

3. TALK about what you’re reading and learning. Invite others to share what they’ve learned and know about a topic. Make the conversation about the learning and sharing. Be aware of when your perceptual frameworks or strong belief systems might be getting in the way of seeing a larger truth or a perspective that you hadn’t previously considered.

4. TAKE actions that contribute to meaningful, substantial change in the long run. One way to start changing the rules and creating a more socially just world from the ground up is to work with leaders and organizations at the community level. Experienced social justice advocates and activists can also offer practical guidance and wisdom about what kinds of actions are most likely to produce changes.

Another way to engage with other like-minded individuals is to start or join a Be the Change Action Circle. As part of a circle, you’ll learn about an issue with like-minded individuals and you can support each other to take actions each week that help to bring about change. Also check out these suggestions from Yes! magazine on working for social justice.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ideas. I’d like to hear from readers what they do to maintain the links between conscience, consciousness, and action. Over to you…

October 10, 2015 · Susan · 7 Comments
Posted in: Social Justice

7 Responses

  1. Kate - October 12, 2015

    Dear Sue,
    This is an excellent post! I’m going to share it with folks in my network.
    One thing I’ve been doing is engaging with the LEADNow “Vote Together” campaign. I intend to stay involved in that org as I see it working to address the system-level breakdown in our first past the post democratic system.
    So glad you write. I LOVE what you write, the way you write it. May this post go far and wide!

  2. Susan - October 12, 2015

    Hi Kate,

    Thanks for your feedback and enthusiasm–and willingness to help this post go far and wide. It’s greatly appreciated. Are you still writing on your blog for Make Light Work? I also enjoy reading your posts!

  3. Anne - October 16, 2015

    Hi Sue,

    I love this post! I’ve spent many years diving inwardly and deeply through meditation and other means. More recently I feel myself re-connecting with the world again and the flow of social consciousness that propelled me through my first degree. There is so much value in both. Thank you for sharing your convictions around this; it inspires me! I look forward to many more conversations.

  4. Susan - October 16, 2015

    Hi Anne,

    Glad to hear you found the post inspiring. Yes, I agree there is value in both,diving in inwardly and then bringing those insights back to the surface and converting them into action.

  5. Pam Sourelis - October 24, 2015

    This is a wonderful post, Sue. These are important distinctions, and I think many of us need to be reminded of the importance of taking action. I just shared a two-frame cartoon on FB today. In the first frame, a speaker says to the audience “Who wants change?” Everyone’s hand is up.

    In the second frame, the speaker says, “Who wants to change?” Everyone’s hand is down.

  6. Susan - October 27, 2015

    Hi Pam,

    Thanks for the positive feedback. I saw the cartoon you posted last Friday, and I thought it was very apt. We all want change, but nobody wants to change–even if it’s “only” thinking a bit more critically about what we read and hear, and how our responses to social injustices are shaped by our beliefs and our sources of information. It’s going to be really interesting to see how many Canadians–now that we’ve voted in a new government that has promised to make changes for the better–continue to stay engaged with the political process to make sure that the Liberals follow through on their promises.

  7. Shoshana - December 28, 2015

    Insightful and provocative, as usual. Such important distinctions and challenges to challenge ourselves to make our social conscience not an end point, but the starting point that leads our actions.

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